Fisheries Management & Legislative Report

by Tom Fote
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association February 2019 Newsletter)


Summer Flounder

My friend Al Ristori, who has an archive of every fishing document that ever came into his possession, gave me a letter from 1977 when Al served on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council. It deals with summer flounder. As he gives me more of these documents, I will share them with you. It is interesting to note how much larger the recreational catch was in relationship to the commercial catch at the time this was written. I have seen this in other earlier documents as well. The change occurred when NMFS began estimating the recreational catch. They have finally admitted their error. The summer flounder article in the April issue of the JCAA Newspaper explains in great detail. Hang on, it is going to be a bumpy ride.

1977 MAFMC Letter on Summer Flounder
Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council Room 2115 Federal Building North & New Streets Dover, DE 19901 Telephone 302-647-2331 David H. Hart, Chairman Elliot Goldman, Vice Chairman John Bryson, Executive Director Mr. Anthony S. Taomina, Director Marine and Coastal Resources Department of Environmental Conservation Building #40 State University of NY Stony Brook, NY 11794 December 30, 1977
Dear Tony:

As a follow-up to our discussion last week, I would like to further explore with you, and the other State Directors in the Mid-Atlantic Region, two concerns of mine. They are the relationship between Council prepared plans and resource management in territorial waters and the State-Federal Program’s interest in flounder management. Since the latter item pertains to State-Federal, I’m directing this correspondence to you as Chairman of the Northeast Marine Fisheries Board and we can proceed from there.

Within a month or so, the staff will begin some preliminary spadework on the preparation of a management plan for fluke in keeping with a schedule laid out for us by the Council. Commercially, about 64% of the fluke harvested in 1976 (24 million lbs.) were caught in the Fishery Conservation Zone. In 1976, it is estimated that another 39 million pounds of fluke were taken by recreational fishermen--while just where the fish were caught is not documented, I suspect that at least 80% came from territorial waters. If this is true, any plan prepared by the Council would control less than a third of the total catch of fluke.

The conclusion from the above is that management of fluke appears to be a State responsibility and is a good candidate for the State-Federal Program. Nevertheless, the Council has set fluke as a priority management target and has every right to pursue management of any species in the Fishery Conservation Zone regardless of how small the catch is from the Zone in proportion to the total catch. Just how effective management of only a small fraction of the total resource would be is another matter which leads me to believe that some better method of coordination on fishery plans is needed. This could be accomplished by more active State participation under the EJ contracts or through some formalized linkage between the Council and the State-Federal Program with supplemental funding.

For fluke, and we might also want to consider other flounders, I would like to see some kind of partnership set up between the states and the Council for the preparation of the plan. It would make no difference who took the lead as long as certain guidelines are followed and the plan is prepared in a timely fashion. Before the staff gets too far along on the plan, I would like to learn more about the Board's interest in flounder management (which was reported in minutes of previous Board meetings and confirmed by Mr. Street, of North Carolina, at a recent Council meeting) whether or not the Board agrees that joint management with the Council is desirable, and, whether or not the State-Federal Program has the capability to undertake such planning activities recognizing manpower and funding limitations and the burden of the existing Program initiatives.

The relationship between the Council and the states on plans already prepared by the Council is another area of concern but is probably beyond the purview of the Council. The Secretary of Commerce, through NMFS, implements and carries out the plans. 1 know that NMFS is working with the states (funds for supplemental enforcement, etc.) to execute the plans. The extent of this support and coordination by WFS, its adequacy, and the role of the Council and the Board in the exercise is not very clear.

Paramount in the issue is how will fishing and catch from state waters be handled relative to plans prepared by the Council for the Fishery Conservation Zone. The Mid Atlantic Council has prepared plans on clams, mackerel and squid which allegedly cover the "range of the resource". From a standpoint of U.S. domestic recreational and commercial catch, about 85% of the clam catch, 60% of the mackerel catch, and 20% of the squid catch in 1978 will come from the Zone and be controlled by the Council's plans. What happens in state waters to these resources will have a bearing on any Council plan and the objectives it sets out-to accomplish.

