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Last updated 3/07

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Originally Published in Jan/Feb edition of Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine



Did stripers and red drum catch a break?

By Capt. John McMurray


There was much excitement on the morning of October 19th.  An article asserting that the President would sign an executive order prohibiting commercial sale of striped bass and red drum the following day was being circulating widely on the internet.  Encouraging, but there was doubt as to whether or not the Feds could legally force states to implement gamefish status. The states have the authority to manage their own stocks as long as they comply with Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) management plans.


On October 20th President Bush gave a speech at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD then signed an Executive Order prohibiting the harvest and sale of striped bass and red drum caught within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) - the Federal Waters located between 3 to 200-miles from the shoreline.    What the President did not mention is that NOAA Fisheries had closed the EEZ well over two decades ago in support of rebuilding plans for those species. Thus, targeting and possession by recreational and commercial fishermen on federal waters was already prohibited.  The Executive Order did nothing to prohibit commercial take of the two species in state waters, the only area where such harvest legally exists.


So, arguably the Executive Order was redundant.  Due to the fanfare and the lack of mention of the prior closure, I wondered if the President or anyone around him had been aware that a moratorium in Federal Waters already existed.  Jim Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality cleared this up at a press conference, declaring that the President was well aware of this fact.  “The executive order deals with federal waters where these fish — where the catch of these fish is already banned,” he said “and we're talking about a conservation management measure as we move forward.”  It was unclear at first what he meant by “conservation measure” as there appeared to be zero conservation gain associated with closing an area already closed. 


There was the suggestion that the non-gamefish states would be encouraged to decommercialize such species in their waters.  The President’s executive order explicitly directs federal agencies to work with state officials to find innovative ways to help conserve striped bass and red drum.  “And one such way is to use the state designation of gamefish where appropriate” said the President, “I hope the state officials take a serious look at gamefish designation; it is an effective tool to protect endangered or dwindling species.”  Of course neither species is endangered and only red drum could be considered “dwindling” in some areas.  But gamefish status can help both stocks greatly, assuming the commercial quota is set aside as a conservation buffer and not merely reallocated so that anglers can kill them.  Such was the case in New Jersey where the commercial striper quota rematerialized as a “bonus tag” for anglers. 


There was even some scuttlebutt that the President had agreed to call up the state governors and personally ask them to implement gamefish laws.  Encouraging, but one must take into account that a lame duck president with a historically low approval rating may not have much clout, particularly in the fisheries management realm. Thus, no state seems ready to adopt the President’s suggestions.  "We have no plans right now to end our commercial fishery," said Steve Heins of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's Bureau of Marine Resources, during an interview with Newsday.  Other non-gamefish states displayed similar sentiment. 


So is the executive order just a bunch of hype?  “This is nothing but an opportunity for a president with a 30% approval rating to surround himself with fisheries leaders and trumpet his environmental record, which of course is terrible” said a contributor to a popular listserve.  While there may have been some political grandstanding here, and there was certainly some hyperbole in the President’s speech and executive order, the fact remains that the executive order contains real benefit.  Here is why:


There has been significant commercial pressure to open the EEZ up to harvest of both red drum and stripers.  The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council had recently moved to explore reopening redfish harvest in federal waters.  Back in 2003, NOAA Fisheries announced that it was considering reopening the EEZ to striped bass harvest.  An uncertain stock assessment temporarily took the proposal off the table, but it resurfaced again just last year. 


Thus, the value in the executive order is that it preemptively bans the catch and sale of redfish and stripers if NOAA Fisheries ever lifts the current ban on commercial and recreational fishing in federal waters.   Unfortunately, that sets up the distinct possibility of a new policy allowing only recreational catch in the EEZ.  Some folks in the recreational fishing industry are already chomping at the bit to fish in federal waters. Opening the EEZ to anglers has the potential to significantly increase harvest, and possibly reverse many of the gains made in recent years.  Most of the red drum and bass taken in the EEZ are the large and fecund fish with the greatest reproductive potential, and these are the fish that need sanctuary the most.  Keeping the EEZ closed provides a safe haven for the most important members of the spawning stock.


By prohibiting commercial harvest in the EEZ, the executive order has taken away any incentive that commercial fishers have to push for an EEZ opening, making it less likely that an EEZ opening for anyone, including anglers, will occur.  But, the most profound implication of the executive order is the explicit adoption of no-sale provisions as a tool for the conservation and allocation of particular species.  “We are probably moving toward the day when commercial fishers in salt water will be limited to abundant, fast-maturing species (fluke, scup, etc.) and those not of general interest to anglers (tilefish, monkfish), and will no longer be permitted to exploit recreationally popular, slow-growing predators such as striped bass,” notes CCA NY state chairman Charles Witek.  “The Executive Order is one step along that evolutionary path; it should not be seen as a radical departure, but instead a logical next step in the effort to rationalize fishery management and bring it into accord with the practices and philosophy that have developed over the past century to manage wildlife generally for the long-term benefit of the public.”