Taken from the 1@32 FB page
The Spring season of excuses is here. Mine, typically made in groggy early morning hours, are usually: “I worked 14 hours yesterday and I think I have to do it again today,” or “The tide will be better tomorrow,” or “Traffic will be stupid.” It’s a bunch of terrible excuses, a whole lotta bullshit. Before I know it, it’s the middle of summer.
There’s a lot more excuse-making going on out there recently, especially when it comes to striped bass management. 2019 could prove to be one of the most critical seasons since the early 1980s and the moratorium years when it comes to management action or inaction. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission and fisheries managers to kick the can or move the goalposts, probably a combination of both. Watch a familiar pattern of tongue twisting and ethical gymnastics in popular culture as “No collusion” transitions to “Collusion is not a crime.” Or they could face the hard truth and start making some difficult decisions about striped bass.
Hard Truth #1: striped bass are overfished and overfishing is occurring. The ASMFC’s Technical Committee (TC) released its striped bass benchmark assessment in February and there’s not a whole lot of good for the fishery in it. It confirms the stock is overfished, meaning the biomass is below the level scientists determined would represent a healthy stock, and that overfishing (removing fish at a rate that continues the downward trend) is happening. These are factors that requires the ASMFC to act, known as triggers. In the past, the Commission hasn’t acted and instead delayed any sort of meaningful action, in particular in 2013, when the previous benchmark assessment found the fishing mortality was higher than the target and the female spawning stock had fallen below target as well for several years. In fact, the current stock of spawning striped bass (SSB in charts) is about 68,500 pounds, well below the 91,000 threshold the ASMFC is supposed to maintain and the lowest it’s been since 1992, and it’s been below the threshold for five years straight.
These are triggers the ASMFC itself established to compel management and conservation action. For an excellent overview of striped bass management check out the post “Striped Bass 101,” by the Saltwater Guide Association—which I’d consider mandatory reading if you’re concerned about the state of the fish. For even more in-depth history of striped bass, you can also read Dick Russell’s excellent Striper Wars (try to find a used copy as the new ones can be a little pricey). There is another ASMFC meeting April 30 to determine the course of action in response to the TC assessment.
Hard Truth #2: Recreational fishers are responsible for killing more fish than commercials. It’s one of the reasons I push so much for personal responsibility when it comes to handling fish. The TC’s assessment found recs take of the overall striped bass landings (fish harvested or otherwise killed) was 42 percent, with the commercial take at 8 percent. The assessment also revealed that 48 percent of the total bass killed died after release by recs, compared to 2 percent for the commercials. This number is a little bit confusing as it’s easily mistranslated to: “50 percent of the fish I catch and release will die anyway.” That’s not the case.
As Ross Squire of the 1@32 Facebook group, and author of the blog post “About Those Dead Releases”, says,
“In table B6.3 it cites a recreational harvest of 2,934,292 fish (fish caught and killed) and dead releases (fish caught and released that then die) at 3,423,544 fish. The total of the commercial harvest plus commercial discards was 701,051 fish. When you total all the striped bass removals (fish harvested or killed after release) by the comm and rec sector you get total removals of 7,058,888 fish. The recreational dead releases account for 48.5% of all removals.
The ASMFC uses a calculation of ~9% when calculating the number of fish that when released wind up dying. So to get to a dead releases total of 3,423,544 fish, it implies that a huge number of fish had to have been caught. This is supported in Table B.6.30 which indicates that there were recreational releases (fish that were caught and then released) of 38,275,223.
To get the total number of fish caught by the recreational sector you would add the number of recreational releases plus the recreational harvest to get a grand total of 41,209,515 fish.” [Bold emphasis mine]
From the Technical Committees Benchmark Assessment
And, as Charles Witek notes in his blog, “[N]early 38,000,000 striped bass were released in 2017, and of those fish 9%–around 3,400,000—probably died shortly thereafter.
But that means that 91% of them—about 34,000,000 lived.”
