A Better Approach to Managing Federal Fisheries on the Table in the Mid-Atlantic Region

  • The 2018 Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (Modern Fish Act) clarified that fisheries could be managed using metrics other than hard pound quotas, such as extraction rates, fishing mortality targets, and harvest control rules.
  • The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission have launched the Recreational Reform Initiative to improve management of the recreational fisheries for summer flounder, scup, black sea bass, and bluefish.
  • As part of the Initiative, the Council and Commission are currently exploring a harvest control rule approach to establish a process for setting recreational measures that prevents overfishing, reflects the status of the stocks, accounts for uncertainty in recreational data, considers angler preferences, and provides some stability and predictability in the fisheries.

Why it matters: On April 22, The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) joined with several other recreational fishing organizations on a comment letter in support of proposed alternative management measures in the Harvest Control Rule Draft Addenda/Framework for summer flounder, scup, black sea bass and bluefish recreational fisheries currently before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC).  Federal fisheries management is predominantly based on a commercial fishing model that sets hard pound quotas known as annual catch limits (ACL’s) and attempts to count or estimate all fish harvested and close the season when the quota is expected to be reached. Unfortunately, in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, it is very difficult to get accurate and timely estimates of the number of fish being caught by recreational anglers. The uncertainty in the recreational data often leads to buffers that reduce the available quota to ensure the harvest does not exceed the recreational ACL. With the data uncertainty and the often-changing dynamics of fish stocks, we need alternative methods of managing recreational fisheries that maximize access while conserving our fisheries resources.

While each of the proposed management alternatives show promise in relying less on expected stock performance based on previous years’ catch data and more on a holistic approach with greater emphasis on stock status indicators and trends, the Percent Change Approach is an option that could be implemented in 2023. 

Federal fisheries management relies heavily on stock assessments focused largely on past catch histories to project what can be caught in the future. The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires harvest to be constrained to an annual catch limit (ACL), which the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) interprets in pounds or numbers of fish. While this system has worked well for commercial fisheries with fewer participants, it does not work well when an estimate of the number of fish harvested by the much larger recreational fishing fleet is needed. In addition, an ACL in pounds or numbers of fish is simply an attempt to predict how many can be caught next season based on what was caught previously. Realtime information on the health of the stock today (fishery-independent data) plays little into setting ACL’s each year, or in the case of the 4 species in this draft framework addendum, a similar recreational harvest limit (RHL).

A harvest control rule, such as those being proposed by the ASMFC and MAFMC, establishes a process for setting recreational bag, size, and season limits for to prevent overfishing while being more reflective of stock status, accounting for uncertainty in the data, considers angler preferences, and provides an appropriate level of stability and predictability in changes from year to year. The currently preferred Percent Change Approach would establish an interim management measure that weighs the reliability of the past recreational catch data with the current stock status based on the last stock assessment. Other proposed options would incorporate even more data, like recruitment indexes and fishing mortality rates, but they have not been fully vetted at this point. Regardless of which option is ultimately chosen, the effort to find a better, more efficient way to manage recreational fisheries is strongly supported by many in the recreational fishing community.

CSF worked diligently to clarify that NMFS and the regional fishery management councils have the authority to manage recreational fisheries using alternative approaches, such as fishing mortality targets, extraction rates and harvest control rules, in the passage of the Modern Fish Act. We will continue to work towards the implementation of alternative management measures in the Mid-Atlantic and other regions that can benefit from improvements to recreational fisheries management. 

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