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Striped Bass & Bluefish

Saltwater Marine Fishing Regulations Rhode Island Saltwater Fishing

Understanding Striped Bass and Blue Fish Regulations

By. Nicole Lengyel Costa, Principal Marine Biologist, RI DEM Division of Marine Fisheries

Assessing the overall health and condition of a fish stock is one of the primary objectives for fisheries managers. This information is used to set fisheries regulations that allow for the sustainable harvest of a species and ensure the population will persist for future generations. Recreational catch and effort estimates are important data sources for any species stock assessment. This data can inform the model about how much recreational fishing pressure a species is under and characterize the recreational fishery removals from both harvest and releases. The Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) is a collaborative recreational data collection and estimation program that includes state, regional, and federal partners. Recreational data is collected from anglers and Captains through a suite of surveys, each designed to collect unique information that is used in the overall estimation of recreational catch and effort.

In recent years, MRIP has implemented several changes to their survey design that prompted a complete re-calibration of the entire MRIP time series of data. The newly calibrated MRIP catch and effort estimates were made available for management use in 2018. The incorporation of these new estimates into species stock assessments has changed what we thought we understood about the state of several stocks, including striped bass and bluefish.

Striped Bass

The 2018 Atlantic striped bass benchmark stock assessment was accepted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) striped bass board (Board) for management use in May of 2019. According to the assessment, female spawning stock biomass (SSB) in 2017 was estimated at 151 million pounds, a value below both the target and threshold levels, 252 million pounds and 202 million pounds respectively (Figure 1). Fishing mortality in 2017 was estimated to be 0.31, a value above both the target and threshold levels, 0.20 and 0.24 respectively. These findings indicate the striped bass stock is overfished and experiencing overfishing. Furthermore, the stock has been overfished since 2013 and has been experiencing overfishing since 2010.

Figure 1. Atlantic striped bass spawning stock biomass (top) and fishing mortality (bottom).

Source: Atlantic striped bass stock assessment, 2018. The stock is currently managed in state waters by the ASMFC through Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Atlantic striped bass and its subsequent addenda. Amendment 6 contains five management triggers that require board action should they be tripped. The findings of the 2018 benchmark stock assessment tripped four out of five management triggers, requiring the Board to take action to reduce fishing mortality to a level at or below the fishing mortality target in a one-year time frame, and adjust the management program to rebuild biomass. In response, the Board initiated Addendum VI to the striped bass FMP in May of 2019. The addendum, which was subsequently adopted by the Board in October of 2019, reduces all state commercial quotas by 18%, implements a one fish bag limit and 28” – < 35” slot limit for all recreational ocean fisheries, and implements a one fish bag limit and 18” minimum size for the Chesapeake Bay recreational fisheries. The flexibility for states to pursue alternate management programs through conservation equivalency (CE) is also maintained in the addendum.

In response to comments received by stakeholders, RI developed and pursued two state-specific CE proposals as well as a regional CE proposal, that included the neighboring states of CT and NY, to help ensure regional consistency. The CE proposals submitted to the ASMFC included:

  • 1 fish bag limit and 32” – < 40” slot limit for all RI recreational anglers
  • 1 fish bag limit and 32” – < 40” slot limit for all RI recreational private/shore anglers, and 30” – < 40” slot limit for all RI recreational for-hire vessels
  • 1 fish bag limit and 30” – < 40” slot limit for all RI, CT, and NY recreational anglers

All three proposals were approved by the ASMFC striped bass technical committee (TC) and reviewed by the Board at their February 2020 meeting. While the two RI state-specific proposals were approved by the Board, the RI/CT/NY regional proposal was not and was therefore no longer an option for RI to move forward with.

Having three viable options to choose from for 2020 striped bass management, the RIDEM held a public hearing on February 10, 2020 to solicit feedback from RI stakeholders. Comments submitted during the public comment period conveyed support for all three CE proposals as well as the addendum VI coastwide measure. After consideration of all public comment received, the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council (RIMFC) met on March 2, 2020 to form a recommendation to the RIDEM Director. The RIMFC voted 5-1 in support of the RI CE proposal to implement a one fish bag limit, 32” – < 40” slot limit for all RI recreational private/shore anglers, and 30” – < 40” slot limit for all RI recreational for-hire vessels.

After careful consideration and deliberation of all relevant materials, public comment, the RIMFC recommendation, and the RIDEM Division of Marine Resources recommendation, the RIDEM Director issued her final decision memo on March 11, 2020. The Director expressed in her memo that it was determined to be in the best interest of the striped bass resource, and the recreational fishing community as a whole, to enact the Addendum VI coast wide measure of a one fish bag limit and 28” – < 35” slot limit for all RI recreational anglers. Some of the key factors that were considered, and that the decision memo presents a thorough analysis on, included resource conservation, risk, compliance and enforceability, and equity.

Although it is expected that this decision will be especially disappointing to the RI for-hire industry, the RIDEM continues our commitment to pursuing separate for-hire regulations across species through the ASMFC. This has already been accomplished for scup, tautog, American eel, and most recently bluefish.

Bluefish

The 2019 Bluefish Operational Stock Assessment indicates that bluefish are overfished but are not experiencing overfishing. The assessment estimated that in 2018, the terminal year of data used, SSB was 201 million pounds, which is below the threshold of 219 million pounds (Figure 2). Fishing mortality, however, was estimated to be 0.146 in 2018, below the threshold of 0.183. Although the stock was not found to be experiencing overfishing in 2018, it had been experiencing overfishing in all prior years from 1985 through 2017. In response to these findings, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) approved a reduced acceptable biological catch (ABC) for the 2020 fishing season that translated to a recreational harvest limit (RHL) of 9.48 million pounds, an 18% reduction from the 2019 RHL. It was projected that if 2019 recreational regulations were maintained for 2020, the 2020 RHL would be exceeded by 28.56%. As a result, the MAFMC and ASMFC, responsible for bluefish management in federal and state waters respectively, approved new recreational management measures for 2020 to constrain bluefish recreational harvest and prevent the 2020 RHL from being exceeded.

Figure 2. Bluefish spawning stock biomass and recruitment (top) and total catch and fishing mortality (bottom).

Source: Bluefish operational stock assessment, 2019.

To achieve the reduced harvest in 2020, the MAFMC and ASMFC considered several management alternatives that included consistent coastwide regulations for all recreational fishing sectors, as well as sector-specific regulations. The bluefish advisory panel (AP) expressed extreme concern regarding the economic impact that would be experienced by the for-hire sector as a result of a reduced bag limit for bluefish, considering other regulatory restrictions for striped bass, black sea bass, summer flounder, and scup would also be taking effect in 2020. As a result, a 3 fish bag limit for the private/shore sector, and a 5 fish bag limit for the for-hire sector, was recommended by the MAFMC and adopted by ASMFC. The MAFMC and ASMFC also added the development of a bluefish rebuilding plan to the scope of the Bluefish Reallocation and Rebuilding Amendment.

As a result of changing the initial scope of the bluefish amendment to add stock rebuilding, the MAFMC and ASMFC held additional scoping hearings along the coast in February and March of 2020, with a RI hearing being held on February 26, 2020. Development of the amendment is expected to continue throughout 2020 with final action expected as early as spring of 2021.

References:

Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). 2019a. “66th Northeast Regional Stock Assessment Workshop (66th SAW) Assessment Summary Report.” NEFSC Reference Document 19–08: 1175 p.

———. 2019b. “Operational Assessments for Black Sea Bass, Scup, and Bluefish.”: 164 p.