FISHERIES MANAGEMENT AND LEGISLATIVE REPORT
By Tom Fote
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association March 1995 Newsletter)
This has been an interesting month. Many decisions were made that will greatly effect recreational fishing. Lets look at what happened with a couple of species.
During the week of March 6th, the full ASMFC Commission , ISMP Policy Board, Striped Bass Board and Striped Bass Technical Committee met in Norfolk, Virginia. Once again, these meetings were not held in the New York Bight area. The Commissioners and Advisors from our area requested that at least one of these meetings on Amendment 5 be held in New York, Delaware, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania. The ASMFC ignored the request. Do they really want the anglers from these areas to participate? The Commission will state that these states had the opportunity to hold public hearings, but for the most part these public hearings still hold little weight in the overall decision process and all the tables that were approved in Amendment 5 were never even sent out to public hearings. No where did I have in my possession a table that would allow for a commercial increase of 70% of its historic bases years levels. Actually most states did not even hold public hearings with all the changed tables and, in the states that did, the majority of the comments were to go slow. The overwhelming comments in my state and other states said there should be no increase in the commercial fishery and it should be held to present level of 20% of the historic base years. There were a few comments that if the commercial quota had to be increased then it should be raised to 40% of those base years levels. No where was it said at any public hearing that this increase should be raised to 70% of the historic base years level or a real increase of current commercial fishing levels of 400%. That is what the Striped Bass Board voted to do. Louis Zglobicki, the commissioner from Maine, and I had discussed a motion at the policy board to limit the commercial cap in 1995 to 40% of the historical fishery, allowing a 100% increase over the 1994 levels. Lou Zglobicki made the motion at the policy board and New Hampshire seconded . After a lengthy fight our motion was ruled out of order due to the new rules of the Commission. No vote was allowed. I expressed my dismay and indicated a lawyer might be necessary to explain standards and procedures. We were told this motion should have been made at the striped board but this was impossible since neither of us are voting members. The governors appointees are still not considered equal partners and the state directors continue their strangle hold over the process. In the new standards and procedures, these directors have succeeded in making it even more difficult to offer amendments. The only amendment even vaguely conservationist in nature drastically cut the recreational catch to one fish at 28 inches (remember 1993) while the commercial catch would have allowed an increase from 20% of its base year to 63%. I could not support placing all conservation efforts on the recreational sector, as always. The last opportunity for you to express your concerns about these changes is to attend a public hearing in your state. Demand a reduction from the maximum commercial increase.
Enclosed is a copy of my testimony from the Congressional hearing on the reauthorization of the Striped Bass Conservation Act held on March 16th. Information about HR-393 is also included. I would like to thank Congressman James Saxton, chairman of the fisheries subcommittee on fisheries, wildlife and oceans, for inviting JCAA to participate. Of the three panels presenting, JCAA was the only participant not from a government agency. Congressman Frank Pallone spoke in support of HR-393 on the first panel. Congressman Pallone stated that commercial fishing caused the initial collapse of the striped bass stocks and the proposal for commercial increase by the ASMFC could cause the same result. Congressman Saxton also spoke in favor of HR-393 as an original cosponsor. Congressmen Saxton and Pallone praised the work of JCAA coastwide, working for conservation and the environment. During the question and answer period, I stressed JCAAs commitment to the Clean Water Act, particularly in the benefits being seen along the Delaware River. Congressman Gilchrest (Maryland) and Congressman Studds (Massachusetts) and Congressman Young (Alaska), chairman of the full committee, did not show support for HR-393. Congressman Gilchrests lack of support was particularly surprising. His explanation of the working relationships of commercial, recreational and charter boat suggests he lacks an understanding of the real conflicts currently in Maryland. In his testimony, Peter Jensen pointed out that the recreational anglers have petitioned the legislature three times to make striped bass a gamefish. This has been blocked by commercial pressure on the Maryland Assembly. I would also like to thank Sharon McKennna, committee staff, and Paul Dement, Congressman Pallones office, for their help.
