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posted in: General

October 18, 2013

Ocean Planning Makes Sense

Photo courtesy of Flyfishinsalt.com

This is being written on what was going to be “Black Thursday.” The day the idiots in DC wanted to see what might happen if the United States welched on its promise to pay. Don’t get me started on this subject. Needless to say, in their infinite wisdom, they have kicked the can down the road for a couple of months, so we can ruin the Holiday Season listening to their partisan bickering.

Despite this aberrant behavior, the process of trying to have some control over the development of our territorial oceans continues. I know that some in the recreational fishing industry think that “ocean planning” is part of the great conspiracy to totally eliminate extractive activities like recreational or commercial fishing. They feel that this process is simply “ocean zoning” intent on removing fishing. Maybe it is and I am just too naive to see it, but there are too many signs pointing in other directions. First, I don’t believe in the great conspiracy theory and secondly, I think that doing some real planning makes a whole lot of sense and I understand that in that process there will be winners and losers. The best description, IMO, of how ocean planning should work is found on Sea Plan’s, an independent ocean planning policy group, website: “Coastal and marine spatial planning (CMSP) aims to distribute and accommodate both traditional and emerging ocean activities to produce sustainable economic and social benefits while minimizing spatial conflicts and environmental impacts.  CMSP is an iterative process that uses the best available science along with stakeholder input to support integrated, adaptable, and forward-looking ocean management decision-making.”

The part of the process that I find objectionable is the building of more bureaucracy to complete this task. There are already agencies at the federal, regional and state level that deal with these issues. Do we need several layers of bureaucracy just to get these organizations to play in the sandbox together?

In any case, here in New England, we have the Northeast Regional Ocean Council (NROC), which appears to be a regional version of the National Ocean Council (NOC). However, it was organized by the NE Governors about 5 years prior to NOC, which was established under an Executive order from President Obama and likely the genesis of the anti-ocean planning movement. Many feel that this was merely an end run around the failed legislation called Oceans 21. Again, maybe it was, but that does not negate the need for some real thinking about how we use our oceans. Things such as renewable energy development, at sea LNG terminals, pipeline construction, ocean mining, etc, etc are going to happen. In comparison to those industries, fishing doesn’t stand a chance. We would be road kill on the developmental highway without some controlling structure.

While, I don’t happen to believe that it is enough, fishing does have some representation at the Northeast Regional Planning Body (RPB) level. This is through a representative from the New England Fishery Management Council sitting at the RPB table. Yes, fishing is just one voice among many, but without any representation, there would be no chance.

Recently, a coalition of marine interests including SeaPlan, representatives of the boating industry, New England states and the state of New York, U.S. Coast Guard, and NROC conducted a survey titled Northeast Recreational Boating Survey. This effort was designed to get stakeholder input on how boaters use the Northeast waters. It was a very comprehensive survey that got input from 12,000 participants. The survey shows the importance of boaters who generated $3.5 billion in economic activity. A much older survey conducted by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) indicated that 75% of all powerboats were used for fishing at some point. I don’t know if that holds true today, but it indicates fishing is still a substantial part of this economic engine. The take home message is that NROC is concerned about the recreational fishing industry and how it fits into the planning process.

I am also aware of efforts that are being taken to reach out to individual anglers to get their input into the process. These are being developed as this is written. NROC also has made an effort to include the party/charter fishing industry as well. If they had no interest in the fishing industry, I doubt they would make this level of effort to include stakeholder input.

While there are and will continue to be concerns about the whole Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP) area, the idea that this is simply an underhanded plan to end all fishing just doesn’t carry any water (pun intended). As users we need to be involved with this type of planning and we need to try to make sure that our access to marine resources is not compromised.

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posted in: General

October 7, 2013

Government Shutdown Hits Fishing in Everglades and Biscayne National Park

 With stupidity running rampant in DC, closing Florida Parks to fishing is going too far…

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership has been leading the way in calling for Congressional leaders to end the federal government shutdown, which is keeping millions of sportsmen from hunting and fishing on national wildlife refuges and costing businesses that rely on outdoor recreation millions of dollars.

National parks also are closed, and in South Florida, that is hurting plenty of recreational anglers, divers and boaters who visit Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. What makes so little sense about those closures is that even boaters who access the parks by water are being told to get out.

On the federal bureaucrat stupidity scale, this ranks right up there with the closure of the open-air World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., where barricades were installed to prevent people from walking through the memorial.

