June 13, 2013 – The Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) this week approved an Omnibus Recreational Amendment to evaluate alternatives to the accountability measures (AMs) currently in place for the recreational Atlantic mackerel, bluefish, summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass fisheries.

The successful vote by Council in favor of removing general in-season closure authority from NOAA Fisheries and halt implementation of recreational payback on healthy fish stocks is seen by the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) as a benchmark decision for other regional fisheries councils to follow.

“The Mid Atlantic council has truly taken a leadership position with this vote, and RFA is grateful for the dedicated work of Council staff under the leadership of executive director Chris Moore, and especially for the ongoing support of council chair Rick Robins from Virginia,” said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio.  “Of course, it also helps when you have a Northeast administrator for NOAA Fisheries like John Bullard supporting the cause for common sense fisheries management under a completely broken federal system.”

The MAFMC vote to remove the general in-season closure authority from the Northeast regional office of NOAA Fisheries was one of the key AM issues of concern to recreational anglers, especially those who target black sea bass.  Such in-season closure authority was used as recently as the fall of 2012, bringing a premature close last year’s black sea bass fishery.  For a region already impacted by Mother Nature in the form of Superstorm Sandy, the closure was another blow to regional and local economies as well as adversely affecting jobs.

Northeast Regional Administrator John Bullard noted specifically the word’s of council member Tony Dilernia (NY) that the federal government may actually be closing down the 2014 black sea bass fishery because the stock is simply too healthy.  “So I’m scratching my head saying we’re closing the fishery ‘cause there’s too many fish, so that doesn’t make sense, right?” Bullard noted in December, adding “in 2014 that’s what we’d be doing, and so this is the problem we have to solve.”

The Council vote to remove the in-season closure authority was nearly unanimous, with Council members Dilernia, Steve Linhard (MD), Rob O’Reilly (VA) and Chris Zeman (NJ) leading the argument in favor of the change.  While NOAA Fisheries could still implement an emergency closure if needed, such a decision would have to first be approved at the top by U.S. Secretary of Commerce and would only be for situations when an emergency or overfishing existed as stipulated by Magnuson.

MAFMC also voted to restrict payback of any harvest overage in the annual catch limits for recreational fishermen to those species that a B/BMmsy ratio of greater than 1; in other words, there will be no payback mechanism in place for those fisheries which have been determined to be rebuilt stocks in the Mid-Atlantic region includes black sea bass, summer flounder, porgy, and bluefish.  For those fisheries not fully rebuilt, any payback will be scaled relative to how nearly fully rebuilt the fishery is.  The Mid-Atlantic is the only Council in the nation that has paybacks in recreational fisheries.

Capt. Adam Nowalsky, chairman of the RFA-NJ chapter, was the only member of the recreational community in attendance to speak in opposition to the in-season closures and payback mechanisms presently in place.  “As highlighted by Council staff, paybacks are punitive in nature,” commented Nowalsky.  He also added that, “while RFA remains entirely opposed to paybacks, limiting and scaling paybacks only to those fisheries that may be afforded some conversation benefit towards rebuilding is a major step in the right direction.”

Council member Steve Heins (NY) supported the RFA position of no paybacks, commenting that if managers set regulations that are not successful in constraining harvest, then perhaps, “the managers should be punished and not the fishermen.”

Another major victory for recreational fishermen was Council action relative to the quality of the data used for the triggers of the accountability measures described above “Accountability measures would only be triggered by a three-year average of the lower limit for the confidence interval of the recreational harvest,” said Capt. Nowalsky. “In other words, instead of treating recreational landings as an absolute number, the Council is recognizing this data as an estimate with an inherent variability.  Recreational catch estimates exist within a range as opposed to an absolute, to-the-pound number, and only the lower range of that number should trigger a punitive measure.”

The council’s decision to remove the general in-season closure authority from the Northeast regional office of NOAA Fisheries, restrict overage payback in the recreational sector for rebuilt fish stocks, while incorporating analysis of statistical confidence intervals on a three-year average must first be approved by NOAA Fisheries, but RFA expects the support of the regional office out of Gloucester, MA.

“What was done here needs to be incorporated into the reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act so that future regional councils are not bound by various interpretation of a broken law, this is something that needs to be put back into the federal law to guide these fisheries councils,” said Donofrio.  “It’s a shame that this wasn’t attacked with more support five years ago before the ACL and AM madness upended our recreational fishing community and put so many of our recreational fishing businesses in jeopardy.”

“Our hope is that the Mid Atlantic council’s action this week will help empower some of the other council members around the country, to stand up for common sense and not simply rubber-stamp the bureaucratic interpretation of a bad law,” Donofrio added.