The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) great 2018 black sea bass debate was settled on May 3, after the four aggrieved northern states, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, proposed compromise management measures that proved acceptable to all of the affected states.
The debate was rooted in a clear change in black sea bass distribution. Warming waters has caused the center of black sea bass abundance to shift northward; the fishery in southern states, which had dominated recreational landings a couple of decades ago, has declined, while northern states that had more modest fisheries at the turn of the century now host the lion’s share of the sea bass.
A recent benchmark stock assessment divided the stock into northern and southern components, and recognized the northern shift in black sea bass abundance, but regulations remained stuck in the patterns of the past. Southern states (New Jersey-North Carolina), that used to account for most of the recreational harvest, were still allowed to adopt very liberal regulations even though they now hosted a much smaller share of the black sea bass biomass. The northern states, which now hosted most of the biomass, were compelled to adopt increasingly more restrictive regulations, because most of the recreational harvest is now landed there.
ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board (Management Board) recognized the inequities inherent in such management process, and attempted to remedy them when the Management Board met last February. But when it came down to a vote, the southern states were unwilling to completely abandon their outdated catch history. Because the southern states controlled the most votes on the Management Board, it ultimately adopted an allocation scheme that would again force the northern states to increase their restrictions on black sea bass anglers. .
The northern states responded by appealing the Management Board’s decision to ASMFC’s Interstate Fisheries Management Plan Policy Board (Policy Board), which would vote to either uphold or, if it found merit in the northern states’ appeal, modify the Management Board’s action.
However, that vote was never held. Instead, fishery managers employed by the northern states took another look at the data, and came up with a new proposal that would allow the southern states to maintain their 2018 regulations while providing more fish for the four northern jurisdictions.
The proposal was based on the fact that the 2015 year class of black sea bass was very large, and that some fish in that year class would be larger than 12 ½ inches, the southern states’ minimum size limit, in 2018. By adding those fish from the 2015 year class to the pool of black sea bass available to anglers, and making some adjustments to the northern states’ proposed regulations, the southern states would not be faced with the prospect of having to change their regulations in the middle of the season, and the northern states wouldn’t have their recreational catch limits reduced; in fact, their catch limits could be increased by about 2%.
Fishery managers in the northern states hoped that their southern colleagues, but in case it wasn’t, they made it clear that if their new proposal wasn’t adopted, they would refuse to comply with the plan that the Management Board adopted in February. While that carried some risk for the northern states, as the Secretary of Commerce could impose a moratorium on their black sea bass fisheries if he found that their noncompliance threatened ASMFC’s ability to conserve the species, it had more immediate adverse implications for the southern jurisdictions.
That’s because the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, acting in conjunction with the Management Board, had already decided that if the states did not agree to adopt regulations acceptable to ASMFC, the National Marine Fisheries Service would require them to adopt “default measures” that included a 14-inch minimum size, 5-fish bag limit and a season that ran from May 15-September 15. Each of those measures would be substantially more restrictive than the corresponding regulations currently applicable to anglers in the southern states; together, they would impose a substantial hardship on such anglers.
In the end, the Policy Board unanimously agreed to the northern states’ plan for the 2018 recreational black sea bass fishery.
Even so, that one-year fix was just a band-aid that got everyone through 2018 reasonably intact. Managers still needed to address the practical impacts of the northward movement of black sea bass on the recreational fishery, and on recreational regulations. Fortunately, the Policy Board acknowledged the issue, and directed the Management Board to base 2019 recreational measures and, at some point in the future, commercial measures as well, on current patterns of black sea bass abundance, and not on obsolete historical data.
We don’t yet know what such an updated management approach will look like, but it will hopefully be a more equitable approach than the one that has been used to manage sea bass so far.