DMF proposes ‘no possession’ restriction on CSMA striped bass

By Rip Woodin

CCA NC Editor

The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission voted 6-3 at its November meeting to seek a supplement for the estuarine striped bass Fisheries Management Plan that would lead to a self-sustaining population in the Neuse and Tar/Pamlico Rivers.

The sections of the rivers under discussion are in the joint and coastal waters of the striped bass Central Southern Management Area that are not governed by federal regulations set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for waters further north.

The request goes to Department of Environment Quality Secretary Michael Regan for approval. As part of the supplement, the MFC could vote in February 2019 to impose a temporary “no possession” restriction recommended by DMF staff on striped bass for both recreational and commercial fishermen until the supplement is completed, or importantly, other rules adopted.  The staff recommendation does not, however, require commercial fishermen to remove their gill nets from the water during the moratorium while harvesting other species including jumping mullet, speckled trout and flounder.

CCA NC fisheries committee chairman, Dr. Chris Elkins, said putting a moratorium on directed harvest would increase the number of fish in the water, however allowing nets to stay in the water would lead to a significant increase in dead discards of striped bass in other fisheries. “The recommendation to leave nets in the water is based on sea turtle observer data of striped bass that is likely not representative of the gill net fishery and inadequate,” Elkins said.

The Incidental Take Permit for sea turtle observers has no requirement for the program to be representative, only a percent coverage (7% large mesh, 1% small mesh), Elkins said.  There were 961 total observed gill net trips from the six years between 2012 and 2017 (observer rate 3.8%), and no observer trips from the eight years between 2004 and 2011, he continued.   Using such low numbers to extrapolate the gill net by-catch is dangerous without a rigorous statistical power analysis, which was not provided.  “How many of these trips observed striped bass?  Would that number be enough to base management on, and is such data superior to the several peer reviewed, compelling reports from the Wildlife Resources Commission?” Elkins posed.

Specifically, results from a 2018 study by WRC biologists Kyle Rachels and Benjamin Ricks “indicate that reducing exploitation (harvest) to target levels will require substantial reductions in gill net effort in areas of the Neuse River where striped bass are found.”

Gill net effort was the most important predictor of spawning stock mortality relative to the four-predictor variables examined in the WRC study. “Commercial harvest was the second most important predictor of spawning stock mortality, while summer dissolved oxygen and surface water temperature did not substantially influence spawning stock mortality,” their study said.

“Reducing exploitation may increase spawning stock biomass and advance the age structure of spawning females,” which could increase the likelihood of successful recruitment and sizable year classes, Rachels and Ricks concluded.

The impetus for the DMF recommendation was the surprising appearance this summer of two large year classes of striped bass whose origin continues to puzzle biologists. Earlier genetic studies indicated little natural reproduction since DNA from captured fish matched parental DNA from stocked fish. This year, however, the DNA analysis from the current two large classes of fish do not match stocked fish DNA (NC DMF). This infers that either a robust natural reproduction occurred or perhaps fish migrating from other rivers were the source of these fish. Historical DNA (standards) from native Neuse or Tar/Pamlico Rivers are not available to unequivocally determine parentage.

One element of the DMF presentation’s that was internally inconsistent showed recreational removals in the CSMA skyrocketing due to the increased number of fish from these two year classes, while the commercial removals remained steady or declining in the last two years. “To nothave an increase in commercial removals is hard to swallow in the face of the magnitude of recreational increases.  “There is no argument that there have been a lot of fish present in the system in the last two years.  The fact that recreational removals have increased substantially, but that commercial removals has not suggests a lack of sensitivity in the method used to collect commercial data-the gill net observer program.  Clearly the validity of this methodology and the data from it needs scrutiny.”

The DMF presentation had the following conclusions:

  • The average yearly harvest and dead discards from 2012-17 in the CSMA was 4,480 striped bass by commercial fishermen and 5,913 fish by recreational anglers.
  • 43% of recreational striped bass harvest is from coastal and joint waters while 57% is from the inland portion of the water.*
  • A 26-inch minimum harvest size reduces the recreational harvest in all jurisdictions by 96.9%. The same restriction would cut commercial harvest by 91.9%.
  • Total recreational fishing trips in 2017 approached 120,000 while targeted striped bass trips were about 25,000.
  • The economic impact of recreational fishing in the Neuse, Tar and Pamlico Rivers in 2016 was $5,158,000.**
  • The average dockside value of landings from all gill nets in the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers 2012-17 approached $750,000.
  • Commercial fishermen have a 25,000-pound striped bass total allowable landings figure valued at $75,000 or 10% of the stocking costs.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service spends about $750,000 in operational and follow-up study costs to stock striped bass in the CSMA for recreational anglers, although commercial operations harvest about 70% of the fish, Elkins said citing WRC studies.

The DMF presentation was handed out 30 minutes before the MFC Thursday session began, when it should have been available two weeks prior to the discussion so written comments could have been offered, Elkins said, citing WRC studies.

CCA NC Executive Director David Sneed said the conservation organization was very concerned with the proposed “no possession” restriction while leaving gill nets in the affected waters. “We believe the DMF science on gill net mortality is woefully inadequate and would never pass peer review,” he said.

“In addition, the ‘two important year classes’ that DMF refers to are fish that are currently 16-20 inches in length. If a 26-inch minimum size were established by DMF in joint and coastal waters equal to WRC’s new 26-inch minimum size in inland waters, these fish would be protected for another two or threeyears while the new FMP is being developed,” Sneed said. “The impact of a significant increase in legal minimum size will not have near the negative economic consequences on the recreational industry in this area as a total closure.”

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