Striped bass in Maryland, menhaden in VA, and regional management for black seabass
By Capt. John McMurray
While there were many issues discussed, and action taken on several different species at last week’s ASMFC meeting, the below are what we felt were issues important to anglers. For the full meeting report, see the Commission’s 2018 Winter Meeting Summary.
The Striped Bass Board (the board) met on Wednesday to consider a “conservation equivalency” proposal from Maryland.
For some quick background, back in 2015, the Commission, in response to declining striped bass numbers, implemented Addendum IV, which mandated a 25% reduction along the coast and 20.5% in the Chesapeake Bay, with the stipulated intent of achieving an overall 25% reduction. (Note: Pay attention to that last part because it’s important).
To accomplish such a reduction, the Addendum required coastal states to go from a bag limit of two fish at 28” to one fish, although it also allowed states to achieve such a reduction through “conservationally equivalent” regulations should a state choose. No such fixed limits were set for Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions, which were merely required to establish regulations designed to achieve the 20.5% reduction. Thus, the state of Maryland, which had a prior size limit of 18” in the Bay, bumped their size limit up to 20”.
Late in 2016, the Board was presented with an assessment update that evaluated state and coastal performance of Addendum IV management measures in 2015.
While every coastal state achieved a harvest reduction that was either close to or much greater than the required 25%, Maryland didn’t come close to achieving its required 20.5% reduction. In fact, its recreational landings increased dramatically, and were 50% higher than they were in 2012, rather than being 20.5% less.
There were a few reasons for this, the biggest one being that the 2011 year-class of striped bass was very large, and Chesapeake Bay anglers were encountering A LOT of them when they fished.
While some of those 2011s were 20” and over, in 2015, most were still too small for anglers to keep. Such an abundance of undersized bass resulted in a high catch rate, but also in a large number of small bass that were discarded dead.
Maryland admitted that the estimated number of fish caught and kept, plus dead discards, was high in the Bay, but the state also argued that it did keep its fishing mortality rate below the target, which was one of the main goals of Addendum IV.
The Management Board accepted that argument at its November 2016 meeting, and did not require Maryland to alter its regulations to something more likely to achieve a 20.5% reduction. There were a few reasons for that result.
First, the overall reduction of 25% was achieved along the coast, which was the primary goal of Addendum IV, so technically Maryland didn’t have to reduce. Maryland argued that they did, indeed, meet the fishing mortality reduction and that the reason removals increased, instead of decreased, was simply because of the unavoidable availability of 2011s.
Further, Maryland argued that a certain segment of the charter boat industry was suffering economic harm, and discards were extraordinarily high because they were having to discard upwards of 40 fish before they could catch a keeper.
Fast forward to the Striped Bass board meeting this week.
Maryland, arguing that its primary intent is to reduce “wasteful” dead discards, submitted a “conservation equivalent” proposal to reduce the size limit from 20” to 19”, along with an inline circle-hook requirement for bait fishing, for the 2018 fishing year.
According to the Technical Committee, assuming the standard 9% discard mortality rate used for the striped bass recreational fishery, reducing the size limit one inch while reducing dead discards with the required use of circle hooks would result in zero net increase in removals.
It’s important to note here that current science, as well anecdotal observations by captains, indicate that discard mortality is likely considerably higher than 9% in the Bay during the summer, when the bulk of the bait fishery is prosecuted.
It is no secret that fishing in warm water and with warm air temps, drives the striped bass’ post release survivability way down. Furthermore, those fishing bait with J and treble hooks are very likely to gut hook fish.
Science suggests that under such circumstances, discard mortality can be as high as 27%. With that in mind, a one-inch increase and a circle-hook requirement, rather than simply a break-even proposal, would likely keep a few more fish in the water. And that is indeed a good thing.
Yes, we had concerns with this proposal.
Quite frankly, when we first heard of it, it seemed this was simply a way for Maryland to kill more and smaller fish.
However, after doing our due diligence and speaking with some of the local light-tackle guides and anglers down there, who have zero interest in keeping a 19” fish, it seemed dead discards are a BIG problem. We heard plenty of stories of slicks of dead striped bass floating behind the bait fleet.
So yes, eventually we understood that discards were a real problem that needed to be addressed.
Yet further concerns existed because Maryland’s proposal was NOT conservationally equivalent to the 20.5% reduction it was supposed to achieve with Addendum IV. It was merely equivalent to the amount of current removals.
Some felt that if Maryland intended to do a “conservationally equivalent” proposal than it should have to be equivalent to the state’s requirements under Addendum IV, and frankly we did too.
However… As previously stated, Addendum IV required only that the 25% reduction be achieved overall. And should the board require Maryland to revisit its regulations to come into compliance with Addendum IV, it would have needed to do that back in November of 2016 when it was presented with the information on Maryland’s overage.
