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BLACK SEA BASS – THE NEW “WAR BETWEEN THE STATES”

Atlantic coastal states are set to battle it out over scraps from a fishery that is 240% of the target biomass, sparking yet another fisheries war that can only end badly for all anglers from north to south.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.
BLACK SEA BASS – THE NEW “WAR BETWEEN THE STATES”
New York Congressman Lee Zeldin speaks at a fishermen's rally at Mascot Dock on Long Island on April 8 alongside state assemblyman Dean Murray and members of the recreational for-hire community against what they called "an unfair and uncalled for reduction in the black sea bass limits." Photo courtesy of Assemblyman Dean Murray.

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia, signifying the end of the U.S. Civil War.

One hundred and fifty-three years to the day, north and south are set to do battle yet again, this time over sea bass.

From April 30 through May 3, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASFMC) will hold its 2018 spring meeting in Arlington, VA, a city that was once the dividing line between Confederates to the South and the Union Army to the north during the bloodiest war in U.S. history.

On May 3, the ASFMC policy board is expected to address an appeal by Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York, over the disparity in coastwide black sea bass regulations with New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Late last week, a panel convened by ASMFC officially validated the northern appeal to allow their fight against the southern states to move forward during the first few days of May in Arlington.

Earlier this year, ASFMC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board approved Addendum XXX to the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan establishing a regional allocation of the coastwide Recreational Harvest Limit (RHL) of black sea bass. The final 6-4 vote across geographic lines separating north and south established three management regions for black sea bass; Massachusetts through New York (61.35% of the RHL), New Jersey as its own state-specific region (30.24% of the RHL), and Delaware through North Carolina (8.41% of the RHL). States within each region are collectively responsible for managing harvest to their regional allocation through cooperative measures.

When ASMFC members were considering their decision during their winter meeting in February, states from Delaware through North Carolina didn’t want New Jersey included in their southern region. On the other hand, northern states were already facing an 11% reduction in black sea bass landings for 2018, where New Jersey alone was expected to get hit with a significantly higher 20% reduction. Though New Jersey historically has the most participation in the black sea bass fishery and qualified for the highest RHL percentage coastwide, delegates from New York through Massachusetts viewed the 20% reduction as a potential liability, so they didn’t want New Jersey part of their northern region either.

SMOOTHING IT OUT
Capt. Adam Nowalsky, New Jersey’s legislative proxy to the ASMFC and recently elected vice-chair of the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board, said a lot has happened since that 6-4 vote by the ASMFC in February. At an April 5 meeting of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council, Nowalsky said the technical committees responsible for evaluating these proposals implemented a new approach to dealing with statistical data on recreational harvest numbers, “smoothing” off the highs and lows which is a little like grading on a curve to help bring more parity.

“This is what we’ve been asking for, for a long time with the recreational catch data,” said Nowalsky, adding “What they’re doing in and of itself I don’t think is in the wrong direction, it’s quite the opposite I think a lot of really good, hard work went it to it.”

“The implication of it however is that it tremendously benefitted New Jersey and gave almost no benefit to other states this year,” he said. “Now the states are looking at a document that was meant to equitably divide the reduction needed for 2018 and now you’ve got a subset of states that need a reduction, a number of states that get a huge liberalization.”

The lack of parity between states liberalizing regulations by as much as 40% where others are required to reduce harvest by 11 or 12 percentage points is ultimately what prompted the northern states to sign off on a letter to the ASFMC on March 16, 2018 which appeals to the Policy Board to go back to the Management Board to initiate an addendum or amendment to that original decision. At the very least, the northern appeal asks that their sea bass reduction be cut in half for states from New York to Massachusetts; the only way to do that would be for states from the south, from New Jersey to North Carolina, to give up a portion of their increase.

But given the lower 8.41% RHL for states from Delaware to North Carolina, there’s very little that those lower Mid-Atlantic states could really give up that would be of any significant help to the northern states. That means that should the appeal move forward successfully, the real bank of sea bass harvest would more than likely come out of New Jersey’s 30.24% RHL.

According to Jim Gilmore who heads up the Division of Marine Resources at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) and is current chairman of the ASMFC, the appeal has been successful thus far because of the argument that Addendum XXX is inconsistent with objectives of the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) and runs contrary to the primary objective to reduce disproportionate impacts on states.

“We will explore every option to fight this,” Gilmore told an assembled crowd at Stony Brook University on Long Island on March 27, telling anglers and for-hire captains that Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYDEC Commissioner Basil Seggos were equally committed to carrying out this appeal to the end. “This is way too long that you guys have been taking reductions like this,” Gilmore told the crowd on March 27.

In a Newsday interview prior to the March 27 meeting, Seggos said he had been directed by Governor Cuomo to make sure state fishermen don’t suffer as a result of federal regulations that seek to limit a fishery that’s considered healthy.

“Black sea bass populations have increased substantially,” Seggos told Newsday reporter Mark Harrington. “Nonetheless, we’re stuck with the prospect of cuts, which never made sense to me, never made sense to the governor, or to our fisheries managers.”


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