The passage of Amendment 5 means that in New Jersey we will be allowed two fish at 28 inches in all the marine waters under the recreational fishery. The timetable for this legislation suggests implementation in mid May. Until the legislation is passed, last years regulations are in effect. The trophy tag program will be modified with an increase in quota from 63,800 pounds to 224,000 pounds. Not using this quota almost resulted in penalties and we need to be more diligent in reporting fish caught under this program to insure no decrease or loss of this quota. JCAA striped bass committee will work with the Division of Fish and Game to develop proposals to handle this quota. A quirk in the tables in Amendment 5 would reward taking 24 inch fish instead of 28 inch fish under the trophy tag program, increasing the quota. Attend the next JCAA meeting to express opinions on this matter.
A special meeting of the JCAA Striped Bass Committee will be called soon to consider what position to take on the possible changes to the Striped Bass Trophy Tag program for 1995. Call 908-505-6565 for information about the next striped bass committee meeting.
Senator Bassano and I attended the blackfish board meeting for ASMFC. The increasing commercial pressure coastwide on blackfish is having a disastrous effect. Blackfish is a very regional fish, making it difficult for a management plan to regulate it successfully. Relying on ASMFC blackfish plan to protect New Jerseys stocks is foolish. New Jersey needs to develop its own plan to preserve this important recreational fish. JCAAs blackfish is working on solutions.
There was a joint meeting of ASMFC and the Mid -Atlantic Council demersal committee on March 14 to determine the recreational bag limit. The demersal committee approved a six fish bag limit but I made a motion at the ASMFC board for an eight fish bag limit. The Commissions board approved the eight fish. I feel the three million pounds awarded the commercial sector by the law suit made an eight fish recreational limit necessary to insure the 60/40 split under the fluke management plan. Even with an eight fish bag limit, the 60/40 split is unlikely. For the previous two years, the bag limit set did not allow recreational anglers to come near the cap and it would be unfair to continue this practice for another year.
Testimony by Tom Fote before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans
Testimony by Tom Fote before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans
The Jersey Coast Anglers Association would like to thank Chairman James Saxton for giving us this opportunity to testify before the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans at this oversight hearing on striped bass management. The JCAA would also like to thank Congressman Don Young and all the members of this committee for taking a closer look at the striped bass recovery and the direction future management plans will take.
The Jersey Coast Anglers Association is a grassroots marine recreational anglers' conservation and political action group. Its membership consists of 90 saltwater fishing clubs from New Jersey and from states as far north as Rhode Island and south to the Carolinas. Its New Jersey club membership alone is in excess of 30,000 members. Counting affiliated associations, total membership climbs to over 200,000 saltwater anglers and interested conservationists and environmentalists. JCAA is rapidly growing and aligning itself with other sport anglers groups along the eastern seaboard, Gulf states and the West Coast. Its staff, executive officers and trustees are all volunteers. None draw payment for their often monumental efforts on behalf of marine recreational anglers, something about which we are all quite proud.
From its inception, JCAA has considered striped bass conservation and legislation of paramount concern for its constituency. JCAA members and representatives sat on the original Striped Bass Advisory Committee. Since 1988, JCAA has had a representative at almost every Striped Bass Board meeting, Technical Committee meeting and Workshop, actively participating in this process, while trying to keep members and the public-at-large aware of what was going on in the mysterious world of fisheries' management.
A brief history of striped bass management during the past 16 years would help provide a better understanding of where we are today. The marine recreational fishing community started demanding a comprehensive plan to manage striped bass as early as 1978. This pressure came in response to rapidly declining stocks, since striped bass is extremely important to sport fishermen and the sport fishing industry's economic health. As a result of this pressure, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission responded by directing more of its resources towards managing striped bass stocks, which were crashing to all time low levels. The ASMFC ran into the same problem it had run into over the last 35 years. The ASMFC could work on strong measures to stop a fisheries decline and start a rebuilding process, but they had no power to compel member states to implement and enforce these measures.
