If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will remember that two weeks ago, I wrote about a recent suggestion by some that we open up the exclusive economic zone, or “EEZ” to striped bass fishing so that anglers in Virginia and North Carolina could have access to the large bodies of big fish that have been found to winter offshore there. It may be a good idea to read that blog before continuing: OF STRIPED BASS, THE EEZ AND THE SAME OLD (EXPLETIVE).
In short, the EEZ is that area of the ocean outside of 3 miles, or what our government considers federal waters. Everything outside of that, up to 200 miles, is off limits to striper fishing. It has been for 25 years. Such a closure was put in place to protect the spawning stock back when things got really bad for striped bass. Since then, it has served as a critical buffer for the species and really the only place the fish don’t get absolutely hammered – at least, not legally.
To understand how critical the EEZ closure is, consider that just last week, on a joint NCDMF/USFWS tagging survey, five people with hook and line gear tagged a total of 274 stripers fishing 24 miles off the North Carolina coast. Included was one 74-pound striper, reportedly 10 or so fish exceeding 50 pounds, and too many 30s and 40s to count. Such large concentrations of big adult fish do indeed occur offshore and currently are not accessible to fishermen. Given the striped bass’ decline, these are exactly the fish we should be protecting, and while there are some enforcement hiccups, we are indeed protecting them. That is unquestionably a good thing.
The EEZ should remain closed. There is absolutely no reason to open it. Certainly, I got some feedback from those who disagree, and while I understand the rationale I think it’s based on a false premise. Their argument is that so much illegal fishing occurs in the EEZ that reducing the bag limit from two to one fish and allowing folks to fish in the EEZ would actually reduce fishing mortality. In other words, instead of killing two fish illegally, they’d be killing one legally. I think that’s bullshit, though. For one, the Coast Guard has actually been really good on the enforcement stuff in the last couple of years. Sure, some illegal targeting of striped bass probably takes place, but from what I’m hearing, it’s not near as significant as it was a few years ago. Like I said in my last EEZ piece, an increasingly sophisticated Coast Guard and serious fines have made most realize that it just isn’t worth it. Frankly, I kinda think the guys using the reduced fishing mortality argument are really just throwing it out there, because they are simply interested in getting on those large concentrations of wintering fish.
So, now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, the point of this week’s blog is to take a look at what opening up the EEZ to just catch-and-release fishing would mean. And I bring this up now, because at the last Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) meeting the Striped Bass Board discussed the potential of such an opening, which confused me a little bit, because… well, because catch-and-release fishing already exists in the EEZ.
Technically, it’s not legal to fish for them. The language in the regulation is pretty clear on that point. But it really appears to be an unenforceable regulation, as the angler isn’t retaining the evidence. So, one could just claim he/she was targeting another species. That said, the scuttlebutt is that some perhaps overly ambitious boarding officers have been boarding vessels and writing tickets for people fishing in areas of the EEZ where there doesn’t appear to be anything but striped bass. Or maybe it was that they were just writing warnings. I don’t know. Either way, this is the first I’ve heard of any such enforcement action for catch-and-release fishing in the EEZ.
As I referenced in the last EEZ blog, there are lots of businesses in both Virginia and North Carolina that simply don’t have much business anymore, because, for one, there’s real enforcement of the EEZ closure now, but also because the stock has contracted to the point where the inshore/legal striper fishery in the winter is virtually non-existent. So, making it legal to go out and target some of these large wintering fish in the EEZ might indeed help these guys out. I mean, the point is that these guys could advertise such a fishery. Get guys to drive down from Jersey, etc. to get in on it. So from that perspective I do get it. And this is precisely why the subject was brought up at ASMFC.
On the surface it sounds pretty harmless, right? What could be wrong with such a policy? And why wouldn’t we all want this? Seems like a win/win. But I think we have to be very careful. If this was 2006 and we were at peak abundance, I’d probably be inclined to think, yeah, this a good idea – and probably harmless. But we aren’t there anymore. In fact we’re in the midst of a pretty precipitous decline, and it’s very possible that we’ll be over the fishing mortality threshold (read overfishing) and the stock will have fallen below the spawning stock biomass threshold (read overfished) by the end of this year.
With that in mind, we have to understand that even with an all-release fishery, there will be some release/discard mortality. I’m pretty sure 8 percent is the number the assessment uses. That may not sound significant, but extrapolated over all those fish that are caught and released (remember the 274 stripers caught in the tagging survey by one boat with only five anglers on board) you’ve definitely got an increase in fishing mortality. And we’ve also got to remember that these are pretty much all old, large fish – the ones where the real release mortality rate is generally much higher than 8 percent.
The other thing that concerns me about making such a catch-and-release fishery “legal” is that I suspect it will invite non-compliance. The big fleets of boats outside of the 3 mile limit used to send up red flags. That won’t be the case if there’s a “legal” fishery out there, which is fine, assuming everyone is in compliance, prosecuting a strictly catch-and-release fishery… I doubt that will be the case. There will likely be a significant number of knuckleheads hiding fish in compartments.
Yeah, I don’t really know where I’m at on this right now. Really, I don’t think this stock needs any increase in fishing mortality right now, even if it’s incremental. On the other hand, I intuitively think, “So what, it’s catch-and-release… there won’t be that much mortality, and people are doing it anyway” (of course it will be on a much larger scale now though). But that’s just a gut feeling, and my gut is often wrong. The logical part of me thinks this is a bad idea, at least right now. I guess for me to really make up my mind, I’d have to see a full analysis by the Striped Bass Technical Committee, but I suspect such an analysis would be less than comprehensive. Often such analyses don’t take into account noncompliance, not to mention all the boneheads who don’t know how to – or simply don’t take the time or expend the energy to – properly release a big fish. In other words, I suspect the Technical Committee would just apply the 8 percent release mortality rate across the board. And I believe, particularly with the large fish we’re talking about here, that it is much higher.
Where are we now with all of this? As mentioned, the initial, albeit abbreviated discussion has taken place at ASMFC. If I understood that conversation correctly, commissioners need more info/analysis from the Technical Committee, and they also wanted to hear from the Advisory Panel (I look forward to weighing in here!). I should note here though that that ASMFC in itself cannot reopen the EEZ. It can recommend only that the feds (NOAA Fisheries) open the area again. Of course, given the processes for making such public decisions, the feds would have to offer significant justification to reopen the EEZ, there would have to be scoping, public hearings, etc. So I certainly don’t think that this is something that’s right around the corner. That said, I do know that the Coast Guard already has had some preliminary discussions on how they might enforce such an all-release fishery.
Moving forward, I guess we’ll see how this all shakes out. Stay tuned! I’ll be sure to be reporting on this as we get more information.