Over the next two weeks, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is seeking public comment on Draft Amendment 7 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Plan. This is an incredible opportunity to improve several facets of management, leading to more striped bass in the water in the future. Today, striped bass are overfished, subject to overfishing (according to the most recent stock assessment) and at their lowest in 25 years. It will take all of us acting together if we are to improve striped bass management and restore the stock to healthy, abundant levels.
Before we look at proposed Amendment 7, I want people to realize how complex this document – and striped bass management more broadly – is. Draft Amendment 7 addresses four main topics: management triggers, recreational release mortality, recovery planning, and conservation equivalence. And when I said complex, I meant it – this document has 18 decision points with over 50 complex sub-options to choose from. In the next paragraph, I will share some general views on these four questions and how to comment. But if you want the full picture, that’s where the folks at the American Saltwater Guides Association come in. ASGA, of which I am the Maine board member, is leading the charge for Amendment 7 and striped bass conservation. Head over to their action page for detailed recommendations and specific instructions on how to effectively comment on this document.
How to comment
Because feedback is so important, I don’t want to bury this. See the ASMFC Public Comments page for full details on state hearings and how to submit written comments. To submit a written comment, simply email [email protected] with Draft Amendment 7 in the subject line along with your positions. It is important to make them somewhat personalized, since the ASMFC weights form less letters than individual comments. Also be sure to cc [email protected] to enter an ASGA raffle with some awesome material – your positions don’t matter, they’re just trying to get more people involved and participating to this process!
Draft Amendment 7
OK, let’s go. When it comes to striped bass and its management, understand that it’s an incredibly diverse fishery. In the cool waters of Maine, where I fish and guide, we have a shorter window when the fish are here in large numbers, and there’s no commercial fishing here either. Then take Maryland, for example, this state basically has a long 12-month fishing season and consistently catches large percentages of recreational and commercial harvests along the entire coast. This perspective will be relevant to some of these questions.
Let’s discuss management triggers, which indicate when and how the Striped Bass Board responds to new stock information. The intention of the triggers is to maintain sustainable levels of the stock. Generally speaking, direction initiates labor when followed. So let’s keep them strong and avoid delaying action. However, we could improve this section by requiring the Striped Bass Council to implement a recovery plan within two years of an overfishing designation. Additionally, we need to adjust the recruitment trigger so that it actually triggers when the inshore stock is experiencing low recruitment. Linked to this option, the Council should be forced to react to periods of low recruitment by reducing mortality – this trigger and response will act as a warning alarm for a declining population and help manage the stock proactively.
Mortality related to recreational release
This next section, recreational release mortality, is difficult for me. Recreational anglers are responsible for the vast majority of total striped bass removals, and a significant portion of this is attributable to catch-and-release mortality (assumed that 9% of all released fish die). As recreational anglers, we have a big impact, even if we intentionally forego harvesting scratches. So regardless of the outcome of this section in May, all anglers should do everything possible to reduce their post-release mortality. Check out this informative guide I helped out last year on best practices for safe release.
There are several sets of options in this section, some of which I support and some of which cause concern. I support banning striped bass gaffs and increasing awareness and education for anglers. No fuss !
This document considers a range of closures to address the high levels of mortality in the recreational sector. Regarding potential seasonal closures without targeting along the coast: I’m as conservation-focused as they come, but how are you going to tell me to close my business for two weeks during my short fishing season and don’t even know the conservation benefit it will have?
These non-targeting closures will have a serious impact on the light and fly fishing guiding community in the northeast, but private anglers will continue to catch scratches while “targeting” bluefish or black bass. It’s also a tough pill to swallow when you think about what really drives post-release mortality: hot water temperatures, poor handling, gut clinging, low salinity, and low dissolved oxygen. These environmental issues are huge problems in places like the Chesapeake Bay in the summer or some coastal rivers, but it’s not nearly the same problem in the ocean waters off New England.
In general, we shouldn’t kill fish before they spawn—it’s just good fisheries management. However, the spawn closure options in this section (which could be no-harvest or no-targeting) do not appear to have the necessary details or protections. For example, should we include staging areas and/or prohibit all harvesting along the entire coast until the fish have spawned? Just a few thoughts that are not covered in this document. Also, after talking with the ASGA team, they are planning an addendum after the stock assessment is released this fall; now seems like a good time to tackle this head-on and develop more details, strategies, and goals for spawning wards.
So to summarize this section, I am quite concerned about these non-targeting closures and want the Council to develop more robust options to protect spawning fish.
Probably the most important issue in proposed amendment 7 is conservation equivalence. This management program is a way to provide states with flexibility in managing the diverse striped bass fishery. Unfortunately, it has been abused by several states on a fairly regular basis, which has also contributed to the current state of the stock. You see, conservation equivalence generally injects additional uncertainty into management, which can have serious impacts. States should still be allowed to use CE, but there should be strong safeguards to prevent abuse and ensure conservation goals are met. So in draft Amendment 7, I support options that bring more accountability to this program, such as restricting the use of EC if the stock is overfished, requiring minimum recreational data standards ‘State and use of uncertainty buffer (luxury tax).
Finally, proposed amendment 7 contemplates a recovery plan to address the overfished designation of striped bass. We successfully addressed overfishing designation last year with Addendum 6 and new regulations, but this is different. All things considered, the question of the reconstruction plan is quite simple. The Striped Bass Council is to rebuild the species by 2029, and this section provides options for the Council to do so under the assumption of low recruitment and to respond more quickly this fall if the new stock assessment contains worrying information. I want to see the striped bass rebuilt quickly and without further ado. Both of these options will help achieve this goal.
Digesting all of this and developing personal feedback is quite a heavy lift – I get it. But that’s what it will take to get this iconic fish back. We all need to get involved, much like you probably saw in Florida about that budget bill with negative implications for the Everglades and drinking water. As my friend Captain Benny Blanco likes to say, “we are all one community”, and we should help everyone’s fisheries when we can. If you have any further questions on how to get involved or anything related to the Amendment 7 project, be sure to reach out to the ASGA team on Instagram, they’ll help point you in the right direction!