The recreational fishing community, Congress and the ASMFC, realizing that they would make no headway in correcting over fishing problems without enforcement power, embarked on historic legislation that would give them the authority to make all states comply with the management plan the ASMFC adopted. This legislation was spearheaded by Congressmen Gerry Studds, Jim Saxton and other coastal state congressional representatives, and upon implementation, brought a new direction to interstate fisheries' management heretofore not available to a fisheries management agency. The question of state's rights was raised during the debate over the Striped Bass Conservation Act, truly a monumental piece of legislation, but Congress realized that in managing migratory fish for the good of all interested states, would require management plans that were enforceable throughout the fish's range and across state boundaries. The cry of "if there are plenty of these critters in my state waters, why do I have to worry about the other states?" became invalid. We hear these same cries today concerning weakfish management from states like North Carolina and Virginia, but they must realize that Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey have not seen weakfish migrate into their state waters in over a decade due to the dramatic decline in the overall stocks due to commercial overfishing in southern waters. The weakfish once represented an important entity for recreational fishing businesses for decades, but the northern states have been deprived of that economic benefit in recent years.
On a personal note, when I first began dealing with the ASMFC, I attended meetings with a distrust of what I perceived to be another federal government agency that was imposing limits on my sport fishing activity. After being exposed to the commission and the process by which it developed management plans, I realized that it was not a federal agency, but a true compact between member states with shared interests in fisheries that cross state boundaries and that their ultimate goal was to provide healthy, sustainable fisheries for all member states. ASMFC is more than just a commission of state fishery managers, but a coalition of state fisheries scientists, managers, legislators and governor's appointees representing the user groups that are supposed to come together to develop management plans that are workable and that must be implemented by all member states.
With regard to the questions presented in your invitation to testify before this subcommittee, I would like to handle some of them in the following segment of my testimony and the scenario I will present.
The management regime developed under the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act played a major role in the restoration of striped bass stocks. Because of the expanded authority of the ASMFC under this Act, all member states were forced to comply with the management and restoration plans and, for the first time, these plans were given a real opportunity to bear fruit. Some member states even surpassed the recommendations of ASMFC by restricting their fisheries to an even greater extent than called for in the management plan. States like Connecticut, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland and New York imposed total moratoriums on the harvest of striped bass, even though the plan did not call for these drastic measures prior to 1989.
When the ASMFC began relaxing regulations with the rebounding of the stocks in 1989, recreational fishermen in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia pushed to stay at larger size limits than were allowed and released fish far in excess of what they were permitted to retain. They realized that by being even more conservative than the plan called for, they were building an increasing stock -pile of striped bass that would speed recovery at a even greater pace. That is what has taken place up until 1995, but this ethic is changing.
The ASMFC did an admirable job in fostering the rebuilding of the stocks, but now that their direction includes more resource allocation and distribution, they are falling into the same trap that has plagued all marine fisheries management agencies, by giving the greatest increases in harvest to the user group that screams the loudest. Instead of allocating by economic importance or with an eye toward fair and equitable distribution to both user groups, the age old commercial fishing bias that has been ingrained into the management system for decades is, once again, rearing its ugly head.
It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that prior to Amendment 5 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, sport anglers had been regulated to the point where they were harvesting at a fraction of their historical harvest levels, probably less than 5%. Keep in mind that during the "base years" (1972 through 1979), Chesapeake Bay anglers fished under a 12 inch size limit, no bag limit and no seasonal closures. Most of these anglers did not compute their annual harvest in the dozens of fish, but rather in hundreds each year. Under the management regime in place in 1992 in the state of Maryland, if an angler managed to catch fish over the minimum size so he could actually keep one fish per day (the bag limit in effect), and was able to fish every day of the extremely abbreviated season, the most striped bass he could have possibly harvested was 30 fish for the entire year. This is certainly a minuscule percentage of what they were allowed to harvest during the "base years." Please tell me where the equity is when Maryland commercial anglers were already harvesting at 40% of their historical catch at that time.
