JULY 29-30 ASMFC STRIPED BASS BOARD MEETING REPORT

By Tom Fote
Legislative & Fisheries Management Plan Chairman for JCAA


I just returned from the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission Striped Bass meeting that was held in Warwick, Rhode Island on July 29 and 30. I am always amazed that some state directors come prepared to manipulate the meeting for the gain of their states’ commercial interests and the commercial fishery as a whole. They are always looking to further restrict the recreational fishery in order to protect and expand the commercial fishery. The recreational community is about to take it on the chin again. These same state directors are hoping that we will get so lost in the statistics of the plan and spend so much time arguing among ourselves about the allocation of the diminished recreational quota along the coast, that we will miss the big picture and fail to place responsibility where it belongs. The responsibility belongs on the state directors who have allowed the expansion of the commercial quotas in the bay and along the coast. The state directors and the commission will deny that there is an organized effort to favor commercial interests. They will point to my criticism of this new plan as biased and suggest that I am once again overreacting to their decision. My response is that I have been to enough ASMFC meetings, watched the deals being made and lived with the decisions that were made well before any meetings began to know when the recreational community is being shortchanged. What every recreational angler needs to do is carefully read my summary of meeting and the resulting proposals. Look beyond the simple battle among the recreational anglers who could consume all our energies and look at the bigger picture. Ask yourself why there are not enough striped bass for all the recreational anglers when in 1995 the ASMFC declared striped bass a "recovered fishery"?

I received the materials for the Striped Bass Board Meeting the day before I left for Warwick.. Bruce Freeman, who represented NJ Fish and Game, received only part of the material by fax the day before the meeting. Our striped bass advisors were also left without materials until the last minute. ASMFC had not scheduled an advisors meeting to comment and review these documents. They will also not have a meeting to review the proposals in the hearing document before it goes out to public hearings. So much for public input. This chain of events did not allow us an opportunity to review the material and confer with our advisors before the meeting.

I could spend a lot of time reviewing all the charts and graphs that were given out and the minutia of the plan. I could also describe the methods used to devise the state by state quotas. They will all be available in the public hearing document which will not ready until latter this month. We will go over them when the document comes out, In truth I believe all this pretense at statistical analysis and presentation are simply a smoke screen to divert our attention from what is really happening in this fishery. Unlike the ASMFC, I am going to use the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) to review what happened and what was proposed.

First, a brief history of Amendment 5. Under Amendment 5 the Striped Bass Advisory Committee and a majority of the comments at the public hearings called for a 24 inch size limit recreationally and an increase in the commercial catch from 20% to 40% of their historic limit. After the public hearings the Striped Bass Board voted to keep the 28 inch size limit along the coast, and allow the producing areas a 20 inch size limit for both commercial and recreational fishing. After looking at the projections for the total harvest by recreational anglers at a 2 fish limit, 28 inches for the coast, the Board decided ,on advice of the Technical Committee representatives, to increase the commercial catch along the coast to 70% of its historic base year average. The Technical Committee members were unconcerned about the long term effects of this commercial increase providing the recreational limit remained at 28 inches. They stated that this stock was recovered. The Technical Committee reassured the Striped Bass Board that there was no reason to be concerned with the overharvesting of 90,000 fish at 28 inches or larger by Maryland in the winter trophy fishery. Under Amendment 5 they allowed an increase from 2,000 to 30,000 fish at the 28 inch or larger size in the Chesapeake and recorded it against the coastal quota. Their rosy view of the recovery of the Striped Bass stock allowed them to take these positions.

Given the rosy prognostications of the Technical Committee, I was anticipating an opportunity for the coastal recreational anglers to fish at a slightly lower size limit and take some of the pressure off the larger fish. Imagine my surprise when the Striped Bass Technical Committee report concluded that there are not enough 28 inch or larger fish to continue harvesting at the present rate. They blamed this condition on the growth in the coastal harvest which is restricted to 28 inch or larger fish and to the growth in the number of recreational striped bass trips. After considering the recommendations from the Technical Committee and debating different proposals to go out to public hearing for Addendum 2, the Striped Bass Board voted to go to public hearing in the first two weeks of September with the following outlined proposals. These proposals are based on a VPA figure that calls for a total reduction in the harvest of the 28 inch or larger fish based on the 1996 marine recreational survey figures. The Technical Committee and the Striped Bass Board used these figures even though they had publicly questioned the statistics about number of fish caught or size of fish kept accumulated from some states. The Technical Committee admitted that the standard deviation in these statistics is very high making it difficult to precisely predict the outcome. But they will do it anyway!