The 9 percent mortality rate in releases used by the ASFMC comes from a 1996 Massachusetts study called Mortality of Striped Bass Hooked and Released in Saltwater.
It does not factor in such considerations as water depth, salinity, or air temperature that could contribute to the survival or death of a released fish, but the 9 percent number is generally considered to be accurate. I’ll try to do another post describing the methods the scientists used in that study, but briefly, they observed catch and release of 10″-22″ striped bass in a 2 hectare (about 5 acres) enclosure. They concluded: “Depth of hook penetration in the oral cavity, anatomical site of hooking, gear type (treble or single hooks), and angler experience were significantly related to mortality…. The final model included depth of hook penetration, gear type, and angler experience as predictor variables. Predicted mortality ranged from 3% under the most favorable conditions to 26% for the worst set of conditions. Predicted as well as observed mortality for the entire experimental group was 9% which is generally much lower than reported in striped bass hooking mortality studies conducted in freshwater.”
Current female spawning stock of striped bass (SSB) and recruitment. Note the drop off in recruitment on the right side of the graph.
Hard Truth #3: The only way to help the fishery recovery is to kill less fish. There’s a couple of different options on the table for the ASMFC’s April 30 meeting: creel limits (i.e. no more 2 fish/day in Maryland), season limits (reducing or eliminating part of the season like Virginia just did to its trophy season), and size limits (i.e. 1 fish at 36″ instead of 28″). Neither of these is a magic pill and success will likely involve a combination of the three. The overall concern is whether they will adopt an addendum, which would mean emergency action, or an amendment, a process that takes considerably longer to enact. In part II of the Striped Bass 101 post, the authors write:
“Regardless of the outcome of such an Amendment process, it would be at least two years before the Board could implement management measures…. Despite the fact that the stock is overfished, and overfishing is occurring under the current regulations, [those] regulations would largely remain in place until the Amendment was completed.
Through an amendment Commissioners could ultimately avoid taking any meaningful actions to address overfishing, first by delay, and then by setting new reference points that reduce the spawning stock biomass target and threshold. Such new reference points would increase the risk of a stock collapse by allowing fishing mortality to remain high, while reducing the size of the spawning stock.
Essentially, this is an attempt to lower the goal posts under the justification that, well, since the Chesapeake isn’t as productive as it was when such reference points were developed, we should set lower goals.”
Some fishery managers are already taking positive action. Managers in Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts recently wrote to ASMFC director Jim Gilmore asking for striped bass protections. “[N]ew data show that striped bass spawning stock biomass has remained below its critical lower threshold since 2013, and the fishing mortality rate has remained above its upper threshold since 2010,” they wrote. “It is evident that status quo management will be inadequate to return the striped bass stock to target levels of biomass and fishing mortality indicative of a healthy fishery.“
I’d like to see New York sign on with something like this, but I don’t hold much hope for nearby states like New Jersey, Delaware, and certainly not Maryland, who is almost certainly responsible for the decimation of the 2011 class of stripers so often cited as one of the best recruitment years in decades.
From the Maryland Biodiversity Project
Some background on this even though it should be its own post: the limit in Maryland is 2 fish per day with a 19″ minimum. The 2011 young-of-the-year recruitment was supposed to “save the fishery,” according to some, but fish that should now be in the 28″ to 34″ are scarce. From the article “Crunch Time With Striped Bass Management” by Michael Wright in 27East:
“That year , the estimates of young-of-the-year stripers were sky high, with evidence that it was one of the three best “recruitment” years from the Chesapeake Bay stock that makes up the largest demographic of the overall striper population. That year-class should have been the dominant one for the next decade and a half.
But we are now in the latter half of that run, and the 2011 year-class seems nowhere to be seen. Those fish should be in the 28- to 34-inch range now, and just reaching spawning age. But for anglers, catching fish in that size range has been relatively rare in the last couple of years—just when it should have been nearly unavoidable.”