Anglers fishing the coast during the base years were allowed to keep an average size fish of 17 inches and all states except New Jersey had no bag limits. Even though anglers certainly had days when they did not harvest a single striped bass, there were many days during the season that they would find a school of fish and it was not uncommon to harvest several dozen school size fish in a day. Under today's management regime, coastal anglers are permitted to harvest one fish per day over 34 inches. For the entire year, the most active and successful striped bass angler might be able to harvest 30 to 40 fish per year for consumption. Again, the harvest figures permitted are but a tiny fraction of the allowable recreational harvest during the "base years."
Rest assured that JCAA is not pushing for a massive increase in the recreational catch under Amendment 5 because we still do not feel the fishery is fully recovered. In fact, most of the recreational fishermen along the entire coast that turned out for public hearings during this process, wanted to stay at a higher size limit or go to two fish at 28 inches, but demanded that the commercial harvest be capped at no greater than 40% of the historic harvest levels. Let's look at the management regime in the state that had the most restrictive recreational regulations during the "base years" and use that as a guide for comparison. New Jersey enforced a 10 fish daily bag limit and an 18 inch size limit. If we use this as a basis to establish a comparative quota percentage as has been used to determine commercial harvest allocations, 1 fish at 18 inches would represent 10% of the most conservative "base years" recreational harvest, 2 fish would represent 20%, and so on.
Amendment 5 was passed on March 9 and included a provision that will allow the commercial fishery to harvest up to 70% of their historical "base years" level in 1995. As an example under this plan, the state of New York had a "base years" average harvest level of 1,060,000 pounds of striped bass annually. Up until 1994, commercial fishermen were permitted to harvest 212,000 pounds annually, or 20% of their "base years" harvest totals. Under Amendment 5, they will be permitted to harvest 737,928 pounds in 1995 alone. That is an unprecedented three hundred and fifty percent increase in the commercial harvest in one year and you must understand that commercial operators will harvest every last pound of fish permitted under the plan. This is fully 70% of what commercial fishermen were harvesting during the "base years" and this massive increase in commercial allocation is mirrored in all states covered under the plan. That means that to be at 70% of the recreational "base years" harvest to maintain an equitable increase for both user groups, it would be necessary to allow recreational anglers a bag limit of 7 fish per day with a minimum size of 18 inches.
Under the same Amendment 5 regulations, the recreational sector will only be allowed to retain two fish per day, with a 28 inch size limit, in 1995. During the "base years," recreational anglers were permitted to retain 10 fish per day with only an 18 inch size limit under the most conservative management regime. How can the ASMFC claim there is any equity in their latest harvest allocations when such flagrant bias is being shown to a limited group of commercial fishermen. Millions of anglers are having their catch unfairly restricted to the detriment of the sport fishing industry, with its thousands of member businesses and multi-billion dollar impact on state and national economies.
The bottom line with fisheries management as it exists today is that user group that provides the greatest amount of conservation effort, in this case the recreational fishing sector, is later penalized for doing more than the plan required, in subsequent harvest allocations. The ASMFC also has a tendency to forget that they are managing a PUBLIC RESOURCE for the good of all the public, not just a special few that receive monetary gain from harvesting the greatest percentage of that resource.
When striped bass were in greater abundance, the recreational fishing public used that resource to fill their protein needs by consuming these fish far more frequently than they have been allowed to in more recent years. Poor and low income citizens, seniors on limited budgets and the fishing public at large, were drawn to sport fishing for striped bass for more than just recreation. They consumed these fish, which made their recreational time more rewarding and justifiable. In the past, this same justification could be applied to many species of inshore fish, but with the poor management results attained with species including weakfish, summer flounder, tautog, scup, and during middle of this century, even school bluefin tuna, there are few fisheries left in healthy enough condition to sustain recreational fishing at levels seen in prior decades. That is why recreational fishing participation has declined dramatically in the past fifteen years to the detriment of the recreational fishing industry, the loss of thousands of business, both small and large, and the loss of millions of dollars in tax revenues that these businesses generated annually.