Since much of the discussion about the following options will be based on statistics about the mortality rates of the 28 inch or larger fish, it is important to know how these statistics are determined. Here is how the fish are being assigned by size. Under the current use of VPA and SSB it makes no difference where and when fish are caught. The decision about whether a mortality rate is assigned to the coast or the bay is based entirely on the size of the fish. For example, a fish 28 inches or larger that is caught upstate in New York’s Delaware Water Gap in the middle of August is considered against the coastal fishery mortality rate as a migratory fish. A fish caught in the 20 to 26 inch slot limit in Maine is counted against the mortality rate of one of the producing areas; Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay or Hudson River. Many people assume a 28 inch fish caught in the Chesapeake Bay in August would have been counted against the Chesapeake Bay total mortality rate but, as you can see, this is not true. We knew that the large fish trophy fishery in the Chesapeake Bay in the winter was being counted in the coast’s mortality rate. What I didn’t realize was that all 28 inch fish, no matter where or when it is caught, are counted in the coast’s mortality rate. This is one of the reasons why the Chesapeake Bay has been below the target mortality rate while catching more and more fish. Wouldn’t you like to make withdrawals from your bank account only to have them show up on someone else’s statement. To be fair, the small fish that are killed as bycatch are counted against the producing areas, including hook and line release mortality. However, these mortality figures are counted against two very large year classes of small fish making the increase in mortality for the bay almost negligible. The increase against the coast, however, is quite dramatic. This is because the entire coast is fishing on a limited population of 28 inch or larger fish. To further complicate the issue, the Hudson River and Delaware Bay do not have adequate statistics placed within the model to avail themselves of the benefits of being producing areas. New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware recreationally opted for what they felt was conservation with a 28 inch size limit in the Delaware Bay and Hudson River up to the George Washington Bridge. This lack of understanding about how mortality rates were figured negated the gains made by the recreational anglers in these states allowing the Chesapeake to catch more small fish while they were counted against all the producing areas. In other words, Chesapeake Bay caught all the small fish counted in the mortality rates for all three areas.

I once accused Maryland of double dipping on the statistics catching both premigratory fish initially and then adding post migratory fish in their winter trophy program. Now I can see that they are quadruple dipping, taking advantage of the savings from Delaware Bay and the Hudson River and counting their 28 inch fish against the coast no matter when they are caught. Was this just good luck for Chesapeake Bay or did they use their statistical expertise to develop a long range plan that would use every new statistic to their advantage? With this information at hand it would be easy for recreational anglers to turn on one another in a allocation battle. This is exactly what some state directors with strong commercial interests would like. They decide how much of the pie to allocate to recreation and we oblige them by fighting among ourselves while their commercial fisherman gobble up the rest.

The first option under the hearing document is to accomplish a reduction recreationally along the coast by reducing bag limits or imposing seasonal restrictions. The Technical Committee was instructed to come up with a variety of options. The commercial fishery would be have no reduction along the coast under any of these options. The Chesapeake bay would also be allowed to increase their catch commercially under any of the proposed options. So the only group taking any kind of reduction will be the coastal recreational angler

The second option would accomplish the reduction by setting up state by state quotas. They will undoubtedly produce a myriad of charts that will confuse even the most knowledgeable.

I requested that a third option be placed in the hearing document. I requested a status quo for all groups for 1998. I believe that the statistics are not precise and feel that the discussed proposals for allocating the large fish would result in an inequitable burden on the coastal recreational fishermen. No motion was made on my suggestion. New Jersey and Maine made a motion that would have held the coast at status quo and allowed for an increase under Addendum One in the bay. This motion was rejected by the board.

Therefore, only the first and second options listed above will be listed on the public hearing document. Many times the Striped Bass Board’s final action on addendums and amendments do not reflect exactly what is in the public hearing document that will be sent out at the end of August. We cannot rely on them to make a final decision based on our comments about the public hearing document. Therefore it is important that we go to these hearings with our own plan, one that is "none of the above" and does not pit recreational anglers against each other.

Jersey Coast Anglers Association and the American Sportfishing Association will be probably be sponsoring a meeting on Striped Bass before the public hearings take place in early September. It is critical that we have maximum recreational participation from all the states involved. We cannot approach these hearing divided and we must come up with a plan built on a concensus among all recreational groups no matter where there fish. Tentative dates for the meeting are between August 23 and 28. Invitation for meeting will sent out as soon as we have a date.

Please consider these thoughts. JCAA had long held the belief that one size limit throughout the range is appropriate. The Hudson River and the Delaware are estimated by the Technical Committee to produce 35% of the total striped bass population. JCAA has never considered pitting the coast against the producing areas even though we could benefit from our position between two producing areas. This present plan will force NJ fishermen to seriously consider adopting the take everything you can get attitude prevalent in the Chesapeake Bay. I can’t condone this and I know there must be a better way. One of the state directors suggested that a 24 inch size limit throughout the fishery might have prevented this problem.

There were interesting comments by some state directors discussing the possibility of limited entry on the recreational side. This proposal appeared to be generated by the states with the most commercial interests. While a limited entry may have appeal to some, think about the commercial slant on this. Rather than allowing most individual recreational anglers to go out and catch their own striped bass to take home for dinner, a commercial fisherman will gladly catch the only striped bass available so he can sell it to you. The additional danger is that it won’t stop with limiting the number of charter boats. Next they will limit the number of trips a charter boat can make or the number of people who can fish from any boat. It is not a door we want to open.

JCAA has supported striped bass gamefish because it has always felt that striped bass stocks could not support a strong recreational fishery and a commercial fishery. This is one fish that will not do well unless it is limited to a recreational catch. People at this meeting seemed to have difficulty deciding how to define or describe a quality fishery. That’s easy. A quality recreational striped bass fishery has strong year classes on all size fish that will allow a subsistence and recreational anglers to take fish home to eat and catch and release anglers to occasionally catch a real trophy size bass.

If you have any questions or comments contact me by email at <tfote@JCAA.org>, fax 732-506-6409 or phone 732-270-9102. I will be in contact about the date and time of the probable JCAA & ASA coastwide meeting.. The JCAA Striped Bass Committee will be having a meeting prior to the coast wide meeting to come up with a JCAA position. It is tentatively scheduled for August 11. Contact Mike Burke at 732-398-1935 for details.

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