While I recognize that some of the problems facing us may be difficult to resolve, I think a concerted effort should be applied to finding answers. Looking ahead, some kind of attention should be focused on making Council and state management of common resources more compatible. By mid-1978, we will be re-evaluating existing plans for potential amendments in 1979. I would like to see the states become more active in the amendment process so that hopefully when the existing plans are revised, the new documents will bring more into line state and Council management of the entire resource. What role, if any, would you think the Marine Fisheries Board could or should play in this effort? (and other members of the Board.)

Best wishes for the New Year. Sincerely, Donald G. Birkholz cc: David Hart William Gordon Frank Grice Ralph Abele Russell Cookingham William Wagner Robert Rubelmann James Douglas Irwin Alperin
Striped Bass

I would imagine many of you will be listening in during the striped bass board meeting by webinar. It should be an interesting meeting. It has come to my attention that there will be people calling for emergency actions, addendums or amendments. I wrote an extensive article on striped bass that was in the March JCAA Newspaper. I have put an excerpt below but the entire article is available on the JCAA webpage.

Although I covered catch and release in the article, this became more relevant as we begin discussing how we will manage striped bass. The segment of the community that supports catch and release thinks no one should take home a fish to eat. They blame those who want to eat fish for the so-called collapse of the fishery. There are others who just want to catch a trophy fish and who don’t believe anyone should take a fish unless it is trophy size. The third group of anglers are those who want to go fishing and bring home a striped bass to eat. These anglers may fish just a few times a year.

Recently a friend told me he caught over two hundred fish on a single trip but didn’t keep any. I pointed out that he should remind his listeners that he killed at least 16 fish according to the catch and release data. Being proud that you don’t keep a fish ignores how many fish you kill, especially if you are a daily angler. The occasional angler who takes a fish home to eat may catch a few but it is unlikely they are killing more than 16 fish in just their few yearly trips. It is also my experience that catch and release anglers will fish even when there are only small fish to throw back. This is a greater problem in the summer when the weather and the water are warm, the salinity is often lower and the mortality numbers rise.

Look at the table below. The number of harvested fish has been reduced in the last three years but the catch and release mortality has continued to rise. The information I have received about 2018 show an even greater drop in harvest. When you are killing double the number of fish by catch and release mortality than by catching for dinner, we need be clear about where the problem lies. Every angler needs to look at the problems we are causing for striped bass from every possible angle and be willing to change our own habits. If we want to maintain the very conservative targets, everything should be up for discussion. I will recommend an amendment rather than an addendum to deal with a change this dramatic.

Year by year catch, discard, & mortality
Striped Bass: Where Are We Headed
(excerpted from March 2019 Newsletter)

1995 Regulations

To understand today’s discussion, you need to understand the regulations that were put in place in 1995. I have been at the striped bass board meetings since 1986. At that time the public was not allowed to ask questions and neither were ASMFC Commissioners who were not state directors. In 1989 the discussions began about how to re-open the fishery since many of the states along the east coast had a total moratorium on fishing for striped bass but the stocks had begun rebuilding. The 1989 year class was one of the best in striped bass history and pushed the 3-year average high enough to allow for the resumption of the fishery. During the discussions at the striped bass board meeting and with the advice of the technical committee, the board debated all day long about whether or not to open the fishery with 2 fish at 24 inches in the Chesapeake Bay and 2 fish at 34 inches along the coast recreationally and with the same size limit commercially with quotas. Before the board broke at 9:30 PM the audience was asked for comment. I was pushed to speak for the audience and asked the board for an opportunity to speak before the vote the following day. The board agreed and we went to sleep. The next day they opened the meeting at 8:30, made a motion to open the fishery at 18 inches in Chesapeake Bay and 28 inches along the coast. That motion was passed in 45 minutes without public comment. At 1:00 they asked for our comments and I was again the spokesperson. I said, “You don’t give a damn what we have to say but you will in the future.”

Because of that board meeting the community was excited to be more involved and began attending more striped bass meetings. There were no longer 5 or 6 of us in the audience but more often 30 or 40. The ASMFC commissioners began hearing from the recreational anglers and the process began to open. By the time the 1995 amendment was being drafted, the recreational sector along the coast had developed a stronger voice. There were not only ASMFC commissioners from the states who were speaking at board meetings. The 1995 amendment was an example of our participation. It was designed to have a quality fishery and the base year was the year that we declared the fishery recovered, the highest point we had seen since we started the striped bass emergency act in the early 80’s. The referent points, unlike other fisheries, were made more precautionary. I was one of the three NJ ASMFC Commissioners making those striped bass management decisions.

