What Next? The Great Bass Coaster

Last fall, we ran a piece intended to clear up public confusion over rumors that party/ charter fishermen in several states were quietly trying to undermine newly-inked ASMFC striped bass regulations that had set a one- fish possession limit and a 28- inch minimum size—the latter an important step (and long overdue, many agreed) toward real conservation for a stock in crying need of greater protection. On the chat boards, the word was that the charter guys were brokering some sleazy sweetheart deal behind closed doors. Politics, muttered the rumor- millers in disgust. The finger- pointing, stalled briefly by ASMFC’s one-at-28” announcement, resumed.

In reality, when the ASMFC Striped Bass Board passed one-at-28” they did so with the understanding that the Commission’s constituent agencies would in the near future use the striped bass FMP’s “conservation equivalency” language to develop additional regulatory options at the state or perhaps regional levels. It was born out of states’ frustration years back with regulations.

For those unfamiliar with the term, conservation equivalency is a regulatory mechanism designed to afford state agencies flexibility to take advantage of unique or historically/ culturally important fisheries (often fisheries that don’t align with generic regional timing for a given species), rather than burying such fisheries in one-size-fits-all r regional or coast- wide regulations. When ASMFC crafts specific management options like the incredible number and array included in the fall striper public hearing documents, it sets specific management objectives—in the recent striped bass action, it was a 25% cut in landings within a one-year timeframe to achieve the reduction—that serve as both a target and a compliance standard. ASMFC then grants states, through conservation equivalency, the flexibility to offer their fishermen some sensible choices that account for “local” fishing realities. Only those proposals that meet or beat the Commission’s minimum standards with an acceptably high statistical probability (per the Technical Committee’s judgment) will ever see public-hearing daylight.

The trend in other state-managed fisheries like fluke, scup, or sea bass (fisheries that long illustrated the value of conservation equivalency), has been toward regionalization, as opposed to state-by-state regulations, mainly since recreational survey data is notoriously volatile (i.e. subject to wild fluctuations) at single-state scale; by merging multiple states’ catch estimates and regulations, and by drawing on an exponentially larger sampling area, managers chip away at statistical uncertainty.

Now we’re looking at bass—a stock hemorrhaging fish into one massive, widespread, and economically self- propelled abyss of a black market— the doubts about the quality of stock- composition and mortality data, among others that feed management equations, are growing daily. This isn’t just statistical doubt.

It probably flirts with the serial whiner threshold to point this out—I have, after all, argued for years that if a data collection methodology is fatally flawed, then it doesn’t matter how many cart-loads of it you have: It’s still horse apples.

At the risk of letting paranoia drown out my anger, I can’t shake the suspicion that either (1) the Commission’s sudden urge to uphold state sovereignty in fisheries management reflects a genuine willingness to let other governmental entities share in the coming blame, or (2) delegate self-interest has trumped statistical accounting here on the threshold of what promises to be one truly pathetic fish-grab power-play.

Either way, as soon as ASMFC had launched 1@28” with the Choose Your Own Adventure provisions, state delegations raced home to begin work on their own conservation equivalency proposals for delivery back to the ASMFC Technical Committee back in November, 2014.

The state agencies started crunching numbers, tweaking scientific reference points ultimately trying to spare their fishermen the brunt of whatever’s coming, work out the most palatable alternatives for their fleets in 2015.

On February 5, coming out of the first leg of this undertaking, the Commission’s Striped Bass Board met to hash out the past, present, and likely future of conservation equivalency— the precedent in fisheries other than stripers. At the root of this exhaustive deliberation lay the million-dollar question of the hour: What respective roles should ASMFC and the state agencies play moving forward to address the myriad strains contributing to the sagging striper fishery moving forward?

In the end, the Board passed a motion that approved every one of the conservation equivalency proposals that had passed muster with the Technical Committee. These proposals will now go back out to their states of origin to be considered for inclusion as management options in the next public hearing process.

Predictably, these proposals cover a wide array of alternatives to the Commission’s blanket 1@28” option. Some states sought new or used existing “Producer State” designations to attack required cuts from various scientific and economic angles. NY, CT, and RI all sent up options that hinged on mode splits between private recreational and for-hire (party/charter) fisheries as a means to get that industry segment a second fish captains across the Northeast have argued is the only way they’ll stay alive at a point when they have precious few other target species to work on.

Of these two-bass options, some (like one of RI’s) offer a single minimum size (In RI’s case, that’s 2@32” for the party/charter boats that on paper comprise, on average, 10% of the state’s annual striper landings). A number of proposals from other states would seek a slot limit of some sort—one smaller “bracket fish” (from 28” to less than 36”, for example) and a second “trophy” fish (over 40”, for example).

If you find the state proposals from NJ northward boring and unhip, you owe it to yourself to peruse the various “Producer State” options for the Hudson River, for DE, MD, VA, or NC. If we can make some time to coordinate, we have a legitimate shot at trying to regulate the entire coast- wide striped bass population via 234 distinctly different sets of management actions.

To access the minutes from the recent (February 5 meeting), got to www.asmfc.org, then click “Calendar,” find Feb. 5, and click on the document link to “Final Agenda, Meeting Materials…”

And, at least for now, one more point on the state conservation equivalency proposals and the upcoming state-level public hearing process: Because the Technical Committee and Striped Bass Board have already weighed in on all the materials (C.E. proposals included) for the February 5 meeting, the states will now decide which options to send out to public hearing, gather public input at the forthcoming hearings, then vote in measures without further wrangling at the Commission. Point is this: If you have strong feelings about any/all of it, get on it early, often, and be prepared to make a spectacle of yourself if you want ASMFC Commissioners do their due diligence in presenting the various choices with real transparency.

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