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Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine, Jan/Feb 2004



Opening Federal Waters to Striped Bass Fishing is a Bad Idea

By Capt. John McMurray


As dictated by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is that area from the shoreline out to 200-nautical miles.  For the past 13-years the 197-miles outside of the 3-mile state water limit, which is considered federal water, has been closed to both recreational and commercial striped bass fishing to protect strong year classes entering the population and to promote rebuilding of a once overfished population.  It today’s day and age it has become a badly need buffer for an adult striped bass population where they are temporarily protected from the overwhelming pressure of a growing recreational catch and kill fishery and a commercial industry constantly lobbying for a greater share of the resource. 


In July the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that it was considering revisions to the Federal Atlantic striped bass regulations for the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in response to recommendations from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).  The ASMFC recommended that the moratorium on the EEZ be removed and for the implementation of a 28-inch minimum size limit for the recreational and commercial Atlantic striped bass fisheries in the EEZ.  In the same fell swoop, with Amendment 6 to the Striped Bass Management Plan, the Commission recommend a 43% increase in commercial harvest while keeping recreational mortality target at .01 percent below the status quo. 


ASMFC's recommendation to open the EEZ to striped bass harvest was based on a motion that carried by only one vote and did not have broad-based support. The proposal was passed by vote of 6 in favor, 5 opposed, 3 null and 1 abstention. Only four of the ASMFC states voted for the EEZ recommendation while 5 voted against it.  It was NOAA fisheries and the US Fish and Wildlife Service that cast the deciding vote.  Certainly not demonstrative of majority support from the states.   


The ASMFC’s reasons for the recommendation were spelled out in the July press release.  The first reason for the recommendation was that in 1995, due in part to a closure of the EEZ in 1990, the striped bass population was declared fully restored.  However, there is still much debate on the issue of whether or not the stock is fully recovered (see Jan / Feb resource column).  While by conventional measure there are plenty of fish in the stock, it still lacks a healthy age and size structure.  There seems to be an abundance of small fish around, but there are very few older bigger fish around.  In a letter to NMFS expressing it’s opposition to opening the EEZ to striped bass harvest, Dick Brame, CCA’s Atlantic States Fisheries Director said “We believe striped bass are not fully recovered since the age structure has not yet filled out and additional mortality may further delay the recovery.” 


Which leads us to the ASMFC’s claim that the opening of the EEZ will not affect mortality levels.  The ASMFC release makes the point that hard quotas control the commercial harvest.  When these quotas are reached the fishery is closed and overages are taken out of next year's quotas. The Commercial quota will be landed regardless of whether or not the EEZ is opened so in theory there will be no more mortality than what already exists.  However, commercial fishermen targeting striped bass outside of the three nautical mile limit are much more likely to encounter larger fish which are abundant at offshore ledges and lumps in certain areas during certain times of the year.  In addition, there will inevitably be more high-grading (throwing back smaller dead fish when larger fish are brought on board).  Unfortunately, this practice has become commonplace in the Southern States where stripers winter, like VA and NC where hundreds of smaller bass could be witnessed in the previous years floating on the surface while commercial fishermen kept fishing constantly replacing smaller fish when bigger fish came on board. 


Opening the EEZ will also increase recreational mortality as anglers will have more access to striped bass at times of the year where they are not abundant inshore but are copious outside of state waters.  Opening the EEZ and providing access to fleets of recreational, charter and headboats can only increase effort, resulting in an inevitable increase in harvest. Such an increase in harvest will most likely cause mortality to rise above the target established in Amendment 6, and ultimately harm anglers as more restrictive  bag, size and season limits are adopted in response. Furthermore, anglers in the EEZ will encounter the larger fish of the stock and thus will be more likely to kill the big breeders, with the genetic propensity to reach large size, which are already in short supply.  One of the stated objectives of Amendment 6 to the Striped Bass Plan was  to "increase the abundance of age 15 and older striped bass in the population".  Opening the EEZ would allow a higher incidence of harvest on the very age classes Amendment 6 was trying to protect.


According to Vice Chair of the CCA Government Relations Committee, Charles Witek III “There is no question that, at certain times and places; striped bass are abundant in the EEZ.  However, such abundance only represents a portion of the total population.  Even without fishing in federal waters, fishermen had no problem over-harvesting striped bass in 1998, and easily reached target mortality levels in other years.  Opening the EEZ to striped bass fishery may prove convenient to a few fishermen operating out of a handful of ports along the coast, but it is hardly necessary to enjoy the full benefit of the striped bass resource.”