In 1995 the participation in the striped bass fishery was different than it is now along the coast. But so was every other fishery. It is important to understand what was happening in 1995. We were still benefitting from the large number of big striped bass that were protected during the moratorium that was in place from the 80’s through the early 90’s. Many of the states had not opened the fishery to 2 fish at 28 inches along the coast and put in seasons that were more conservative than required. There was also a smaller group of anglers. Most striped bass fishermen were like me, we didn’t talk about catching fluke, black sea bass or tautog. Our 24/7 talk was about striped bass fishing. The seasons were open all year for black sea bass, fluke, scup and tautog. Summer flounder had a 10 fish bag at 14 inch size limit and no closed season. Most of the people I fished with or knew didn’t like striped bass for dinner and fished for other species for food. There were not as many striper fishermen in general, even fewer who were taking striped bass home to eat. That was part of the big increase in the number of private, party and charter boats targeting striped bass. The 1995 amendment was good based on the era for which it was written. It allowed for a fantastic fishery on big fish throughout the 90’s and into the early 2000’s.

The New Fisheries in the 2000’s

Because of the concerns of the MidAtlantic Fisheries Management Council and ASMFC, there was a dramatic change in the way we manage fisheries jointly. We kept raising size limits and shortening seasons and cutting bag limits. Anglers who fished for their tables had fewer opportunities to bring fish home. There were periods of time that striped bass and bluefish were the only fisheries without closed seasons. Anglers discovered they were spending a great deal of time, effort and money with little to show for it if their target was fluke, black sea bass or tautog. So it was the natural move for many private, party and charter boats moving into the striped fishery, especially since it was open year-round. The abundance allowed for novices to meet with success. All you had to do was snag a bunker and you were a striped bass fisherman. The pressure on the striped bass population resulted in fewer trophy fish being caught. In the 90’s the hook and release mortality rate was greater than the number of fish we were taking home to eat. By the 2000’s we began putting more pressure on the stocks. Because people were taking more fish home to eat and the hook and release mortality increased because more fish were being hooked and released, the stocks actually began to change and there were fewer big fish available. This is the natural progression for a recovered fishery. The question is whether or not this is sustainable.

Hook and release mortality has always played a big role in the striped bass stocks. In 2017 and 2018 the hook and release mortality exceeded the number of fish anglers were taking home to eat. The catch and release fishermen generally turn a deaf ear when we talk about catch and release mortality, denying they contribute to the problem with the stocks. In the late 90’s a friend of mine from NY, one of the leading striped bass conservationists, and I were having a discussion about striped bass management. We were discussing the two fish bag limit allowed to charter boats in NY. Since he had become a catch and release fisherman after many years of fishing, he thought they should only be allowed a one fish bag limit even though at that time there was no problem with the stock. I suggested he consider the angler who took two fish home. This angler may make 5 trips a year on a charter boat. If the angler is lucky enough, he/she kills 10 fish to take home to eat. The angler probably caught and released a few other fish on those 5 trips. We agreed the angler releases 30 fish on those trips. With 8% mortality, the angler has killed 2.4 fish in his releases for an estimated total of 13 striped bass he/she killed that year. The catch and release angler who was fishing almost every day, lands hundreds of fish in a season. I suggested that once this angler catches 160 fish, he/she should stop because the catch and release morality is 12.8 fish. Since a dead fish is a dead fish no matter if it is a catch and release or kept fish. The angler on the charter boat is more likely to be using heavier tackle, fishing in the spring and fall when the water is cold and in saltwater. These factors lower the catch and release mortality. The higher the water temperature, the greater the catch and release mortality. The lower the salinity of the water, the greater the hook and release mortality. A study by Maryland showed the higher the air temperature, the greater the hook and release mortality. So the year-round angler probably has a higher hook and release mortality due to the climate issues since he is fishing a lot more. For example, if you are fishing in a river where the water is fresh or brackish, the water temperature is high, the air temperature is high and you are using light tackle so the fight is longer, the catch and release mortality is extremely high. The studies again prove this is true. Catch and release anglers need to consider these factors before they blame other anglers who take a few fish a year for the table for problems with the stocks. We each need to put ourselves in other’s shoes before we condemn them and put our own homes in order.

