by Rich Troxler
The president of Striper Surf Club, Chris Sippel, was nice enough to invite me to a presentation that the ASMFC was giving to his club on Monday 6/3/13. Several notables were there including Willie Young and Doc Muller, as well as representatives from other fishing clubs. The presentation kicked off at about 9:00 pm and was given by a well-spoken young man named Mike. The presentation was basically divided into four parts.
The first part explained what the ASMFC was, how it operates, and where it fits into the political picture of marine species management. The second part covered information about the striped bass, it's life-cycle, feeding habits, breeding habits, etc. The third part introduced some management terminology along with explanations of what kind of data is collected and how it is graphically represented. The fourth part was a summary of how the ASMFC uses this data and what the ultimate goals were.
The presentation was well laid out, interesting and informative. Much of the data was data that I've seen before on various threads in the surf board and only covered up to 2010. According to Mike, the speaker, the next assessment is due out this summer which will cover up to 2012. After the presentation concluded there was a Q&A session, and this is where it became interesting.
Several attendees questioned the ASMFC's practices in how they gather information and how accurate that information actually was. Doc Muller even made a claim that the 2007 figures were completely wrong, this based on his own knowledge of marine biology. There were also discussions on what the surf community is observing and how it is very different than what some of the data indicates. Mike did a great job handling the questions and issues and took a lot of notes to take back to Virginia with him. He seemed to have a genuine interest in the well-being of the striped bass and was open to suggestions on how to improve the management of the resource.
For my part, there were several items that stuck out immediately to me, though I never got a chance to discuss these during the Q&A session. One of them involves the "mortality" figures. By his own admission, mortality figures are very "soft" simply because nobody is present when a fish dies naturally, and they have nowhere near the manpower to accurately assess commercial by catch. They also had no figures factored into their equations for illegal poaching. But what really struck me is this.
At one point during the presentation, Mike spoke about mycobacteriosis and that it is estimated that somewhere between 50+% to as high as 90+% (can't remember the exact numbers) of all fish in the Chesapeake stock are infected with it. It is ultimately fatal to striped bass. Yet these figures did not seem to jibe with the figures that were shown in his "mortality" graph. Here's my point.
My understanding is that the Chesapeake stock accounts for 70 something percent of the total biomass. This also means that this is the primary area of recruitment for the biomass. So let's use the middle range of mycobacteriosis infected fish, 70% (used by the Chesapeake website) and what you wind up with is 70% of your total biomass is made up of 70% infected fish that ultimately die. The exact number is not needed for the sake of this discussion, but that would put mortality from mycobacteriosis at roughly 50% of the total biomass. And that's just from mycobacteriosis.
The "natural" mortality figure considers of all kinds causes for mortality including predation and environmental (lack of forage, weather, etc.) but the small section for "natural mortality" on the pie chart shown during the presentation did not seem to represent what could easily be a much higher number. The fact that other than the year before last, we've had little or no recruitment from the Chesapeake for something like 7-8 years now, and last year was the worst on record, would seem to bear this out.
There were also a few other things I noticed from the various graphs and charts that were shown. The general trends for overall biomass, recruitment, recreational angler catches, were all trending down, and again this is based on their last assessment that covers up to 2010. These all seem to be consistent and make logical sense, meaning less recruitment = less biomass = less fish to catch. And while recreational angler catch rate was down, commercial catch remained level. This is not a comm vs rec argument as I have no dog in that race. It's just looking at numbers. But despite the trends, the total biomass is still above the threshold trigger point on the graphs, and while I have some philosophical issues on managing trends with on / off switches, I'll leave that as a topic for another discussion.
Of a positive note, Mike did indicate that the ASMFC has recently worked with the enforcement divisions of many coastal states and has succeeded in getting the fines for illegal poaching ratcheted up to a whole new level. These fines were traditionally treated by the commercial corporations as simply a cost of doing business. According to Mike, the new fines will be sufficiently high enough to act as a deterrent to the business as usual approach to poaching.
As part of the Q&A, Mike encouraged attendees to offer ways that could make data taking more effective and accurate. He asked if any of the attendees had ever been approached by a statistic taker doing on-site surveys. None had been, no surprise there seeing as most of those guys fish at night. One person suggested that perhaps having clubs and those most actively involved in fishing, participate in a program that involved providing their catch logs, but another attendee said that it would skew data because those most interested in participating would probably be those who catch the most fish.
While the initial impression that voluntary participation would skew data seemed to hold water, I found myself mulling it over in my head. After a time it occurred to me that what was missing from the equation was a data axis, that being time engaged in fishing. The whole point is to capture trends in the fishery and getting information from those whose spend the most time actively involved in it should be a good thing.
Instead of just focusing on just the number of fish caught, the real focus should be on the ratio of time expended catching those fish. Like many fishermen, I have traditional areas and bites that I follow year after year, spring, summer and fall. Charting the amount of time I spend fishing against the number of fish I catch, over the seasons, over the years, would be very useful information. If you had tens of thousands of fishermen participating up and down the coast, this could provide a tremendous amount of information on species distribution throughout the year as well as serving as a biomass indicator.
It would be a far more comprehensive and focused overview of what is happening up and down the coast because it represents the entire year of effort and not just some sampling during specific times of the year, or census taking by 9 to 5er's doing random surveys in marina parking lots. I'm not saying that this should be in place of other, or existing data gathering techniques, but as an adjunct, the resulting trends up and down the coast could serve in the assessment of the fishery.
The nice thing about this approach to data gathering is that it doesn't really add to the cost of management, other than setting up a standard form and another database to enter the data. You don't have to hire more census takers, as participants would do so voluntarily, simply because most avid fisherpersons have a vested interest in protecting the health of the striped bass biomass. Many of those who fish already take part in tagging programs and such, so this would just be another small task in that effort.
I'll leave you with this. One bit of information I picked up during the presentation came as a bit of a surprise to me. I was not aware that mycobacteriosis can be transmitted to humans, so if you don't already know this, you do now. If you catch a fish with lesions or large patches of discoloration, don't touch it. Unhook it with pliers and do what you will with it, but definitely don't bring it home for dinner. So all in all, it was an enjoyable night with good company, great conversation and valuable information provided, so again I thank Chris for the invite.