By Capt. John McMurray

After a canceled meeting in February due to the federal government shutdown, on March 6th and 7th the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council met jointly with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, to review the 2019 Summer Flounder Benchmark Stock Assessment, and to subsequently complete specifications and decide on recreational management measures. 

Also on the agenda was final action on the Summer Flounder Commercial Issues and Goals and Objectives Amendment, which may seem inconsequential to anglers, but it isn’t and we’ll get to why in a minute here.  

Lastly, the Council scheduled final action on the Chub Mackerel Amendment for the next day. 

Yes, there were a few other items on the agenda, but these are the ones that are particularly relevant to anglers.  

Summer Flounder Benchmark Stock Assessment

On day one, the NOAA Fisheries Northeast Science Center presented the Council and Commission with the results, which were, well, unexpected.

Regular readers here likely know quite well that summer flounder are not in great shape.  Due to a seven-year period of poor recruitment (poor spawning success, or more accurately poor young of the year survival) the stock has been trending precipitously downward despite a federally mandated (read fairly conservative) year-by-year management regimen.  Such a downward trend, and general lack of fish, particularly in the bays, is very clear to those of us who are on the water at lot.  With the exception of a few areas east and north, availability is way down.

But… with every benchmark assessment, stock assessment scientists look at everything again from the ground up. 

Such scientists now believe there are more fish around than previously thought.  That is primarily due to new recreational-fishing-survey (Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP) estimates.  When the “effort” survey switched from phone calls to mail, estimated effort shot way up, and so more fish were caught than they had previously thought.  So, theoretically, there must be more in the water to support that catch.  40% more in this case. 

Of course, increased effort means fishing mortality skyrocketed too and so things would even out.  But here’s where things get wonky and difficult to understand.  I’ll try my best to keep it simple. 

Assessment scientists took another look at the ratio of males to females, the size of fish at age, and the size and age of fish when they mature.  Apparently, all of those things have changed since 2013, when the last benchmark assessment was completed.   

Without getting too much into the weeds, I’ll just say that this changed the stock dynamics such that the stock assessment scientists were able to determine that the target biomass that achieves a certain spawning potential could be reduced.  In other words, we don’t need that many fish in the water to keep productivity sufficiently high. 

All that said, the stock assessment made clear that there’s been a definitive decrease in total abundance since the late 2000s, and we’ve had below average recruitment since 2011.  And, overall, the spawning stock is smaller that it had been.  However, because there’s an increasing abundance of older fish and an expanded more diverse age structure than previously thought, in the end the scientists determined that it doesn’t have to be that large.  And so fishing mortality can be increased, or to put it more simply, regulations could theoretically be liberalized to a certain extent.  

Clear as mud, right? 

Let’s move on…

Summer Flounder Specifications 

The commercial summer flounder fishery is managed pretty much in real-time.  Each fish caught and sold is logged and accounted for, and the fishery gets shut down when quotas are close to being exceeded.

Because it’s impossible to account for every fish each angler catches, anglers are managed through a “recreational harvest limit.”  Managers create size and bag limits designed to keep anglers from exceeding that limit.  Estimates of fishing mortality are made with data collected through the aforementioned MRIP survey.  Because the survey is, well, a survey, and because those size and bag limits often don’t achieve what they were intended to do – because there was for instance more effort than expected compared to the prior year, or the surveyors extrapolated from what may not have been a truly representative sample – overages happen.  In fact, they happen pretty regularly on the recreational side.

Recreational harvest limits are to some extent based on the prior year’s fishing.  In other words, they use the estimated number of fish caught in the prior fishing season to estimate effort and how many fish will be caught the next season. 

Well, in this case, the last wave of MRIP data suggests a fairly large overage in 2018, because remember, the new MRIP effort estimates are much higher because of the above-mentioned change from phone to mail in the survey. 

So, the Council can and did give the commercial side a 40% increase in quota at this meeting, because of the rosier picture the stock assessment painted.  While it certainly looked like the recreational side would get a significant increase as well, it became clear that wouldn’t happen once the last wave of MRIP data became available.  And that’s a bummer. 

Speaking purely from a perception stand-point, it is NOT a good thing when the recreational side gets nothing, and the commercial side gets a 40% increase.  Understandably, this will raise hackles.  And it brings to the fore the proposition that if effort estimates were underestimated all along, then the base years used to determine allocation are wrong and should be revisited.  This was of course touched upon at the meeting, but there was no motion to initiate an action to address the issue.  The truth is that Councils are terrified of the allocation discussion and avoid it like the plague.  In this case, however, and likely in others, it’s got to be dealt with at some point. 

Let’s move on to final action on the Summer Flounder Commercial Issues and Goals and Objectives Amendment.

Summer Flounder Commercial Issues Amendment

This is basically a state commercial-allocation amendment, but it’s indeed relevant to the recreational fishery. 

Right now, state allocations aren’t exactly equitable, nor are they reflective of the distribution of the summer flounder stock along the coast.  New York’s allocation is super low compared to the number of fish available off its coast.  The result is that boats that hail from states with larger allocations (i.e. Virginia and North Carolina) steam all the way up to New York, harvest large amounts of summer flounder, steam back down and offload to processors in their home states, which then ship them back up to New York’s Fulton Fish Market, while boats that hail from New York ports stay tied to the dock.  It is pretty clear that New York’s commercial quota is so small it doesn’t even allow for much of a directed fishery on summer founder. 