Where Are We Now

We have a striped bass fishery that has expanded. Unlike the 90’s striped bass is important to the party and charter boats. It has also grown increasingly important to all the private owners who cannot fish for fluke, tautog or black sea bass in closed seasons or with the increasing size limits. The science tells us that the present spawning stock biomass is more than high enough to produce the highest young of the year in Chesapeake Bay. In spite of the skepticism I received when I said the spawning stock biomass was high enough to produce the highest young of the year when we were discussing the last addendum, the facts proved I was correct. The 2011 year class was the 4th highest in history of the young of the year. The 2015 year class was the 8th highest in the young of the year index in the over 70 year history. The hook and release mortality was going down but has increased in the last few years. It is also a fact that we are never returning to the way the recreational fishery operated in 1995 or the 2000’s. This is the first benchmark stock assessment in which we are using the adjusted recreational catch numbers which show an increase in both catch and participation from the methods we historically used.

There are also things that are affecting fish populations that have nothing to do with fishing pressure. The water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and the warming of the waters inside the bay and elsewhere are just two of them. Then there is added pressure on the harvest of the forage species that striped bass count on. NJ beach replenishment has impacted many species. I can list many more but these are things that we cannot control through fisheries management.

Management Choices

The ASMFC will be focusing its attention on what we do in either a new addendum or amendment. What we decide will have a huge impact on the recreational fishing industry, the anglers and the states. These decisions should be made thoughtfully and deliberately. They need to include all stakeholders and look at the long-term consequences on what we do. All options should be on the table and be discussed with the general public. In the mission statement of ASMFC it states that we are managing fisheries to be sustainable. That means different things to different people. Below I am listing some of the options that are available to us. I have not taken a position on any option at this time since I need more information and a discussion about the long-term impact of each of the options on the fishing community. There are more that may come up for discussion.

  1. Season closures – We could close the fishery when the highest hook and release mortality takes place.
  2. Size limits – We could raise the size limits though that might raise the hook and release mortality as anglers continue to fish until a legal fish is caught.
  3. Education – We could work with anglers to lower the hook and release mortality.
  4. Research on poaching – We need a better handle on the amount of poaching and better law enforcement especially in areas like Raritan Bay and the EEZ.
  5. Changed reference points – This could allow us to continue fishing as we do now since we would identify the stock as sustainable at a lower number.
  6. A combination of options or others now mentioned here

The Impossible Dream

It might be easier to get 10 striped bass together to agree on management issues than to get 10 striped bass fishermen to agree. I am always an optimist and realize that compromise is essential to deal with the needs of many. All of us are going to have to give a little to make this work. No one will be totally satisfied. I haven’t dedicated 40 years of my life to striped bass management to give up now. But I am also not going to manage this fishery for just one sector of the recreational community. I have not been paid by anyone or any group in all the years I been doing these many jobs. Since I am a 100% disabled veteran and retired military officer, I did not need to get paid. I always have seen this as continuing my service.

Draft Agenda for the ASMFC Spring Meeting
April 29 – May 2
Monday, April 29
  • 1:00 – 5pm American Lobster Management Board
Tuesday, April 30
  • 8:30 – 10am Atlantic Herring Management Board
  • 10:15am – Noon Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board
  • Noon – 1:00pm Lunch (On Your Own)
  • 1:00 – 2:30pm Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (continued)
  • 12:30 – 5:00pm Law Enforcement Committee
  • 2:45 – 3:15pm Coastal Sharks Management Board
  • 3:30 – 5:00pm Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program (ACCSP) Coordinating Council
  • :30 – 7:00pm Annual Awards of Excellence Reception
Wednesday, May 1
  • 8:00 – 10:30am Executive Committee
  • 8:00am – Noon Law Enforcement Committee (continued)
  • 10:45am – 12:15pm Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Management Board
  • 12:15 – 1:15pm Lunch (On Your Own)
  • 1:15 – 2:30pm Business Session
  • 2:45 – 5:15pm Horseshoe Crab Management Board
Thursday, May 2
  • 8:00 – 9:45am Interstate Fisheries Management Program Policy Board
  • 9:45 – 10:00am Business Session (continued)
  • 10:15am – 12:15pm South Atlantic State/Federal Fisheries Management Board
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