The September issue of the Bay Journal described the decision of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to include a five-year phase-out of the ocean fishery in its new management plan for American shad. This is a landmark decision that will give a boost to shad restoration in the Bay, but a few additional points should be made to prevent the reader from having a misimpression of the ASMFC decision.
It was stated in the article that a recent ASMFC shad stock assessment found no evidence that ocean shad fishing was “harming” the shad populations in any of the seven rivers studied. Citing this “lack of evidence,” a state official suggested that capping the fishery would be a better option, because it would allow more study to take place. Unstated was the fact that the ASMFC decision allows states to do nothing for three years, effectively allowing three more years of study if a state feels that a better option can be demonstrated.
More important to the discussion are certain details of the stock assessment. It looked at seven out of 30 or 40 historic shad runs coastwide, because those were the only rivers with sufficient data for the analysis. Not surprisingly, data were available for those seven rivers primarily because those are the only rivers left with significant numbers of shad. The effect of the ocean fishery on the majority of rivers along the coast, the ones in depleted condition, could not be analyzed. The only run included in the analysis from the Chesapeake was the upper Bay/Susquehanna system which has been under intensive hatchery stocking for more than 20 years with an upper Bay fishing moratorium for 18 years. Yet even with its modest improvement, that run is far short of historic levels.
It is misleading to say the assessment found no evidence that ocean fishing was “harming” any population studied. It found no evidence of “overfishing” in five of the seven studied, but an important qualification of those results was made by the peer review of the stock assessment. The review pointed out that the benchmark for overfishing used in the assessment is only appropriate for “healthy” stocks and that for depleted stocks, “managers should consider lower levels of fishing or fishing moratoriums…” The review went on to recommend river-specific management and to say that “the magnitudes of mixed-stock (intercept) fisheries are sufficient to threaten small stocks and to hinder restoration efforts of hatchery-supplemented stocks.” Clearly the statement in the article by an ocean fisherman that the ASMFC decision had no scientific merit is groundless.
The term, “mixed stock” in this case refers to the fact that when in the ocean, shad from many different rivers migrate together. An ocean fishery, therefore, typically takes shad from several river populations at once. Because shad return to spawn in the same river where they were spawned, individual rivers support individual populations. Some river populations like the Delaware and Hudson are relatively healthy, while many others, like most of those in the Chesapeake, are severely depleted.
While it may seem to ocean fishermen that there are plenty of shad in the ocean, some are the remnants of historic populations, and one set of the net can potentially set back restoration efforts. As long as attempts are under way to restore these runs with millions of dollars being spent on fish passages, hatchery stocking and habitat improvement, it doesn’t make sense to take the few shad that are left while they migrate in the ocean.
The ASMFC made a responsible, defensible management decision by choosing to manage shad on a river-specific basis. It provides the incentive for states to conduct shad restoration programs and the potential for them to succeed.