It must be noted that a large push for opening the EEZ is coming from North Carolina, which can benefit from being allowed to fish the huge areas outside of state waters where wintering stripers are abundant.  This will surely increase mortality through an inevitable increase in effort as well as the dirty practice of high-grading.  But, Massachusetts is the moving force behind the EEZ push. The fishermen, even though restricted to state waters and fishing under regulations much more restrictive than those mandated by ASMFC, already kill more bass than any other coastal jurisdiction. No doubt, because of the geography and the excellent fishy outside the 3-mile limit the state will have the largest fishing effort in the EEZ . Recreational harvest within this state would most certainly increase if the EEZ were opened and so would striped bass mortality, again exceeding Amendment 6 specifications.  As a result, each state would have to reduce its harvest through more restrictive bag and size limits, or possibly a shortened season, to accommodate Massachusetts. The state would see a net increase in mortality while all other states would be reduced in landings. Many consider this increase in harvest in one state at the expense of all the other states as unfair.

The ASMFC goes on to point out in the press release that “recreational and commercial catches are currently occurring in the EEZ and these fish are required to be discarded. Opening the EEZ will convert discarded bycatch of striped bass to landings.”  However, it is inevitable that once the EEZ is open to harvest, it will become a directed fishery and effort from both commercials and recs will increase dramatically causing mortality to increase as well, exceeding the Amendment 6 target mortality.

The ASMFC release also claims thatthere are expectations among a number of fishing industry stakeholders that their past sacrifices would result in future opportunities to harvest striped bass, and therefore there are potential credibility issues associated with keeping the EEZ closed.”  It also points out that fishing mortality is currently below the target level and spawning stock biomass is 1.5 times the target level.  However, they don’t mention that this is the result of several good spawning years and that the historically cyclical nature of the species dictates that these good years are an anomaly and not the norm.  Prudence dictates that it is just to early to open up the resource to further mortality, especially in light of the lack of older larger fish, the recent 43% commercial increase, and the huge and growing number of recreational fishermen targeting the resource.  Most believe that before this measure is even considered the ASMFC needs to gage the impact of the recent changes in Amendment 6. 


Then comes the compelling issue of enforcement.  Opening the EEZ will make enforcement complicated and in a sense impossible by erasing state lines and extending law enforcement resources beyond what had reached it’s capacity decades ago.  At the current time, there is no federal fishery management plan for striped bass, and all authority for striped bass management is vested in the states, which act cooperatively through the ASMFC.  States have no enforcement powers in federal waters, and even if such powers existed, the states lack the enforcement budgets, vessels and manpower to patrol waters more than three miles offshore.  The same can be said for federal law enforcement agencies who are now focusing 95% of their resources on homeland security.  Application of state law to vessels fishing for striped bass in the EEZ would be create a host of problems.  Would the state where the vessel is berthed, its declared home port, the state off which it fished or the state in which the fish were landed determine which state's laws would apply?  Only states between North Carolina and Maine have a declared interest in striped bass at ASMFC.  States farther south are not bound by the ASMFC management scheme.  A southern trawler from South Carolina, fishing in federal waters off North Carolina, could easily destroy hundreds of thousands of pounds of wintering striped bass, then legally land them in a state farther south that has no regulations governing striped bass harvest. (Charlie’s words- re-word).


Furthermore the opening of the EEZ poses huge problems for states with gamefish bills.  Fishermen fishing outside of the 3-mile limit could theoretically catch stripers and bring them into a gamefish state like Maine to sell them commercially because Maine has no laws prohibiting someone from doing so. This would make Maine’s state gamefish law worthless.   In states like New Jersey, where not only is it is illegal to harvest striped bass for commercial reasons, stripers could still be harvested just three miles from the beach, then brought by boat into New York and sold legally. 


Under the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act “NMFS  is precluded from opening up the EEZ to striped bass harvest unless and until it can determine that the action will not disrupt the conservation and management regime for striped bass, the federal regulation will ensure the effectiveness of state regulations governing the take and disposition of striped bass; and the regulations will be consistent in its application with the national standards of the Magnuson Act, as NOAA has interpreted them.” 


Based on the reasons listed above, there can be no doubt that opening the EEZ will disrupt the conservation and management regime for striped bass, it will disrupt the state management schemes effectiveness of state and is not consistent with the Magnuson Act.


At the insistence of the Coastal Conservation Association NMFS has initiated an environmental impact study.  According to CCA, the study will not only evaluate the possible environmental and economic impacts that the opening would have on the striped bass stock, it will also take into account the legal and political ramifications.   More than likely, this process will take one to two years to complete so, more than likely, if the EEZ is opened to striped bass fishing, it will not happen until 2005.   


Currently, NMFS is conducting it’s first round of EEZ hearings and is soliciting public comment regarding the proposal along the Atlantic States.  So far the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), The Jersey Coast Anglers Association (JCAA), Stripers Forever and as previously mentioned, CCA NY are all coming out as adamantly opposed to the measure.  The only supporters seem to be representatives of the commercial fishing industry.   


The long and short of it is that it’s a bad idea and will only increase pressure on a stock that is already being fished at record levels.  Most believe it is nothing more than a loophole for commercial fishermen to further exploit the resource for profit.