As you most likely know, the ASMFC voted to accept Amendment 7 to the Striped Bass Management Plan back at the beginning of May. You are probably also aware that anything regarding the management of striped bass, instantly becomes a topic of intense debate. My personal feelings are that we’ve played ‘chicken’ with the striped bass stocks for long enough and that this change, to a more conservative management style, is long overdue. There is a lot to devour and digest inside this new plan and I can’t pretend to know or understand all of it. But I am happy to see that the management triggers for recruitment, release mortality and biomass have been tightened—I love to fish for all species, but striped bass are my – far and away – favorite. My results over the past 20 years suggest that the stocks have been declining for a long time and I’m cautiously hopeful that these measures can start moving the needle back in the positive direction.
One of the changes that has been receiving a lot of press since the new plan was made public is a move to eliminate the use of ‘conservation equivalency’ (CE) when overfishing is occurring. The practice of using CE has been vilified by most of the conservation groups that have been trying to influence change upon striper management. But most people don’t even really know what it is.
When the ASMFC conducts a stock assessment that delivers the news that adjustments must be made to the size and/or retention limits, this amounts to them trying to hit a reduction target. Because we don’t really know how many stripers are swimming up and down the coast, the ASMFC uses catch data, YOY information and forecasting models to estimate the size of the stock, then they compare that to their catch estimates, with release mortality figured in, to estimate whether the current regs are sustainable. When they aren’t, the ASMFC generates a ‘reduction target’, a numerical percentage that they believe will affect positive change upon the biomass. Then they use math to render a suggested solution to the states. That’s how we arrived at the bag limit reduction, from two to one fish, a few years back and then, more recently, the slot limit. These were suggestions from the ASMFC that their forecasters felt would achieve their reduction target.
But the reduction target was the only part of past changes that the states had to follow. And because there are 10 ways to add up numbers to get to 10—0+10, 5+5, 9+1 and all the others in between, there were also alternate mathematical routes to achieving these reduction targets. So some states would make the choice to break out the graphing calculator and crunch the numbers themselves, rendering a different way to arrive at the same reduction. This might be done by raising the minimum size, or ‘slotting out’ certain year classes. Some observers felt that this left the door open for ‘bucking the system’.
My views on CE aren’t quite as strong as many others. I get that some states don’t have striped bass for 8 months out of the season like we do here in New England. So, with a healthy population, I could get behind special regulations for some states, so long as the numbers were vetted and there were penalties levied for overages—in the form of a statewide reduction the following season.
But, again, the caveat there is ‘with a healthy striper population’. Right now, our fishing practices are not sustainable with the population estimates put forth by the ASMFC. The public has voted to suspend conservation equivalency when overfishing is occurring and that governing body has accepted this as law. The ASMFC, with its new ability to act more swiftly, will set the limits and the states will have to follow those rules. And for the foreseeable future, I think that’s the right decision.