Last week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Board met to consider the public information document (PID) and move forward on Draft Amendment 7. Amid extensive and conservation-dominated public comment–not to mention intensifying public pressure–the Striped Bass Board voted overwhelmingly for the conservation and long-term abundance of striped bass. In recent years, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has both ignored conservation and substantial public input. The usual anti-conservation culprits (Chesapeake Bay states and New Jersey) pushed back against the rest of the Board and public comment. Thankfully, this go around resulted in a different outcome, one that focused on the long-term health of striped bass and will aid the recovery of striped bass, which are overfished, subject to overfishing, and at a 25-year low.

“The American Saltwater Guides Association was encouraged with the outcome of the striped bass hearing last week at ASMFC,” said Tony Friedrich, ASGA’s Vice President and Policy Director. “We were able to remove many of the bad aspects out of Amendment 7. Now is the time for even greater engagement as we move towards the formal comment period for Amendment 7. Striped bass won this round, but we have a long way to go. Your voices moved the needle, and we will need them once again in a few months.”

This meeting’s welcomed outcome deserves applause, and commendations are in order for many of the Striped Bass Board’s members and the thousands of engaged anglers who submitted comment. There is hope for the Atlantic coast’s flagship species.

Meeting Background

Earlier this spring, you may recall seeing Calls to Action in regard to public comment for the future of striped bass management. The requests for public comment surrounded a host of issues to potentially include in Amendment 7. Those issues included: Fishery Goals and Objectives, Biological Reference Points, Management Triggers, Stock Rebuilding Targets and Schedule, Regional Management, Management Program Equivalency (Conservation Equivalency), Recreational Release Mortality, Recreational Accountability, Coastal Commercial Allocation, and any other issues concerning the management of Atlantic striped bass.

Looking at that daunting list and complex PID, it was easy for anyone to become overwhelmed and intimidated. Thankfully a host of diverse groups, such as The American Saltwater Guides Association, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Stripers Forever, and more advocated for conservation and the long-term abundance of striped bass–while there were differences of opinions on specifics. Notably, the PID contained several avenues to fundamentally change the striped bass fishery for the worse. It was no small feat to effectively digest this document and motivate anglers to submit nuanced and concise comments.

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As alluded to above, the overwhelming majority of comments promoted the conservation of striped bass. “There has never been this level of consensus on a fisheries issue. Never, not even close and not by a long shot…Let’s review some of the top-level numbers. 1.31% of comments wanted to alter the Goals and Objectives. 0.651% wanted to change the BRPs. 5.7% wanted regional management. 1.22% wanted Conservation Equivalency to remain unchanged in the fisheries management plan,” reads a recent ASGA blog. The public’s comments were generally focused on one thing: striped bass conservation.

From February to April 9th, more than three thousand individuals shared their perspectives on how they’d like striped bass to be managed. The summation of those comments was both conservation-focused and overwhelming one-sided, a rare feat in today’s hyper-polarized society. Prior to the May Meeting, the ASMFC summarized the collection of public comments for Board Members’ consideration–many of whom took the blatantly obvious preference of the public to heart.

Meeting Summary

The ASMFC Chairman Pat Kelliher opened the meeting with an encouraging and ominous statement. He said, “a lot at stake not only for the striped bass but for the ASMFC as well…things are changing…the downward trend in the stock is evident in the assessment…Today, I ask this Board to consider what is best for the striped bass, but also for the future of the Commission.” In order for fisheries to be managed effectively, the public must both trust the managers to make correct decisions and then follow those management measures. After being involved in this process for several years now, it is not a stretch to say that public perception of the ASMFC is in the garbage. And one more bad outcome for the most important fish on the Atlantic coast–striped bass–would possibly mortally weaken the ASMFC.

In any event, the meeting got off on the right start and largely remained on a conservation-focused track–despite attempts by several states to derail the progress. Here is how the Board voted on each issue in the PID.

Issue 1: Fishery Goals and Objectives. The Board voted to leave the current goals and objectives unchanged and remove the issue from Draft Amendment 7.

Issue 2: Biological Reference Points. The Board voted to keep the reference points unchanged and remove the issue from Draft Amendment 7. Had this vote gone differently, the “goal posts” would have been lowered, fundamentally shrinking the striped bass population. This was by far the most consequential issue, and the outcome was a relief to say the least–a resounding victory for conservation.

Issue 3: Management Triggers. The Board voted to reconsider the management triggers for striped bass in Draft Amendment 7. This presents an opportunity for the technical committee to take a look at the management triggers and possibly make updates. In general, the management triggers appeared to be working–and arguably would have prevented the current overfished and subject to overfishing status of the stock, if they were adhered to. However, there was public comment that supported only revisiting the recruitment trigger, which had never been ‘tripped’ despite many below average juvenile abundance indices.

Issue 4: Stock Rebuilding Targets and Schedule. The Board voted to keep the current rebuilding targets and timeline (10 years after an overfished designation) in place. However, two interesting things happened during this deliberation. The Board voted to remove this issue from Draft Amendment 7, but they did vote–nearly unanimously–to “add options for measures to protect the 2015-year class [a relatively strong year class that will be entering the slot in the coming years] in the development of Draft Amendment 7.” This was a huge, and unexpected, victory for conservation. In addition, Dr. Justin Davis, a representative from Connecticut, highlighted that the ASMFC staff remained intent on rebuilding the striped bass stock by the 10-year deadline–i.e., by 2029. He said, “the public should be rest assured that this board is cognizant of [rebuilding the stock] and we [the Board] will be adopting measures necessary going forward to achieve stock rebuilding by 2029.” Another tally in the win column for conservation.

Issue 5: Regional Management. At this point, the science is not available to pursue multi-stock management of striped bass. As such, the Board voted to remove this issue from Draft Amendment 7.

Issue 6: Management Program Equivalency (Conservation Equivalency). If you follow striped bass management, you undoubtedly know about conservation equivalency and all the controversy and management failures surrounding it. In this instance, leaving conservation equivalency in Draft Amendment 7 could repair the abused management too. The public reasonably views conservation equivalency as the root of all evil within the striped bass fishery, where states can circumvent science-based and Board-approved regulations to kill more fish. Well, the public was laser-focused on sharing their dissatisfaction with conservation equivalency, and the Board acted accordingly. They voted to keep the issue in Draft Amendment 7, thus providing an avenue to overhaul and remedy this issue. Another win for conservation.

Issue 7: Recreational Release Mortality.  As recreational anglers, we bare a great responsibility for the striped bass stock’s decline–as a whole, we account for the vast majority of total removals, much of which comes from catch and release mortality. However, it is important to note that there is inherent value associated with a fish that dies after being released. As such, the Board voted unanimously to keep Recreational Release Mortality in Draft Amendment 7.

Issue 8: Recreational Accountability. This issue will not be included in Draft Amendment 7.

Issue 9: Coastal Commercial AllocationThis issue will not be included in Draft Amendment 7. However, the issue will be examined by staff to seek an equitable remedy to allocating the commercial striped bass quota amongst the states.

All in all, this meeting went smoothly and promoted conservation to be the focus on Draft Amendment 7. However, much work remains to protect striped bass, every man’s fish, for future generations. There will be upcoming comment periods for the Draft Amendment and the subsequent final amendment. Thanks are due to both many of the Board Members who listened to the clear public mandate to protect and restore striped bass. Additionally, the public deserves a resounding round of applause because they undeniably influenced the Board’s decision making. A lot of work and outreach looms on the horizon, but the future of striped bass looks brighter today than it did two months ago.

Cover picture courtesy of Matt Zimmermann @BackEddyCharters

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