One of the most glaring examples of this decline is in the party and charter boat industry that once thrived along our coast. One port, Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York, used to carry thousands of low income anglers each week. Patrons paid to fish on these boats because they had the opportunity to bring home enough fish to feed their families several healthy meals, and, if the trip was particularly productive, some of their friends in the neighborhood. Sheepshead Bay during the 1970's offered over 150 party and charter boats to carry the incredible number of people that came by car, bus, subway and on foot to fish. On a recent trip back to my old home town, I was appalled to see that there was a total of nine boats for hire left in the entire port! Three of them were paying their bills by offering sight seeing tours, because the crowds of anglers no longer come. Once, there were seven tackle stores there carrying every conceivable type of gear. Today, there are only two left and they are holding on by their finger nails. Where is the economic bailout for these businesses and the thousands of companies that provided them with everything from sinkers to rods and reels? Where is the consideration of these businesses, when ASMFC is providing a massive increase in commercial harvest that could bring the fishery back to its knees in short order, while making the recreational sector scratch and fight for every little increase it can squeeze out of the process?
Now, the members of this subcommittee can see why there is little confidence in the ASMFC or any management process for that matter, when it comes to a fair and equable distribution of resource allocation. The marine recreations fishing industry is hanging on by a thread and this thread is the striped bass. Many species of fish that were once were both recreational and commercial in nature have been turned over entirely to the commercial sector in management plans that are short sighted and biased. They include squid, mackerel, butterfish, swordfish, bluefin tuna and surf clams. Weakfish, that were once harvested equally by commercial and recreational sectors (50%/50% distribution), is now harvested at a ratio of 90% commercial and 10% recreational. The stocks are so low that you have to use a net to catch these fish.
Most states that have striped bass in their marine waters have already declared them a gamefish. Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, DC, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and all states in the Pacific range of these fish have found it to be so important to sustaining a healthy recreational fishery and fishing industry that they permit no commercial harvest or sale. With the direction that ASMFC is taking with Amendment 5, which is basically the commercialization of the striped bass fishery, is it any wonder why there is little confidence among anglers and the recreational fishing industry that they can expect a fair and equitable allocation level to be established and maintained. That is why, even as this fish recovers to higher stock levels, there is even a larger push for federal gamefish status for this critically important recreational fishery. Jersey Coast Anglers Association and the New Jersey Congressional Delegation are in the forefront of the battle to pass HR 393. This bill would take the commercial pressure off striped bass once and for all.
With regard to research funded by the Act, there is no question that the funding should be continued. Without scientific research, we would not be enjoying this recovery. The last ten years of research has shown us just how little we actually knew about this species. Even with the great strides we have made, we have run into many problems with the development of Amendment 5 because there is still so much we still do not know. We can only make guesses about how much the Hudson, Delaware and Chesapeake Bay actually contribute to the total stocks. Some years ago, we did not even know for sure at what age females became sexually mature. Today, we still do not have a definite
answer as to the rate at which fish move out of the producer areas and into the coastal migratory stocks.
The biology of the fish has been sorely neglected. We do not understand what forage these fish require throughout their range and we still can not quantify the effects of pollution and habitat loss on the overall health of the stock. To reduce research funding now would be a drastic mistake on the part of this subcommittee.
As fisheries managers we would all like to take full credit for the recovery of the striped bass fishery. But being the honest person that I am, I can not take credit for the rebuilding of the Delaware River stocks. That credit belongs to Congress and to the citizens of New Jersey and Pennsylvania who worked so hard to clean up the Delaware River under the Clean Water Act. The Delaware River was saved through their combined efforts to stop the discharge of sewage and storm drains run off in the Philadelphia/Camden area that created a virtual oxygen block that prevented anadromous fish like the striped bass and shad from moving past this area of polluted waters to their traditional spawning grounds upstream. This is the only river system capable of producing more striped bass now than it did during the "base years." In some ways, the Delaware River was like the Dead Sea. Today, it is a recovering ecosystem that is producing more fish than it has in over sixty years.
Gentlemen, this is not the time to begin tearing down the great work done in improving our waterways. We have seen the results that can be attained by intelligently using the resources made available under the Clean Water Act and we are just seeing the beginning of the benefits it can provide. We can not allow the gutting of this critically important legislation.
Once again, I would like to thank the members of this subcommittee for the opportunity to testify. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have at this time.