Pretty silly right?  Virginia and North Carolina don’t think so. 

How did we end up here?  Well, the short version is that state summer flounder allocations were established way back in 1993 using incomplete landings data from 1981 to 1989 which have not significantly been updated since that time.

New York did not have good record keeping back when those allocations were determined.  It’s no secret that Fulton Fish Market had close ties to organized crime and purchased much of its fish with cash.  Dealers intentionally kept inaccurate records of the fish bought and sold.  In the end, New York’s commercial fishermen were hurt by the lack of good landings records, and the state’s allocation did not reflect the amount of summer flounder that had been caught.  New York’s fishermen were not allowed to catch their fair share of the fish, particularly when compared to states to its south. 

Because we killed everything at 14” back then, there weren’t many fish over that length.  In the early 2000s, after the Natural Resources Defense Council successfully challenged NOAA Fisheries’ summer flounder management measures in court, and so essentially forced the Council to rebuild the stock, the size and numbers of summer flounder began to increase.  It became very clear as the stock rebuilt, that older/larger fish were shifting north and east.  Climate change likely played a role in such movement also.    

In short, there were smaller and less fish available during the 1980s, and the center of abundance was from central New Jersey and south.  As the stock rebuilt and expanded, and as waters warmed, it pushed north.  It is quite clear to just about everyone now that summer flounder abundance and distribution are both quite different than they were when the baseline allocations were made.  Yet, the allocations remain static. 

This amendment was, in part, intended to address such inequity.  But the final action fell well short.  Because, despite the clear shift in abundance, those southern states don’t want to give up one fish.  And so the half-measure that passed called for an increase in landings for each state, should an increase in allowable landings happen.  It was a pretty weak solution and didn’t come close to addressing the problem.    

The state of New York is currently suing NOAA Fisheries in an attempt to correct the situation.  But it is not at all clear that such suit will be successful. 

Why should this concern anglers?  Well, the recreational state allocations face similar problems.  New York has a terribly small quota compared to the southern states.  Not only does the state often have to implement more restrictive measures than surrounding states, but  because of the abundance off its coast, overages occur often. 

If such a suit is successful, it would likely mean there would be a revisiting of not just the state commercial allocation, but recreational allocation as well. 

Stay tuned on this.

Chub Mackerel Amendment

We’ve written about chub mackerel a number of times here.  To be brief, a fairly large-scale fishery developed on what’s considered by most offshore anglers to be a pretty important forage fish, capable of driving epic tuna bites, in a relatively short amount of time. 

The Council wasn’t aware of the size of such fishery until it began to develop its Unmanaged Forage Amendment.  As part of the final action on such amendment it capped annual harvest in the fishery at the average of landings during the years 2013-2015, 2.6 million pounds.  The fishery would be shut down in any year that it reached that level of landings, until the Council could figure out a better way to manage it. 

Last year the Council initiated an amendment that would consider adding chub mackerel to the Mackerel, Squid and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan (FMP).  At this meeting the Council took final action. 

In preparing the amendment, the Council intended to source all available data, and initiate data collection methods that would help the Council understand the impact that large scale extraction would have not only on chub, but on the large pelagics that feed on them, and then create catch limits that avoided harm to populations of either the mackerel or their predators.

Unfortunately there was/is very little data on chub mackerel off the United States, and large pelagic diet surveys were old and didn’t tell us much about chub interactions.  To the Council’s credit, it did contract a large-pelagic stomach-content study, but the results won’t be available until 2020, and couldn’t be used until well after the three-year 2.6 million pound cap expires.    

The way all of this went down is that the “Acceptable Biological Catch” (the highest level of harvest allowed) was set a 5.07 million pounds, which was based on the highest level of annual harvest ever recorded. 

We, of course, weren’t happy with a near doubling of what was supposed to be a precautionary cap put in place until we knew more about the impacts of harvest, but the rationale was that the stock didn’t appear to be negatively affected by that level of harvest, and there really was no other data to go by. 

Of course, the Council could have, and should have, set “optimal yield” lower than the acceptable biological catch, to account for the species’ role as forage for large pelagics.  But staff argued that because there are virtually no quantitative data on the role of chub mackerel in the diets of any predators, any reduction in the ABC would be arbitrary because it didn’t have a quantitative scientific basis.

Assuming the results of the above mentioned stomach-content-study indicate a relationship, next year, during the specification-setting process, the Council could choose to account for such interactions and set a lower catch limit than the current ABC. 

In the end, the Council voted to manage chub mackerel as a stock in the Mackerel, Squid, Butterfish FMP, setting 5.07 million pound cap in the 2021 fishing year when the current 2.6 million cap sunsets.

Not a great outcome, but not a terrible one either. There was certainly potential for it to have been much worse, had the scientists told the Council that the stock could maintain a much higher harvest. 

Stay tuned though.  This is not over.    

There were some minor things on black seabass, but I don’t think they are worth mentioning here yet.  Everything is in the development phase. And for practical purposes we are looking at status quo next year.  Not just for black seabass but for bluefish and scup also. 

So that’s all for this go around.  Stay tuned.  We’ll let you know how things develop.