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Stripers, Menhaden and More…

We recently sent out an update to our email subscribers. Here is what we shared with them.

It has been a busy quarter for fisheries management with Atlantic striped bass headlining the action. We can expect a lively joint ASMFC/MAFMC meeting in December and an active new year.

ATLANTIC STATES MARINE FISHERIES COMMISSION
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission met in Portsmouth, NH at the end of October. It was a packed agenda but two items of special interest to recreational anglers, menhaden and striped bass, were front and center.

Menhaden
Let’s start with the least of the bad news. The commission found the Commonwealth of Virginia out of compliance with the fisheries management plan for menhaden. There is a lot of complicated history here, but the bottom line is Omega Protein’s operations in and around the Chesapeake Bay has led to them exceeding the amount of menhaden that can be harvested under the plan. Omega made noise about not exceeding the limits but went ahead and did it anyway. Pretty bad faith on the company’s part and the commission finally ran out of patience and deemed Virginia, where Omega is based, out of compliance.

So, while this is a step in the right direction, there are a multitude of scenarios that can play out before resolution. And as the saying goes, “many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip” so it is hard to predict if this will lead to a good end. The best explanation of the multiple potential scenarios we have read is this article in National Fisherman, Atlantic states commission says Omega violated menhaden limit. This article, For Omega Protein Corporation, the tide may be changing, provides excellent insights into the political dynamics.

We will continue to track this and post updates here and the Fissues Facebook page as we learn more.

Striped Bass
This was the biggie, and going into the ASMFC meeting there was an air of cautious optimism from striped bass anglers in the mid-Atlantic and New England.

That optimism was somewhat justified early in the meeting when the commission voted to address the overfished/overfishing situation with an 18 percent reduction for both commercial and recreational fishing.

But that optimism was dashed on the rocks of reality when state politics overwhelmed good sense in the meeting. What played out is pretty complicated, and the American Saltwater Guides Association has an excellent blow-by-blow explanation in its article, At ASMFC – More Uncertainty with Striped Bass.

In a nutshell, the commission opted for a slot limit of one fish between 28” to 35” as opposed to the one fish at 35” (aka 1@35) that a majority of recreational anglers favored. The slot limit is untested, and time will tell if it has the ability to achieve the intended 18 percent harvest reduction.

But the real turd in the punchbowl was the question of “conservation equivalency.” Conservation equivalency is a concept that, in this case, would allow states to develop their own regulations to achieve the intended 18 percent harvest reduction.

Remember, the goal is to get to 18 percent harvest reduction coast wide (Maine to North Carolina), and because each state catches different amounts of stripers, some of the states that catch a lot of fish would have to reduce that catch rate more in order to accomplish the coastwide 18 percent harvest reduction.

Apparently that did not sit well with the New Jersey delegation. They successfully had the commission apply the 18 percent reduction to each state rather than coast wide. However, when you do the math the chance that will add up to an 18 percent reduction coast wide is highly unlikely.

Why? The slot limit adopted by the ASMFC would have caused some states, like New Jersey, which accounts for more stripers than any other coastal state, to reduce their overall striped bass landings more than 18 percent.

If they did not achieve such higher reduction, two things could happen: the other states would have to take up the slack or the striped bass fishing mortality would exceed the desired target level. Want to bet which way that will go?

For a more complete explanation of conservation equivalency and why it could mean bad news for stripers, read Charles Witek’s article, The ASMFC Adopts Flawed Striped Bass Addendum VI.

At this point the frustration level with ASMFC is very high, and the next meeting in February should be a doozy.

MID-ATLANTIC COUNCIL MEETING
The most recent meeting was, according to Charles Witek, quite eventful. Here are his highlights.

Bluefish, Black Sea Bass and Scup
The recent operational stock assessment found recreational landings to be higher than previously believed. Even though that data, when incorporated into the virtual population analyses used to assess the abundance of all three species, resulted in increased estimates of spawning stock biomass, it also resulted in recreational landings that exceeded the revised recreational harvest limits, meaning that recreational regulations for all three species will like become more restrictive. This will cause a lot of loud and unhappy reactions in the upper mid-Atlantic and probably complicate the Magnuson-Stevens debate.

The council generally did its best to minimize landings reductions, even when such reductions were supported by what would appear to be the best available science. Thus, Northeast Fisheries Science Center data on the composition of bluefish recreational discards – which shows that because larger fish are generally released and smaller fish retained, such discards when measured in pounds are probably more than twice the figure used to calculate the recreational harvest limit – was rejected, even though it was already used in the stock assessment.

The Scup Monitoring Committee recommendation that commercial discards be averaged over a 10-year rather than a 3-year period to smooth out differences caused by varying recruitment and other factors was ignored, as was an effort to correct a chronic underestimation of black sea bass discard mortality, particularly in the commercial fishery.

In all three cases, both the council and the relevant ASMFC management board picked the discard option that resulted in the higher catch limit, even though they had to contradict previous arguments made in order to do so.

There is a real push to consider reallocation of commercial quota to the recreational sector, in response to revised Marine Resources Information Program data that shows that recreational landings were larger than originally believed during the base years used to establish the various recreational/commercial allocations.

A suggestion that the recreational bluefish share was actually closer to 90 percent than the 83 percent currently allocated to that sector will very possibly be examined in the Bluefish Allocation Amendment (which, now that bluefish have been found to be overfished, will probably include the rebuilding plan).

There was also a vote to move forward with an amendment to revisit the summer flounder, scup and black sea bass allocations, which the revised MRIP data suggest should be 45 percent for recreational and 55 percent for commercial fishing for summer flounder, (versus the current 40/60 split); should be 35/65 (vs 22/78) for scup and 55/45 (vs 51/49), for black sea bass.

Scup will prove to be the most problematic. The stock is close to twice the target biomass, the fishing mortality rate (F) is well below threshold, and market forces are such that the commercial fishery can’t land/sell its entire quota, yet anglers are going to be looking at a very significant cutback (50 percent+), and a bag limit change that could drop from 50 to no more (and probably less) than 10 fish if no extraordinary action is taken.

This is providing much of the motivation for reallocation, as the recreational issues could largely be solved by reallocation of just the unused portion of the commercial quota.

National Marine Fisheries Service regional office, the council and commission are going to try very hard to work some magic here; if they fail, scup will become the new poster child for adding “flexibility” to MSA.

Black sea bass will also be problematic this year, as the stock will be around 170 percent of target in 2020. However, abundance is falling fast, and with 2018 recruitment the worst in a time series stretching back to 1989, biomass will probably fall back to the target level soon.

Still, because of the fishery’s newfound importance to the for-hire fleet in the northeast and upper mid-Atlantic, this fish, too, will be used as an example of why we need a more flexible MSA; everyone will be looking at today’s abundance, and not 2025’s likely lower numbers.

FEDERAL UPDATE
As we head into fall and winter, the action in Washington D.C. has picked up. The Marine Fish Conservation Network has an excellent summary of what has taken place in the most recent View from the Hill.

As always, tips and suggestions are welcomed; send them to info@fissues.org.

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    Nov 23, 2019 at 11:16 am

    Virginia Governor Asks For a Menhaden Moratorium – Fissues.org