New regulations aimed at curbing mortality rates among striped bass are focusing on the larger, spawning females whose numbers have fallen in recent years.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages fisheries along the East Coast, has been collecting comment from New England communities this summer in its efforts to determine the new regulations.
A public hearing on Tuesday drew a crowd of about 25 fishermen and other stakeholders to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzard’s Bay. The commission will continue holding public hearings this month in other coastal states as far south as North Carolina.
Striped bass populations collapsed in the 1980s due to overfishing and poor environmental conditions. Intensive management by the ASMFC led to a rebound in the 1990s, but the spawning stock has declined steadily since 2006.
In 2012 the coastal spawning stock biomass was estimated at 128 million pounds; the commission has set a target of 159 million pounds. Juvenile counts have been below average for four of the last five years, and in 2012 the total recreational harvest was around 19 million pounds, the lowest point in nine years.
The commission says the overall stock is not being overfished, but expects the number of spawning females to fall below a cautionary threshold of 127 million pounds in the coming years if nothing is done to reverse the trend.
Mike Waine, fisheries management plan coordinator for the ASMFC, presented the new proposals at Tuesday’s hearing. A 32-page draft addendum, available online, includes a variety of proposals aimed at reducing stock mortality by around 25 per cent. Mr. Waine expects the final plan to be voted on in October and added to the commission’s Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.
The proposals aim to increase the spawning stock by regulating the size and number of fish that may be captured by recreational fishermen, and by lowering the quotas for commercial fisheries. The regulations would take effect over one or three years.
Mr. Waine acknowledged that environmental factors, including habitat loss, dams, and pollution from runoff, were beyond the commission’s control. While that has been frustrating, he said, other avenues are still available.
“What we are trying to do is manage so that spawning stock biomass is not the limiting factor for getting that strong year class,” he said.
Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia (a major spawning ground), and Albermarle Sound in North Carolina would be managed according to separate benchmarks. Because Albermarle Sound is not considered a major contributor to coastal migratory populations, the commission has proposed that North Carolina manage its fishery separately from the other states.
The draft addendum includes 38 options for regulating stock mortality, including the option of doing nothing. Many of the options differ only in terms of bag limit (number of catches), size limit, and allowances for trophy fish.
Much of the discussion on Tuesday focused on three possible time frames.
The first aims to reduce mortality by 25 per cent in one year. The second aims for a 17 per cent reduction, to be maintained over three years. The third would take an incremental approach, making seven per cent reductions each year for three years. The first option would likely see the greatest reduction, from 3.8 million pounds to 2.8 million pounds (1.1 million pounds to 869,000 pounds in Massachusetts).
Mr. Waine said the three-year option was in response to states whose striped bass populations are more abundant and who wanted to phase in the changes “so the economic hardship wouldn’t be taken all in one year.”
The proposals do not mention what the economic hardships would be. “It’s going to depend on how much you rely on striped bass,” Mr. Waine said. “That means different things to a lot of different people.” He said new regulations could result in fewer recreational trips and hotel stays, for example, and that some work had been done in Maryland to examine the issue more closely. But he added that the economic effects will be hard to quantify.
Patrick Paquette of the Massachusetts Striped Bass Association was among many who favored the one-year time frame. Speaking only for himself, he questioned whether the incremental approach could be maintained for three years. He also argued that new regulations every year for three years would create hardship of its own. At the recreational saltwater fishing summit this year, he said: “The number one priority for fisheries management in the United States [was] stabilization of regulations so that markets can develop and business plans can adjust to the current situation.”
“It flies in the face of recreation,” he said later, when the issue came up again. “The whole thing about recreational fishing is it’s supposed to be fun. Changing regulations every year damages that.”
Many at the hearing favored a one-fish bag limit, although one person argued that without allowing recreational fishermen to catch two fish, they wouldn’t want to fish at all.
No one favored an option to allow states to trade unmet commercial fishing quotas.
Daniel McKiernan, deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, represented the commonwealth at the hearing. He said afterward that a hearing earlier in the day on Nantucket revealed similar opinions. At both meetings, he said, many favored the most conservative options, including the one-fish limit. “I think that’s pretty typical of the New England view of how to conserve striped bass,” he said. “Many folks who testified at both hearings want to see us take the actions quickly, in one step.”
He agreed that changing regulations repeatedly would make it difficult for people to keep up with the process. “We want to avoid that,” he said.
Another hearing was held in Gloucester on Sept. 3, and another took place in Braintree on Sept. 4. Other hearings on the East Coast will take place throughout September.
The commission, along with representatives from each state, plan to vote in October on which options to adopt. A public comment period ends Sept. 30. Comments may be sent to Mike Waine at email@example.com.