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Published in Fly Fishing in Saltwaters July/Aug 2010 Issue



Shortsighted Commissioners at ASMFC move toward increasing commercial harvest


In the March/April issue I wrote about striped bass and the litany of problems it faces.  At the end of the column, I mentioned that there may be a push to increase commercial harvest of the species in the near future.  Unfortunately, despite several new developments with striped bass, none of them good, such a prediction has come to pass. 


While I hate to dwell on striped bass, the fact remains that this is an extremely important fish not only to flyfishers in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, but to the flyfishing industry itself, and we are undoubtedly at a crossroads.   If the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) continues to show a lack of precaution and the stock continues to decline, which it certainly appears to be doing, charter/party boats employing more efficient methods of catching fish (e.g. bait, trolling etc) will probably survive.  But, without a robust stock hundreds of flyfishing guides in the Mid-Atlantic and northeast like me will simply go out of business, and there certainly wonít be many 9 weights sold in these parts.   Thus it deserves continued and timely attention here, particularly now.  Hereís why:


Last February, ASMFC received a frightening presentation on the potentially devastating impact Mycobacteriosis - a wasting disease that is thought to result in 100% mortality and is largely affecting striped bass in the Chesapeake, the fishís primary spawning area.  During a recent study, a startling 70% of the fish sampled had skin lesions associated with the disease.   More recently, managers were told of concerns by enforcement officers about the unaccounted for mortality happening in Federal waters (outside of 3 nautical miles) where bass fishing is currently prohibited.  And of course the board is well aware of the rampant poaching and the perceived and very real contracting of the stock from its historical distribution patterns. 


In addition, managers were recently given a report on the declining trend in the striped bass ďJuvenile Abundance IndexĒ.   The index has remained low for a number of consecutive years, and even if we have some strong spawning years, which is no guarantee, the stock could still be in big trouble.   Managers now acknowledge that the number of adult bass will steadily decline through the year 2015. 


If you read my last column on striped bass, you know that the stock peaked in 2006.  According to the new MRFSS numbers, since then, recreational catch has declined by approximately 65%, and now we are being told that the number of adult striped bass will continue to decline.  (Itís worthy of noting current allocation here.  Up until recently it was thought that anglers accounted for 80% of the catch.  With the decline in recreational catch and the commercial quotas remaining hard, itís now a lot closer to 50/50.  Frankly, thatís not what concerns me though.  Iím far more concerned about reducing fishing mortality, period.  And certainly giving commercial folks more fish to sell isnít going to help in that respect. ).  What is particularly frightening is that the cause of the decline appears to be an increase in natural mortality.  If so, the most likely culprit is Mycobacteriosis.   If that proves to be the case, we could be on the brink of another disaster.


Yet, none of this was enough to convince the Board that perhaps we should begin to start ratcheting down fishing mortality to protect the future of this fishery.  Immediately following the Mycobacteriosis presentation at the Feb meeting, at the suggestion of the New York Delegation, led by Commissioner Pat Augustine, the Board passed a motion to have the ASMFC staff draft an addendum which would increase commercial harvest.  Such an Addendum was recently drafted with options to increase the coastal commercial quota by 20%, 30%, 40% or 50%. 


Given all the recent information since that meeting and the growing concern shown by just about everyone, I was thinking this was a no brainer.  Surely the Addendum would fail by a large margin.  But, in May the ASMFC Striped Bass Board voted to send ďAddendum IIĒ to public hearing, essentially giving it their approval.  To the dismay of just about every other striped bass angler on the east coast, the motion passed 10-6.  Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Delaware, Maryland, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, the District of Columbia, Virginia, North Carolina and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service voted to push forward with increasing commercial harvest. 


Apparently, there are still those folks, most notably the New York ASMFC delegation, who claim that striped bass are eating everything, which is pointedly not true when you take into account the historical high-abundance of striped bass when compared to weakfish, winter flounder etc.  The point is that competing species can and do exist at high levels.  But these folks seem to be arguing that there is excessive striped bass predation on depleted species, with the solution--of course--being to deplete the bass as well.  Ridiculous! 


In view of the problems besetting the striped bass population, it makes no sense to increase fishing mortality at all, and it definitely doesnít it make sense to give more fish to the commercial folks.  Increasing the commercial harvest--the least beneficial sector of the striped bass fishery, whether viewed from an economic or public-access viewpoint, is clearly a terrible idea. 


"This is the wrong message at the wrong time for striped bass, but it is not surprising," said Charles Witek, chairman of CCA's Atlantic Fisheries Committee. "When recently faced with even worse situations involving weakfish and the southern New England stock of winter flounder, both very badly depleted and both faced with apparent increases in natural mortality, ASMFC ignored clear scientific advice and voted to maintain harvest at unsustainable levels. Our greatest conservation challenge may simply be to convince managers at ASMFC to do their jobs."


This may be a difficult proposal to counter as ASMFC has a recent history of catering to economic interests and ignoring conservation concerns, and as mentioned in the prior striped bass column, technically striped bass is not overfished, and overfishing is not occurring.  Yet clearly the stock appears to be in trouble, and flyfishing for the species will be a thing of the past if the ASMFC continues down this road.    Given the pressures already besetting the bass, and the threat to our sport, itís critical that we rally the troops for this one. 


The majority of states will be conducting public hearings on the Addendum.  A press release will be issued once the details of the hearings have been finalized and the document  is available for public comment.  By the time this issue goes to press those hearing locations and dates should be public.  Weíll certainly post them on the website.   Getting anglers who care about the future of striped bass out to these hearings is critical.  And itís imperative that folks submit public comments via email, snail-mail or fax. 


 It is particularly important to get anglers from Connecticut and Rhode Island to oppose the increase.  Connecticut, as a "gamefish" state and has little reason to support a commercial increase.  Itís rumored that the Fisheries Director of Rhode Island opposes the measure, yet was overruled by the legislative representative and governor's appointee.  As a New Yorker, I am particularly embarrassed that the prime mover of the increase is New York.  Clearly a great majority of the anglers in my state, if not all of them, oppose this measure.  We just need to get them out to the hearings or at least submitting comments.      


Donít sit on your butts and let others do the heavy lifting on this one.  If you do, youíll have no one to blame but yourself when this great fishery weíve been experiencing for almost a decade now, which essentially spawned flyfishing in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, disappears.