Guest Column: Virginia Takes Strong Action To Save Striped Bass

Our friend Tom Sadler was kind enough to share this in-depth review of the latest developments on the striped bass front.

Virginia takes strong action to save striped bass

On Tuesday, Aug. 26, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted to enact emergency regulations for the striped bass fishery. This is welcome leadership from the Commission and deserves the applause and support of striped bass anglers everywhere.

The emergency measures establish a bag limit of one fish per angler per day, with a maximum size limit of 36 inches. The emergency measures also establish a maximum gill net size of 9 inches for commercial fishing in the coastal fishery and 7 inches in the Chesapeake Bay fishery.

The saga of striped bass management by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is a sad one, to say the least. Repeated “can-kicking” of decisions and tepid responses to the looming crisis has led to terrible news for striped bass. We now know the striped bass stock is overfished, and overfishing is occurring.

“Poor management of striped bass over the past decade has caused significant economic harm to Virginians who depend on healthy fisheries for their livelihoods and has reduced opportunities for recreational anglers. I applaud the strong leadership shown today by the Marine Resources Commission and Commissioner Bowman on striped bass conservation and their commitment to restoring this iconic fishery,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler, “We need other states to follow our example and help rebuild the striped bass population starting immediately. Delay is unacceptable and the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission must take decisive action that will ensure restoration of this fishery up and down the coast.”

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s decisive and forward-thinking action today is welcome news. As Strickler notes, more states should quickly follow suit and start taking steps on their own to protect striped bass.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

While Virginia’s leadership and actions are admirable it begs the question; what are the other states and more importantly, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission doing about it?

First, the other States can take actions similar to Virginia’s and should do so as soon as possible. Whether they have the political guts that Virginia has remains to be seen. Time will tell.

The big game is at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and that is where anglers who care about the future of striped bass can make a difference.

On August 8, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board approved the draft of Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass. It is now available for public comment.

Public hearings going on from now until October 7, 2019. You can see the schedule on the FISSUES.org blog. You can offer your comments at those public hearings or providing written comments until 5 p.m. (EST) on Oct. 7, 2019. Send written comments to Max Appelman, Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, 1050 N. Highland St, Suite A-N, Arlington, VA 22201; 703.842.0741 (FAX) or at comments@asmfc.org (Subject line: Striped Bass Draft Addendum VI).

Background

This problem for striped bass didn’t happen overnight. The “check engine” light has been on for a while, but it has been ignored. The red lights started flashing earlier this year,, and now the ASMFC must act to keep from having a meltdown in the fishery.

Captain John McMurray president of the Atlantic Saltwater Guides Association does a great job of explaining the situation and the options. Rather than paraphrase here, in part, is what McMurray wrote:

“The Striped Bass Board voted at its May meeting to initiate an Addendum to get fishing mortality back on track.  What was conspicuously missing was any mention of rebuilding the stock.  Presumably, curbing fishing mortality to a suitable level, and preventing “overfishing” will rebuild the stock.  And theoretically, it will.  But it was not clear whether or not it would do so in 10 years or less. 

So, to address the fishing mortality issue, in May the Commission’s Technical Committee (TC) determined that an 18 percent reduction in removals would get us back to a place where we were no longer “overfishing.”  But again, it gave no guidance on rebuilding. That is mostly due to the fact that the board didn’t ask for that information. 

At that May meeting, the board moved to task the TC with developing a Draft Addendum that would contain a suite of management options (i.e., size and bag limits) that had a 50 percent probability getting us that 18 percent reduction.

Why only 50 percent?  Well, that’s a long story, deserving of its own blog post.  But the short version is that’s the minimal federal requirement for management actions and has kind of become the standard for the Commission.

Getting back to the rebuilding part, just getting the analysis of what it would take to rebuild was like pulling teeth.  I thought I had asked for that at the May meeting, but the interpretation was how long it would take to rebuild with the aforementioned 18 percent reduction.  They did do that analysis, and it turns out it will take 13 years instead of 10.  Getting options in the Draft Addendum for a 10-year rebuilding time frame would have pushed the timeline back to a point where we wouldn’t be able to have new regulations in place for the 2020 fishing year, so that didn’t happen.”

You will see the options ASMFC is considering in the same article.

The 50 percent question

One thing that really got my attention in McMurray’s article was his line about the Addendum having “a 50 percent probability getting us that 18 percent reduction.”

As I told my friend Peter Jenkins at breakfast the morning of the meeting. “would you drive over the Newport bridge if they told you it had a 50 percent chance of falling down?” Peter, of course, said he would opt for the long way through Bristol, as any sensible person would do.

This serious business and a 50 percent chance of failure as a standard is an insult to any sensible person. And while at this point, as my friend Charles Witek told me, none of the options proposed have much more than a 50% probability and no new, more restrictive regulations will be considered in October.

So, while there in nothing to be done at this time, this bitter pill sticks in the throat. At some point we need to ask the managers to do better. When and where remains to be seen, but I am not the only one who is talking about this.

Keep your eyes out for suggested comments and more information from the Atlantic Saltwater Guides Association, Fissues and others. Now is the time to get involved and do all we can so future generations enjoy fishing for striped bass as much as we do.

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