At a meeting in Boston yesterday morning, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commision did not approve Addendum III, which could have reduced striped bass fishing mortality by up to 40%. If the Addendum had passed, recreational and commercial striped bass fishermen could have seen changes in size limits, bag limits and a reduction in the commercial quota as early as the 2012 fishing season.
I was at yesterday's meeting and I have to say that I was very impressed by what I saw and heard. The statistics, opinions and theories proposed by members of ASMFC, scientists and the public proved very intriguing.
The first half of the meeting consisted of a power point presentation regarding the overall health of the striped bass stock. According to the science, striped bass are currently not overfished and are not being overfished. In other words, as the members of the commission put it, striped bass is a "green light" fishery.
With all the data and statistics presented at the meeting, I found it very easy to get bogged down by the numbers. This age group of stripers is declining, this age group has leveled off etc. Viewing the striped bass biomass through a "microscope" of sorts was interesting, however I learned just how difficult it is to make any sense of the numbers.
The reasons behind why the data is how it is are unclear, complex and hard to define-even for the experts.
For example, one of the major concerns amongst many striped bass fishermen is the apparent "lack of small fish" present in our coastal waters. According to the science, recruitment (the amount of baby striped bass entering the biomass) has been significantly less than expected over the past few years. But then, as if out of nowhere, the recruitment levels for 2011 are basically through the roof. After a few seasons of startling poor spawns, the 2011 striped bass spawn has been one of the most successful on record.
How could recruitment be so poor for years, despite record numbers of spawning age striped bass? What caused this season's successful spawn?
The members of the commission could not offer an explanation, and understandably so. There are many question marks when it comes to striped bass and their aquatic environment.
As the presentation progressed I could not help but be impressed by the research. There seeemed to be a number, equation and estimate for virtually every aspect of the fishery. These folks had certainly put forth an impressive effort with regards to crunching numbers.
Yet even science, when it is applied to fish, contains unavoidable, inherent grey areas.
Just think about for a minute. The ocean is the most vast and difficult place on Earth to explore and make sense of. Fisheries scientists do a superb job, and certainly put forth their best effort. However what they are attempting to accomplish is virtually impossible to begin with. We can not simply drain Cape Cod Bay, count the number of striped bass and then fill it back up again. Fisheries science is one of the few fields in which all work is done in an indirect manner. Estimates and best guesses, which are inexcusable in other scientific fields, are the rule and not the exception in fisheries management.
Arguably the number one method in science-observation-is next to impossible when it comes to fish. For example, if we are studying trees and want to get a grasp on the amount of trees left in the United States, all we need to do is look at a few satellite images. A little math later and we have a pretty exact and accurate idea of how many trees are left in the U.S.
If we want to understand how a kangaroo reproduces, and learn what factors influence reproductive success, we sit outside somewhere in Australia and watch a bunch of kangaroos for a few years. We take pictures, video, measurements and observe and record everything we see.
Observing fish on the other hand, is a completely different manner. We can't simply fly over the Gulf of Maine and count the number of bass swimming around below. The only way to watch striped bass reproduce is to don a snorkel and some swim trunks and follow a few 30 and 40 pounders around for a few weeks.
This may sound a bit ludicrous, which it is. However it really is quite true. Every number that gets crunched into the striped bass equation is derived through indirect observation. The numbers come from catch reports, seining results, tagging studies and a lot of estimating and best guessing. There is a ton of room for error. How much error? We have no way of knowing!
Please don't misinterpret the past few paragraphs as criticism. Much to the contrary I find fisheries science intriguing and one of the most impressive fields out there. These ladies and gentlemen put forth an incredible effort, utilizing the best techniques available in an attempt to do the virtually impossible.
Yet this is how it is. Until we are able to sonar scan the entire length of the striper coast, everything will be "best guesses" when it comes to striped bass management.
For example, certain equations used to measure particular aspects of the striped bass stock seem particularly vulnerable to small changes in certain variables. In other words, if just one or two numbers is increased or decreased, the entire equation pumps out a very different outlook on the fishery.
The effects of mycobacteriosis is one such unknown variable. It was not so long ago that I read articles depicting the disaster that this Chesapeake Bay centered disease would have on the striped bass population. I remember worrying about the future of striped bass as I lay there in bed.
Fortunately today's evidence is leaning towards mycobacteriosis as not being quite as serious as once believed. According to the commission, it's possible that bass which contract the disease while swimming in the Chesapeake, do not experience such drastic symptoms once they leave the Bay. To make a long story much shorter, mycobacteriosis may not be as deadly a disease as once imagined.