So really, there were two options… Status quo, will all the dead discards, or going with the one-inch size limit decrease and a circle-hook requirement, which in the end, we felt was likely to save a few fish.
Perhaps more importantly, the circle hook requirement would institute a cultural change in the way people fish down there. Instead of treble hooks and trying desperately to get a keeper, emphasis would be put on releasing fish alive and introducing anglers in that area, who generally just wouldn’t be exposed to it otherwise, to the right gear to do so. And that could prove important in the grand scheme.
Yes, we are concerned about the possible precedent this may set, allowing states to avoid the requirements of a particular addendum or amendment while the other states carried the burden of such reductions. And yes, we don’t like the idea of converting dead discards to increased landings. That’s a slippery slope.
But in the end, we felt that this was a very specific case addressing a very specific problem. And undoubtedly the required use of circle-hooks to reduce discard mortality and ultimately save a few fish is a win/win, and a common-sense solution. We felt it was worth the risks.
Of course, the devil is now in the details. Maryland will have to prove that it can successfully define an inline circle-hook that will indeed reduce discards, and then it has to make such hooks readily available to anglers in the state. Maryland has this year to prove it can do that.
In the end, after quite a bit of debate, Maryland’s proposal passed, almost unanimously.
We feel like it could do quite a bit of good. We hope the state of Maryland doesn’t prove us wrong.
The 2018 Stock Assessment and the Development of Risk-Prone Reference Points
What we believe to be WAY more important than the above is the current effort to move the goal posts—that is, the biological reference points—in the upcoming 2018 Striped Bass Benchmark Stock Assessment. You can find more information on this here: With Striped Bass, Here We Go Again.
In short, the stock assessment scientists want “guidance” before developing new reference points (i.e. what constitutes an overfished stock, when is overfishing occurring etc.). Specifically, guidance on whether or not the Board wants to keep what are arguably conservative reference points, designed to maintain striped bass abundance and a robust spawning stock, or whether the board would like to see them liberalized (in other words, assume more risk of overfishing/depletion in order to increase harvest and provide higher economic returns in the short term).
At this week’s meeting, there was brief discussion about the first working group meeting.
The working group is developing a survey for the Board and the Striped Bass Advisory Panel, the results of which will be included in a discussion at the May meeting. The intent is to see what the Board finds important: keeping more large females in the spawning stock, managing for abundance for the recreational experience, or simply managing for yield.
It certainly seems like some folks are angling for less conservative reference points that would allow greater extraction, at the expense of everyone who depends on having enough fish around for us to actually target.
More on this as things develop. Stay tuned because we are going to need readers to engage on this when the time comes.
Big news here. The state of Virginia was appealing decisions made with Amendment 3 on the quota increase, state allocation and a cap on reduction harvest in the Chesapeake. You can find a full description of that here. With Menhaden, They’ll Always Just Want More.
At the 24th hour, the Menhaden Board received a letter from the state of VA, withdrawing such appeal.
While this was welcomed news, it would be naive to believe there weren’t ulterior motives. From what we can gather at this point, the state may go out of compliance in any case, and then after a finding of non-compliance by the Commission the state may appeal to the Secretary of Commerce. IF that were to happen, we can’t be certain what the outcome would be, but at this point we’d have to assume it wouldn’t be good.
Charles Witek summarizes it quite well in a recent blog post: Menhaden – A New Day In the Chesapeake Bay?
I suspect we’ll be dealing with this in May.
Stay tuned. More on this as it develops.
The Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board approved Addendum XXX.
From 2012-2016, the recreational fishery was managed under an ad-hoc regional management approach, whereby the states of Massachusetts through New Jersey crafted measures individually, aimed at adjusting harvest by the same percentage, while the states of Delaware through North Carolina set their regulations consistent with the federal waters measures.
While this approach allowed the states flexibility in setting management measures, some expressed a need for increased equity and accountability in managing harvest to coastwide catch limits.
Thus, Addendum XXX seeks to address such concerns by establishing regions.
Accounting for geographic differences in the stock and fishery interests, Addendum XXX uses a combination of “exploitable biomass” information from the last stock assessment and historical harvest to regionally allocate the coastwide recreational harvest limit (RHL).
The final allocation is based on a hybrid of the allocation options that were presented in the Draft Addendum. The three management regions are Massachusetts through New York, New Jersey as its own region, and Delaware through North Carolina. Their respective allocations are 61.35%, 30.24%, and 8.41%. The Technical Committee will work with the states to develop regional proposals for Board review and approval in March 2018.
To improve accountability, the states within each region will be collectively responsible for managing harvest to their regional allocation through the cooperative development of recreational measures.
To increase regional consistency in measures, each region will establish a standard set of measures, with each state in the region afforded the flexibility to adjust their measures up to one inch in minimum size and three fish in possession limit.
The Addendum also initiates the development of a new process for evaluation and specification of measures against the annual catch limit, which aims to provide more year-to-year stability in management measures.