At the August 2018 Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting, here’s what went down

By Capt. John McMurray

As is the case with most ASMFC meetings, a lot happened.  However, in the interest of simplification, we’re going to restrict this summary to what we think is critically important to anglers.

Number one on that list is striped bass.

The Striped Bass Board received a 2017 update from ASMFC staff.  Worthy of noting here was the drop in harvest (keeper-sized fish) from prior years.  Overall harvest in 2017 was down 26% from 2016, while total catch had increased.  This absolutely jives with what most of us have seen on the water.  A LOT of schoolies and far fewer keeper-sized fish than in prior years.  Yes, of course there are bodies of larger fish in some “hot-spots,” but overall, those fish have been conspicuously absent from their regular haunts.

This is significant in the context of the 2011 year class, one of the only good Chesapeake Bay year classes in the last decade and a half.  While yes, there was a significant mandated reduction in fishing pressure back in 2015 (25%), managers have, more or less, avoided real constraining measures, hedging on the 2011s to fill in the stock once they recruited into the fishery (became keeper size).  Well, they should have recruited by now.  So, one would think we’d see an increase in harvest rather than a decrease.

New York in particular was down more than 60% from 2016, New Jersey was down almost 70%, and Virginia was down more than 50%, which are some of the lowest harvest numbers we’ve seen since the 90’s.  Which begs the question, where did all the banner 2011 year class fish go?  Was it smaller than we thought, or did we just knock the crap out of them? Either way, this is not good news for anglers.  Certainly there are and have been complaints about the lack of striped bass availability this year, and last year, and the year before that.  Perhaps managers shouldn’t have put all their money on the 2011s.

Moving on, we were reminded once again about the steady decline in striped bass spawning stock biomass since 2004.  While that spawning stock biomass still hasn’t reached a low “threshold” level that indicates an “overfished” stock, it is just a hair over the threshold that was set back in 2003 with Amendment 6.  In plain speak, that means it’s pretty darn close to being overfished.

This is, of course, all cause for concern.  But still, the Commission is moving ahead with plans to “relook” at the goals and objectives of the Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan, and is considering/moving forward with plans to tweak (meaning liberalize) both the spawning stock biomass and fishing mortality reference points as part of a 2018 Benchmark Stock Assessment, which is expected to complete peer-review this fall.

To put it simply, what’s happening here is that, because we don’t have all the fish around that we should have – largely because the Chesapeake (the largest producer area on the coast) isn’t putting out the fish that it used to – well, instead of being more conservative and reducing harvest, managers are considering just lowering the bar on the spawning stock biomass reference points, to allow what very well may be an unsustainable harvest to continue.  And that sucks…

With the release of the 2018 Benchmark assessment this fall, we can expect “a range” of reference point alternatives varying from what we have now to reference points that are far more risky and that emphasize harvest over long term abundance and sustainability.  For sure, there are states, mostly those South of New York, who will be aiming for the more risky reference points.  This will indeed be a fight.

We will really have to pay attention to this moving forward, as we will need the angling public to weigh in on those alternatives.  We will need to let state Commissioners know we don’t want to see more risky management that emphasizes harvest.  Stay tuned, and we’ll let you know how to do that.

In addition, under “New Business,” a NOAA Fisheries rep explained to the Striped Bass Board that the Omnibus 2018 NOAA Fisheries budget directs the agency to review (read: consider nixing) the federal moratorium on striped bass.  Not simply the “Block Island Transit Zone” between Montauk and Block Island, but the entire Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which are those waters outside of 3 miles.

Such area has been closed since the mid-80s, and is a well-known haven for those larger older fish we should be trying to protect right now.  Opening it now, or at any time in the near future is just a bad idea, on a number of levels.  A significantly large increase in fishing mortality on large females being one of them.

NOAA fisheries will be going out to the public with a scoping document to try and get input on this.  And the striped bass angling community better be darn sure to weigh in here.

Stay tuned, and we’ll let you know as soon as we have more information on this.

Next on the list is menhaden 

If you aren’t currently familiar with what went down with menhaden last year, a summary can be found here: “WITH MENHADEN, HERE’S WHAT WENT DOWN”.

What’s relevant to this meeting is that last November, the Menhaden Management Board reduced the Chesapeake Bay reduction-fishery quota (the “Bay cap”) from 87,000 metric tons to 51,000 metric tons, which was simply an average of the 5 most recent years of catch data.  It was a precautionary measure to ensure there wasn’t a big escalation of fishing pressure in a critical nursery area not only for menhaden, but also for striped bass and a host of other things that eat them.

While the menhaden reduction industry hasn’t come close to exceeding 51,000 mts in recent years, nor is it expected to exceed such a cap this year, it is pushing back hard on this.  Virginia’s Governor and the state’s Marine Recourses Commission can’t simply institute regulations that ensure compliance with such a cap because, unlike the great majority of managed species, it is in the hands of the state legislature (read: politicians subject to donations from large corporations).  And that is not good, because they have up to this point refused to pass a bill bringing the state’s fishery into compliance with that cap.

At the May Menhaden Management Board meeting, a motion was put forth to declare the Commonwealth of Virginia out of compliance. If such a motion passed, the Commission’s Policy Board would have more than likely moved to find VA out of compliance. Then the Commission would have sent a letter to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross informing him of such finding.  The Secretary of Commerce could have agreed with the finding and shut down the state’s menhaden fishery, or he could have disagreed and given industry the go-ahead to knock the crap out of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay.  I think readers can guess what the more likely scenario would have been under this Administration.

For better or worse, a substitute motion was passed, which would “initiate” a non-compliance finding. However, a final decision was postponed until this meeting.  The intent was to give the Governor a chance to push a bill through the legislature, but that just didn’t happen.

The motion to definitively find VA out of compliance should have been the first one on the table this meeting.  Instead, a substitute motion to delay a finding of non-compliance while the Virginia Delegation worked to find a solution to the problem went up.

There was considerable debate on whether or not the Menhaden Board should stand firm and forward a finding of non-compliance to the Policy Council.

The reality is that the Menhaden Board was faced with two bad choices.  Delay and risk the viability of an institution that should be clear in its direction, or find the state out of compliance, have that decision go to the Secretary of Commerce, which would by all accounts disagree with the Commission’s non-compliance finding, then declare the state in compliance, and allowing them to knock the crap out of the Chesapeake Bay.  Both have huge implications for how all of the Commission’s fisheries are managed.

What tipped the scales greatly was when NOAA General Council got up to the mic and said that for a finding of non-compliance to fly at Commerce, there had to be documentation (read: science) that the management measure in question was needed for conservation.  Well, because the Bay cap was merely a precautionary measure, and the science doesn’t really exist to prove it is necessary for the viability of the species (even though for most folks it’s just intuitive), there was virtually no chance that Commerce would support a non-compliance finding.

And so, in the end, the Commission voted to delay any decision until its February meeting.  That will give the Virginia Administration another chance to get a bill through the legislature that would bring the state into compliance, or possibly wrestle management away from the legislature and into the hands of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, where it belongs.

The onus now is on Virginia to find a way to come into compliance. If you live there, it’s probably a good idea to contact your local legislator and let him or her know that Virginia should come into compliance with the Commission’s precautionary Bay cap, and that menhaden really should be taken out of politicians’ hands and put into the Marine Resources Commission’s.

There’s more on summer flounder and black seabass, but that can be covered after the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council meeting, which is next week.

We will be there.

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