“Conservation” Equivalency or “Exploitation” Equivalency?

“Conservation” Equivalency or “Exploitation” Equivalency?

ASMFC Striped Bass Management Board Meeting on 2-5-15

By Ken Hastings, ASMFC Policy Coordinator of Maryland

Since the decision has been made by the Board to cut the coast-wide catch of striped bass (SB) by 25%, the member jurisdictions got a chance to propose the details of how they were each going to meet the new limits. In ASMFC terms, this is referred to “conservation equivalency.” In theory, it means that the states don’t have to follow the ASMFC guidelines for bag limits, sizes and seasons if they can come up with other ways to meet the same goals. Under this “give and take” arrangement between the governing Board and its members, less conservative approaches would not [knowingly] be approved.

The devil really is in the details as evidenced by the vast array of options presented by the members at the meeting on Feb. 5 in Alexandria, VA. Each member had multiple approaches to be considered and one had nine approaches to managing just the commercial quota. Altogether, there were over 50 recreational options and almost 20 commercial ones.

It is important to remember that the initial objective of the recent addendum was to reach a specific spawning stock biomass (SSB) goal by 2016. The 25% reduction predicted to reach the goal was based on data and assumptions threatened by massive uncertainties to the extent that the probability of reaching the 2016 goal was only 50% to start with. So, after years of debate and research, the probability of success for this “science-based” outcome was the same as the probability of getting a “heads” result from the toss of an unbiased coin before the Feb. 5 meeting. If conservation had been the true objective, one might expect that a higher percentage would have been selected to help swing the odds toward a successful outcome but it wasn’t.

Most of the meeting was spent lamenting the complexity of the options and the associated new uncertainties that would pile on top of the uncertainties plaguing the 25% decision in the first place. It was agreed that simple approaches would be easier for the fishermen to understand and for the police to enforce. The advantages of regional approaches with consistent rules for adjacent jurisdictions were generally accepted. Ease of enforcement (according to the enforcement committee) is better for bag and size limits than for slot limits. Having consistent rules for adjacent tributaries in the same jurisdiction is better than having multiple different sets of rules depending on where the fish are caught.

In some cases, the Technical Committee (TC) wasn’t able to predict variables like fishermen behavior. In the case of recreational poaching, for example, there is some prior year MRIP data regarding how many people kept too many fish or fished outside the size limits. While it is universally recognized that human nature probably precludes perfect compliance with any rule or law, and in spite of the 2013 MRIP data validating this premise for fishing, the TC assumed universal perfect compliance in evaluating the proposals for conservation equivalence. Most sources of compliance uncertainty were eliminated – intentional poaching, unintentional infractions based on ignorance of the rules, and law enforcement miscues over jurisdictional limits and conflicts for examples. A standard 9% was used for dead discards but it isn’t clear that a one-fish limit won’t encourage high-grading from the ice chest in order to maximize the size of that one fish. In the end, the TC admitted that they couldn’t scale the uncertainties because their magnitudes were too uncertain.

Since all of the proposals had been submitted to the TC in advance and were judged to result in at least the same conservation levels as the initial TC guidance, it appeared that all that discussion about uncertainty was just for show and everyone was going to get their choice of options from the laundry list they submitted. However, MD wasn’t completely happy with that approach and needed to squeeze just a little more out of their trophy season conservation equivalency by proposing a bag limit of one fish either between 28” and 36” OR one fish over 40.” Note that this is almost the same as one fish over 28” except for the four inches left out of the slot limit. Given all the uncertainties leading up to the 25% decision doomed to a coin toss success future, compounded by the uncertainties associated with the myriad of proposals, it seems unlikely that anyone understands SB population dynamics well enough to debate the four-inch part of the slot limit. The friendly amendment to change MD’s proposal seemed to be favorably received so the Potomac River Fisheries Commission threw their name into the pot as well.

It was like an hour plus of discussions about uncertainty and how to minimize it never happened. The motion, prepared before the meeting was called to order, was flashed on the screen, plus the MD/PRFC changes, and universally approved by the Board.

Of course, it isn’t quite over yet. The TC requested that the members get back to them with the options they finally select so the actual reductions can be validated. Since the options had already been validated, it isn’t clear what the TC plans to do with them after they are made into local rules and laws. They certainly can’t expect to influence the cascading uncertainties or to improve the probability of meeting the 2016 SSB goals that by now must be much worse than the unbiased coin toss outcomes.

Also, the Chesapeake Bay’s role as the primary producer area for coastal SB gives MD, VA and PRFC other Conservation Equivalency options since their resident stocks are smaller and allegedly dominated by male fish. They have always had their own reference points derived from local annual stock assessments but they lost that option with the new addendum. The TC has agreed to develop new reference points guidance for the Bay. Not to be left out of a chance to increase exploitation of SB, other places that may have some producer history (DE, Hudson River in NY, and NJ) want a piece of this action as well. Even NC may qualify so a subsequent addendum may be in the works after the May ASMFC meeting.

Perhaps the term “Conservation Equivalency” should be changed to “Exploitation Equivalency” because there seems to be precious little conservation embedded in this process.

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