What went down with striped bass at ASMFC, and the larger picture

By Capt. John McMurray


As is usually the case, we report on things that go down in management meetings which are likely to concern anglers.  In regards to last week’s Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Meeting, there was one dominant angler related issue.

The Striped Bass Board met Tuesday to “Review and Discuss Federal Transit Zone for Striped Bass in Block Island Sound.”

There’s been a lot written about this lately, but if you haven’t been following it, well, there’s a patch of water off Block Island between Montauk and Rhode Island that, because striped bass fishing has been prohibited in federal waters since the mid-80s (as a conservation measure to protect the spawning stock), and because such area is outside of the 3-mile state limit (AKA the “Exclusive Economic Zone” EEZ) striped bass fishing there is illegal.

Of course, this is productive striped bass water.  And it’s no secret that it is one of those unique areas where older, larger striped bass are known to hold up.  And so, there has been more than one attempt to open up this water, mostly at the behest of the party boat and 6-pack fleet hailing from Montauk, through legislation, directives to not enforce such rule, etc.  None thus far have been successful.

At a prior ASMFC Striped Bass Board meeting in August, we were made aware that, through a directive in the 2018 Federal Budget Omnibus, NOAA Fisheries would consider opening up the “Block Island Transit Zone” as well as lifting the federal moratorium on striped bass in general.  Of course, we can’t be certain, but this was likely done at the request of Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY), who failed to get this done through legislation in 2016.

We should be clear that this is an unusual circumstance.  Such management decisions generally are made from the bottom up, rather than the top down like this.

Such issues are usually brought up at the Striped Bass Board level.  They are thoroughly discussed.  The Technical Committee does an impact analysis.  The issue is put forth to the public to comment on.  Then, it comes back to the Board for further discussion and a vote, BEFORE it is sent up to NOAA Fisheries and ultimately the Secretary of Commerce for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

We could certainly be wrong here, but in this case, the decision will likely bypass that entire process, particularly the impact analysis, and go right to a high-level appointed NOAA official and/or the Secretary of Commerce, who, given their decisions on fluke and red snapper, are likely to rubber stamp it.

In other words, we’ll have no idea on what the effect of such an opening would have on the spawning stock biomass, or what sort of fishing mortality increase might be involved.

Keep in mind though, this is all speculation so I would encourage you to continue to provide comment here:  Block Island Transit Zone Comments.

We should be crystal clear that we believe this is a piss-poor way to implement ANY new regulation.

Before we get down to what happened at the meeting, we should reiterate that this is NOT an ASMFC decision.  ASMFC is simply being asked to comment on such an opening.  NOAA Fisheries may take such comments into consideration, or they may very well just blow it off.

Let’s move on.

Striped Bass Board Meeting Happenings

Believe it or not, the Striped Bass Board didn’t discuss the issue for very long.  In relatively short order it unanimously agreed that “the Policy Board submit a letter to NOAA requesting a delay on further action on the Block Island Transit Zone until such time as the Board has an opportunity to review the Striped Bass Benchmark Stock Assessment and formalize a recommendation.”

Provided that it successfully makes it through the peer review process, the new Striped Bass Benchmark Stock Assessment should be ready by February.  The initial word on the street is that it looks pretty bleak.  That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who spends more than a few days on the water every year.  The fishery sure as hell ain’t what it used to be.  And despite a few good year classes supposedly working their way through the ranks, it appears to be getting worse.  Landings were way down during 2017.

The reason ASMFC wants to wait for the stock assessment is, of course, to decide whether taking an action that could increase fishing mortality is a good idea at this point.  I suspect ASMFC will find that it isn’t.

Does this mean that NOAA will bag this stupid idea?  We don’t think so.  Frankly, we believe that this is nothing more, nothing less than a political favor for one district and one small subsection of stakeholders.  And if the Administration wants to do it, well, they are gonna do it.  Having ASMFC provide input is just a way to show they went through some sort of official vetting process.

Again, that is all speculation.  We do hope we are wrong.

Straight Talk

Now, on the subject of the Block Island Transit Zone in general, let me be frank.  If it does end up getting opened up to striped bass fishing, it’ll be a bummer, but NO, I don’t think it would be catastrophic.

We do understand where those East End captains are coming from.   They want to be able to move out of often crowded rips and fish the ones in the Block Island Transit Zone.  They also want to be able to bag a striper or two at Montauk, then go over to the Transit Zone to fish for black sea bass, scup or tog, without violating the law.

We get that, but there’s no doubt there will be some increase in fishing mortality, although probably not a huge one in the grand scheme.  Keep in mind that there are probably A LOT of folks who fish out there in any case.  Enforcement is kinda lacking in this area.  Do we reward that sort of illegal activity by making it legal?  That’s a pretty bad idea too we think.  And keep in mind that any increase in mortality will be focused on those larger older fish.

So, of course, we remain adamantly opposed, for more reasons than this one.

It’s naive to think this would be a one-state, one-time thing.  If we open this piece because of one state’s “special circumstance” you can just about be sure we’ll get the same sort of request from Massachusetts for openings around Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and God knows where else.  Plus, I can’t imagine Virginia and North Carolina won’t claim they have a “special circumstance” down there given that most striped bass winter offshore of the 3-mile line.  Why shouldn’t THEY have access to those fish?  Opening that water off VA and NC, where just about all of the big fecund females spend their winter, would be a terrible thing for the striped bass resource.

The point is that this is a slippery slope.

The truth though is that I’d be surprised if the people seeking to open the Transit Zone didn’t get what they are asking for this time around.  I guess we’ll see.

Yet, I hope that such Captains and their associates will stand with us when all of these other “special circumstance” exemptions start moving forward.

Do keep in mind that Congress also issued a second directive.  After the stock assessment, they will “consider” lifting the federal moratorium on striped bass fishing/opening the entire EEZ.  The folks who I spoke with who back the Block Island Transit Zone opening say they DON’T want that.  I hope they will make that abundantly clear not only during the public comment process but to the east end politician who carries their water when such consideration comes to bare.

It’s no secret different stakeholders don’t see eye to eye sometimes…  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, A LOT of the time.  But we could all benefit greatly by uniting on those issues that could really screw us all.

Stay tuned.


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