Conservation Update, Spring 2018

We all want to understand how our fisheries are being managed, but there’s a lot of miscommunication – and no shortage of issues to cover – when it comes to natural resource management.

shark and girl conservation for fisheries
You’ve heard it before, and it’s true: we need to leave our bays and oceans better than we found them, for our kid’s sake.

Federal Legislation

The fishery law that governs all of us is called the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). The MSA dictates a framework of management for most fisheries from three to 200 miles off our coast. At the turn of the century, stocks were collapsing all around the country. In 2006, the MSA was reauthorized and things began to turn around. In fact, the number of overfished stocks has plummeted in the last decade. We have the best fisheries of any developed country and it’s likely because of MSA. Annual catch limits and rebuilding timelines were instituted for most species, and the recovery has been incredible. Unfortunately, there’s an effort underway to undermine these advances. Currently, the Senate is reviewing a bill called S.1520, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (Modern Fish Act), which unfortunately would remove the tools that managers have used to stabilize our marine resources.

Recreational and commercial fishermen need abundant fish to catch, which can only occur with science-based management that conserves fish stocks now and for the future. Fishermen of all types recognize that healthy fish stocks require effective management and accurate data of how many and what types of fish are taken from the water, but the Modern Fish Act doesn’t find workable solutions to the issues. We owe our kids the same opportunities we have – we should not leave them with less.

Menhaden

Back in November, we lost a long-fought battle over menhaden. Quotas were increased, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) decided to kick the can down the road by not managing menhaden for their ecological significance. Omega protein lands the lion’s share of menhaden from their facility in Reedville, VA., and even though the quota was increased, Virginia filed an appeal essentially stating that they need more quota, and felt harmed by the decision.

At the most recent ASMFC meeting, Virginia pulled the appeal for more quota – and we all knew something was not right. Menhaden are the only fish managed by the legislature in Virginia, so the legislature must vote to approve the menhaden quota. Omega was pushing the legislature to go out of compliance with the decision. Anytime a state goes out of compliance, it throws fisheries management into a tail spin. Recently, states have gone rogue on red snapper and summer flounder. The appeals process goes all the way to the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, and in both instances, Mr. Ross ignored the ASMFC, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Marine Fisheries Service by allowing overfishing. So, we don’t have a lot of hope that the compliance issue would be solved in favor of menhaden.

All this might seem bleak for those bunker, but in the eleventh hour the new Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, stepped in and gave some much needed direction. Governor Northam directed the Virginia legislature to accept the decision of the ASMFC. Special thanks to the new Governor; we will see how this plays out, but this development is certainly a move in the right direction. 

Striped Bass

Non-offset circle hooks will be mandatory if you chum, live line or use bait for striped bass in 2018 in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay. In return, Maryland’s size limit was reduced to 19 inches for the season. Maryland initiated a circle hook study about 20 years ago, which showed that circle hooks reduce dead discards substantially as compared to J-hooks. In our sport there’s nothing worse than waste, so if circle hooks mean less floating stripers, then we need to embrace the change and do what’s best for the fish. Remember what Lee Wulff once said, “The finest gift you can give to any fishermen is to put a good fish back, and who knows if the fish that you caught isn’t someone else’s gift to you.”

On a coastwide level, things don’t look great for stripers. Rockfish are managed under a fishing mortality rate, and not a catch limit based on pounds. But the threshold for the mortality rate is about to be passed. If it’s broken, management measures are mandatory. Well, if you want to keep harvesting stripers, the easiest thing to do is lower the threshold, and that’s what we can expect in May. The ASMFC will meet to discuss whether they want to manage for an abundant population, or if they want to maximize yield.

There are already alliances forming for maximum yield. We will need all conservation-minded anglers to stand up for abundant fish populations. If these numbers are changed for the worse, you can expect striped bass populations to never get back to the peak numbers in 2006.  This will not be an easy road, but we’ve done it before and we can do it again for striped bass.

Black Sea Bass

Black sea bass will now be managed regionally. The three regions will be Massachusetts to New York (with 61.5-percent of the), New Jersey (which gets 30.24 percent), and Delaware to North Carolina (at 8.41 percent). The ASMFC will work with the regions to develop proposals for review. Each region is tasked with consistency while being given flexibility for size and possession limits. There will also be a new process established to have better stability in the fishery.

If you didn’t notice, New Jersey got almost three times the quota that Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina got combined. The concentration of sea bass may have shifted north, however, you have to scratch your head over the allocation. Remember, New Jersey and New York harvested about 75-percent of the entire flounder quota in 2017.

Black Drum

There’s an effort to open up black drum for commercial harvest in Maryland (see Angler Alert: Maryland Commercial Black Drum Re-Opening Proposed). Some fish aren’t great candidates for commercial fishing, and black drum are surely one of them. These fish are slow growing, long lived, and the data on the species is poor at best. Here’s the run down from ASFMC:

“The first coastwide benchmark stock assessment for black drum was performed in 2014 and approved for management use in 2015. Based on assessment results, black drum is not overfished and not experiencing overfishing. The median biomass is estimated to be declining slowly, though it is still estimated to be well above that necessary to produce maximum sustainable yield.

Black drum are a data-poor species. Their rarity and complex migratory patterns lead to highly variable levels of encounter in state surveys and fisheries. Further, limited size composition data has been collected, making the use of age-structured models unreliable. For these reasons, data-poor, catch-based modeling methods were used for the assessment. These models estimate reference points based on historical catch data and life history information.”

black drum fishing
Large black drum aren’t the best eating fish in the world, bring low value on the market, and can live to be over 50 years old. They are a poster child for fish that really should be released.

Black drum are harvested three times more by recreational fishermen (see How to Target Black Drum, to find out how to get in on the action), so the commercial contingent certainly has a point about opening the fishery in Maryland. However, we should be talking about getting better science as well as curtailing the recreational harvest. We all need to change the narrative on fish like black drum. Is it really necessary to kill a fish that live to be over 50 years old? Should we be killing the oldest fish that are indeed the best spawners? If we think about the future and what we leave for our children, the answer is undoubtedly no.

By Tony Friedrich


Editor’s Note: few things are as contentious as fisheries management, and there’s a wide range of respectable but diverging views on federal fisheries law. We here at FishTalk are not going to endorse a position on pending legeslation, but feel the most important thing is that you, the angling public, have an educated viewpoint. In the interest of equal time, we invited Mike Leonard, Conservation Director of the American Sportfishing Association, to give a counter-view on the federal legislation currently under consideration. If you’re brave enough, you can read the entire bill, S. 1520.

The Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 (Modern Fish Act) is a broadly supported, bipartisan bill that would improve public access to America’s federal waters, promote conservation of our marine natural resources and spur economic growth. Current federal law, known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, has never properly addressed the importance of recreational fishing. While the law has helped rebuild fish stocks and prevent overfishing, in many cases anglers have not benefited from these conservation gains, which runs counter to the basic philosophy that more fish equals better fishing.

The Modern Fish Act is designed to address federal saltwater management issues by adapting the federal system that has historically focused on commercial fishing to now meet the needs of the nation’s saltwater anglers. The Modern Fish Act will provide federal managers with the tools and data needed to appropriately manage recreational fishing, rather than continuing to manage recreational fishing the same as commercial fishing, much like the proverbial square peg and the round hole.

- by Mike Leonard