In most states, the size limit is 28″—the idea being at that size the females will have had a chance to spawn at least once before they are presumably caught and/or harvested. This is why the 2 @ 19″ limit Maryland allows is key here. The article continues:
“The problem is that in the states where most anglers fish the waters of the Chesapeake, size limits are much, much lower, because there are few chances to catch fish of more than 28 inches except during the short spring spawning runs.
For the rest of the year, the fish that are available to Maryland and Virginia anglers are those fish that don’t wander very far from their native waters (which is typical of striped bass not yet of spawning age), and the size limits reflect that. In Maryland, for instance, the minimum keeper size is just 19 inches. What’s more, an angler is allowed to keep two fish per day of that size for much of the year.
What this means is that those fishermen are killing fish very early in their lives, before they’ve spawned, and killing a lot of them. When the 2011 Chesapeake year-class reached 19 inches, the harvest in the bay states ballooned to triple what it had been in recent years.”
Put more bluntly by Tony Friedrich in this Fissues.org article: “Did you see a dramatic rise in the number of striped bass in the 28 to 32-inch range? If you didn’t, it is because Maryland anglers slaughtered the year class as soon as it became legal to do so.” To put this in numbers, Friedrich writes: “In 2012, Maryland anglers harvested 1.26 million pounds of striped bass. As the robust 2011-year class matured, the harvest skyrocketed to 4.3 million pounds in 2016.”
The Commission’s actions (or in-actions) starting at the meeting April 30 are going to be critical step for striped bass management. We need to push hard for an addendum that can be implemented quickly, with the long term goal of rebuilding the stock as the ultimate result. There will be a lot of pressure to go the amendment route to keep delaying any real action for the short-term benefit of a few. There’s going to be people who say it’s all cyclical and that their are more striped bass out there than we can count, that science doesn’t matter, and that the numbers don’t add up. You can bet these groups, like the New York Recreational and For-Hire Fishing Alliance and the Recreational Fishing Alliance, are going to make their voices heard.
You’re going to hear people say the ASMFC is a sackless entity that can’t (or won’t) even enforce their own charter. They’ve routinely ignored their own triggers which they established themselves to force conservation action. I’m one of those people. They have the authority to rebuild the stock; they did it in the moratorium years in a decade, and even though we are not at those levels yet, this is their chance to take control of management and do what they were supposed to do in the first place. It’s not rec vs. comm. It’s not us versus them. Like rec fisherman Paul Sheldon told The Baltimore Sun in a recent article that show even Maryland is recognizing there’s a problem with the fishery: “Everyone’s pointing fingers at each other. If it doesn’t change, there’s going to be no fish to fight over at all.”
There’s one fishery out there, one stock of striped bass that we all contribute to and share a responsibility, and it’s the responsibility of the ASMFC to own up to its charter. As Charles Witek said in a post: “[T]he question is not whether [the ASMFC] has the authority, but whether it has the moral courage and political will.” Mark Eustice, in an Op-Ed in the Baltimore Sun, writes, “NOAA’s peer-reviewed science is proof striped bass are in deep trouble. Many on the ASMFC deny this reality, and they will undoubtedly work to postpone the inevitable and advocate for more studies before acting. This is unacceptable. Maryland must work with ASMFC now to cut harvests and start rebuilding immediately — or striped bass will be fated to slide downward into another moratorium.”
The ASMFC is not accepting public comments for its April 30 meeting, but you can bet the invested parties will be there. We can start by writing our commissioners (names, emails, and addresses below). I’m sure they won’t appreciate my current assessment of the Commission, but if there was ever a time for them (and us) to cowboy up, it’s now.
NEW YORK ASMFC COMMISSIONERS
James J. Gilmore, Jr., Chair
NY State Dept. of Environmental Conservation
Division of Marine Resources
205 North Belle Mead Road, Suite 1
East Setauket, NY 11733-3400
Ongoing Proxy: Maureen Davidson
Emerson C. Hasbrouck, Jr.
Cornell Cooperative Extension
423 Griffing Avenue, #100
Riverhead, New York 11901-3071
Sen. Todd Kaminsky
55 Front Street Room 1
Rockville Centre, NY 11570-4040