Sea Bass Update – Important NJMFC/ASMFC Hearing on January 4, 2018

by Paul Haertel
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association January 2018 Newsletter)

The New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (NJMFC) will meet at 4 PM on Thursday, 1/4/18, at the Galloway Township Branch of the Atlantic County Library, 306 East Jimmie Leeds Road, Galloway, New Jersey. Then at the same location, at 6:30 PM, our Bureau of Marine Fisheries (NJBMF) in conjunction with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries (ASMFC) will have a public hearing pertaining to Addendum XXX for black sea bass.

Though the meeting agenda is not yet available for the NJMFC meeting, the possibility of opening the sea bass season in February may be taken up. However, based on public sentiment against it at the last council meeting and now with the recently released preliminary wave 5 (September – October) MRIP numbers showing that we harvested more fish than projected, it is unlikely that the council will vote to open a winter season. The problem is that we would have to subtract our state’s allotment for February from our target quota for the rest of the year which could result in fewer days to fish during the regular season. Still, it would be good to be on hand to voice your opinion one way or the other if this topic comes up at the council meeting.

However, JCAA believes it is extremely important to attend the meeting that begins at 6:30 PM that will only be about the addendum regarding sea bass. The addendum was just released on 12/22/17 but prior to getting into some of the specifics of the addendum, I would like to provide you with a little background information. Below are comments that JCAA submitted to the ASMFC/MAFMC seabass board while the addendum was still being prepared.

“Regarding sea bass we are urging you to leave the quota at 4.29 million pounds rather than lowering it to 3.66 million pounds. The spawning stock biomass is at 230% of the target and we need to create more fishing opportunities for these fish. Sea bass are not only competing for various forage species with other desirable species but have been devouring their young as well. Further allowing us to harvest more sea bass would reduce the pressure we put on other species such as fluke. Also, please consider the fact that sea bass are protogynous hermaphrodites and with a 12 ½” size limit, we are harvesting almost all males while allowing the females to continue to breed.

We would also like to see options that would change the alignment of the regions included in the addendum. Specifically, we support options that would allow New Jersey to become its own region or to be placed in the southern region as opposed to remaining in the region with states to our north. If in fact the regions are realigned in this fashion, the JCAA supports the quotas being established based on the historical percentage of the harvest over at least the last ten years. We understand that the time periods being considered to establish quotas are either from 2011 to 2015 or from 2006 to 2015. In 2011 draconian regulations were forced upon us that resulted in New Jersey harvesting their fewest sea bass during this entire century. It would be wrong to use this year as part of the basis for developing quotas. There was relaxation of the regulations in 2012 at which time New Jersey was placed in the northern region. Then for 2013, NJ was forced to establish harsh regulations that resulted in us harvesting only 61% of our target quota. At the same time, New York harvested 125% of its target and Connecticut harvested 150% of its target. NJ did its part but then the following year all states in the northern region had to cut back by the same percentage. In other words, CT and NY were rewarded for going over their target quotas while NJ was penalized for underfishing theirs. Those stringent regulations that NJ set in 2013 have hurt us every year since. Further, NJ’s historical share of the harvest was 47.7 % for the period from 2001 to 2010 and probably even more than that previous to those years. We believe it would be very unfair to base quotas on years when New Jersey’s share of the harvest was at or near its lowest and other states were at or near their highest levels. We urge you to use the historical harvests over longer periods of time to be fair to all the states involved.”

On 12/13, well after our comments were submitted, I attended the joint meeting of the ASMFC/MAFMC regarding seabass. Addendum XXX, which was only for board review, was discussed. A motion was made and then passed that removed the options that would have allowed New Jersey to be put in the southern region. Therefore, those options are not in the addendum that was just released to the public. However, there will be options to allow NJ to be its own region or to stay in the region with the states to our north. The problem with the addendum as I see it is the timeframe that will be used for setting specifications. Though the public was given an opportunity to comment at the meeting, I was the only one to do so. I pointed out that from 1992 to 2010, NJ harvested more sea bass than any other state except for two years. In those two years we finished second and third. I stated that it would be unfair to use the years from 2011-2016 as a basis for our quota as those were the years when New Jersey’s share of the harvest was lowest. In fact, during that period of time, NJ finished first in harvest only once and also finished fourth in another which was our lowest ever. I suggested adding a third option using only the years from 2006-2010 as those years were more in line with our traditional share of the harvest. Upon completion of my testimony, one of our state’s representatives, Jeffrey Brust, made a motion to do just that. Unfortunately, after a discussion the motion failed. However, it did bring to their attention that using just those years would be problematic for us. There is probably now a better chance that the option to use the years from 2006-2015 as the basis will be chosen. That would certainly be better than using just the five-year average and is the one we should all support. There are other interesting topics in the addendum as well such as alternative approaches to managing the fishery. One option that seems intriguing would be to set allocations based on both exploitable biomass and historical harvest rather than using only the historical harvest.

Unfortunately, though, the decision to reduce the coast wide quota from 4.29 million pounds this year to 3.66 million pounds in 2018 was made back in August. There doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it at this point but we have to try. The reason for the reduction is that the spawning stock biomass (ssb) is expected to decline in 2018. It doesn’t make sense to me that we are being forced to reduce considering the ssb is 2.3 times the target and the fact that a strong 2015 year class is now entering the fishery. Still though, at the time of the December meeting the projected harvest would have allowed us to remain at status quo. Then on 12/15 more bad news came in as the wave 5 (Sept-Oct) data showed that we had a higher harvest than projected. We are now facing a strong possibility of having more stringent regulations forced upon us for the upcoming year. JCAA member clubs should review the addendum so that our association can take a formal position on this at our next meeting. Afterwards we will keep everyone abreast of what is happening via email alerts and on our Facebook page.

Anglers and other interested groups are encouraged to provide input on Draft Addendum XXX either by attending our state’s public hearing or providing written comment. The Draft Addendum is available at this link and can also be accessed on the Commission website under Public Input. To aid the submission of public comment, please refer to the decision tree found in Appendix III on PDF page 23, which outlines the management options being considered. Public comment will be accepted until 5:00 PM (EST) on January 22, 2018 and should be forwarded to Caitlin Starks, Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, 1050 N. Highland St., Suite 200 A-N, Arlington, Virginia 22201; 703.842.0741 (fax) or at, subject line: Draft Addendum XXX.

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