However this one variable is still a big question mark, and the effect mycobacteriosis has on the overall striped bass mortality rate is a bit of an unkown. If we increase the rate a tad or decrease the rate a bit, it has a big impact on all the other statistics. Said another way, that small change in the mycobacteriosis number has a "trickle down" effect on all the other data. The same can be said for many variables used in the equations presented at yesterday's meeting.
One of the most enligtening comments I heard at the ASMFC meeting was in regard to how we manage fisheries in the first place. Each fish species, from tautog to bluefish, scup to striped bass, have different seasons, bag limits etc. The problem with this approach is that all these fish live and interact together in the same ecosystem, yet we manage each fish on a species to species basis. By choosing this approach, we severely limit any policies level of effectiveness.
It is simple and easy to say that all we need to do to save striped bass is reduce the amount of striped bass fishing pressure. Perhaps we change the recreational bag limit to one fish per day and reduce the commercial quoata. Problem solved.
Or is it?
Is it possible that such action could have a negative impact on striped bass, and the other members of their marine environment? Keep in mind that an increase in striped bass more than likely results in a decrease in the population of scup, tautog, flounder, lobsters, menhaden and other prey items on the striped bass' menu. Thus is it even fair to give striped bass "special attention" if the main goal is to preserve our marine ecosystems?
What use is it to increase the striped bass biomass if the resources needed to sustain a spike in the striped bass stock are not present in the marine environment?
Is it also possible that reducing striped bass fishing pressure may not even have a positive impact on the striped bass biomass?
Because the health of the striped bass stock is so interwoven with other fish species and environmental conditions, it is possible that reducing fishing pressure on striped bass is not the most prudent way to preserve the fishery.
Is shutting down deer hunting proper action for creating a sustainable deer population? Of course not. Without enough habitat and food resources to support a spike in the deer population, the course of action is doomed from the start.
Thus if we reduce striped bass fishing pressure, there is no guarantee that the striped bass biomass will benefit from such action. Other ecosystem factors, such as a dwindling population of menhaden could prevent success. And what good is it to have more spawning age striped bass if recruitment levels return to the worrisome levels of the past few years? Said another way, it does not matter how many striped bass are left swimming in the ocean if the areas they use to spawn are not healthy, and capable of fostering the conditions needed for young striped bass to reach maturity.
If we view striped bass from this broader perspective it may help us gain new insight into what constitues a sustainable striped bass stock in the first place. According to the science, the striped bass female spawning stock biomass reached a peak of around 60 thousand metric tons in 2003. Since that year it has been estimated that the spawning stock has been in decline. In 2008 the spawning stock was estimated at just over 50 thousand metric tons.
Before we get concerned, keep in mind that 50 thousand metric tons is still a huge amount of fish. To get an idea of how that compares, from 1982-1989 the stock was estimated at less than 10 thousand metric tons.
Is it possible that the striped bass biomass reached its peak in 2003, and is now in decline because it is approaching a level of sustainability? In other words, what if the sustainable level of striped bass is actually lower than the amount of striped bass currently present in our waters?
It's possible-we just have no way of knowing either way.
This broader and more objective perspective is uncommon amongst most striped bass fishermen-which is of course understandable. We are so accustomed to viewing striped bass management in the form of a tape measure and concrete numbers. However striped bass are just a small fragment of a much larger ecosystem.
In my opinion, successful striped bass management is not feasible via size and bag limits alone. Species specific management is inherently flawed-although I understand that for the time being, size and bag limits are the only options we have to work with.
What I hope is that someday fisheries management will become "ecosystem management." Each species of fish will be seen as having a role in the health of the ecoystem as a whole.
In conclusion, it was nice to hear participants at yesterday's meeting making mention that striped bass could benefit from measures apart from reducing fishing pressure. I found outside the box thinking, such as addressing the overfishing of menhaden, and the influence of environemntal factors to be refreshing to say the least.
I think continuing down this "creative" path holds more promise than sticking to strategies of years past. Simple stuff, like limiting the use of treble hooks could in the long run, have a much greater impact on striped bass than reducing quotas and bag limits.
Until that day comes to fruition, I will most certainly err on the side of caution. However at this time I'm happy to report that according to the experts our striped bass fishery is healthy.
I also believe that striped bass, and the rest of our finned friends, will have a promising future if a broader perspective and creative management techniques are adopted by fisheries managers, striped bass fishermen and the general public.
Tight lines and take care,