That didn’t stop WW II veterans, most of whom are in their 90s, from seeing the memorial. Just as they swarmed the beaches at Normandy nearly 70 years ago, they removed the barricades and enjoyed the memorial, and the bureaucrats didn’t dare stop them.

At most national refuges and parks, a locked gate at the entrance is all that’s needed to keep out hunters and fishermen. And the gates are locked at the entrances to Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park in Homestead. But both parks can be accessed by water from the Florida Keys and, in the case of Biscayne National Park, from Miami. In addition, boaters can get to the western waters of Everglades National Park from Everglades City, where there are no gates and no park entrance requiring an entry fee.

Yet since 6 p.m. on Oct. 1, park rangers have been running around telling boaters that they can’t enjoy the park. In the event of a storm or an emergency, boaters can stop in the park. Stopping to cast to a school of tailing redfish does not qualify.

Unfortunately, the hands of federal employees who actually have some common sense, such as Everglades superintendent Dan Kimball, are tied.

“Due to the federal government shutdown, Everglades National Park is closed to all recreational and commercial uses,” Kimball wrote in an email. “We’re hopeful that the federal budget impasse will soon be resolved and that the park will be reopened as soon as possible.”

So far, park rangers that have stopped boaters within park boundaries have told them they can’t be there and why and have not issued any tickets. What rankles some fishermen is that the enforcement to keep people out is much more than they’ve ever seen when the park was open.

Capt. Brian Sanders, who fishes out of Chokoloskee Island on the northwest border of Everglades National Park, said a plane has been flying over park waters noting the location of boats and providing those locations to three different ranger boats.

“That’s our taxpayer dollars at work,” Sanders said.

He added that some of his fellow guides who catch fish outside of the park and then return to the private boat ramps in Chokoloskee and Everglades City have been stopped in the park by rangers and questioned about their catches.

Sanders has dealt with the closure by running his 24-foot bay boat 30-35 miles into the Gulf of Mexico to fish for grouper and snapper instead of fishing the beaches and river mouths in the park for snook and redfish.

“My customers have been catching the most beautiful red groupers and mangrove snappers,” said Sanders, who has not been stopped on his return to the ramp, “but I’ve been burning 50 gallons of gas to do it.”

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posted in: General

What’s Up With All These Weakfish?

Weakfish appear to be abundant again, and we should be protecting them…

 

 

I’m back from Montauk today, which was, I have to admit, a little disappointing.  I’ve been going there for the same two weeks for 12 years now, and this was without-a-doubt the worst two weeks I’ve ever experienced there.   The albies were virtually absent.  There were very few to no bass boils.  Seems like when they did start to come up, it was in small pods that didn’t stay up for longer than 10 seconds or so before an entire fleet of boats descended.  There were indeed stripers down deep on sand eels, some of which were quite large.  In fact we caught a handful of fish over 40-pounds, but it was, for the most part, jigging, down deep.  It certainly wasn’t the kind of fishing that makes Montauk, well… Montauk.

Why, who the H knows…  But the purpose of this blog is not to talk about Montauk, but to discuss weakfish.  Because, believe it or not, a bit west of the Point in 40 to 50’ depths, the bottom was often absolutely covered with them.  Not the 7’ to 10” spike fish that seemed to be abundant every Oct and haven’t yet recruited into the fishery, and likely wouldn’t recruit. These were nice fish in the 7 to 10-pound range.  We caught a bunch before the gillnets showed up anyway.

This sort of weakfish abundance isn’t restricted to Eastern Long Island.  I’ve actually got good numbers of weakfish minutes from my house in Oceanside.  Jamaica Bay has been full of them this summer.  And Cape Cod got a good slug of fish this spring and early summer.  In fact, if you look at the coastal fishing reports, it appears that weakfish catches were pretty good all over.  So…  What the hell?

I guess I should provide a little background here before moving forward.  Weakfish are really interesting to me.  When I first started guiding in 2000, in the spring we would catch just as many weakfish as we did stripers.  And if you recall, the bass fishing was pretty darn good back then, even though we didn’t have the extra-large fish we have now.  Still, in a 4-hour trip we’d consistently catch a dozen to two dozen schoolies with a few larger fish mixed in, and of course, every once in a while a really big fish.  And the weakfish were mixed in, in the same sort of numbers.  It was solid fishing on both fronts (note: remember this for a later point).  2001 to 2003 were just as good, but the weakfish just got larger.  Once we got into 2004 there were definitely fewer fish, but again, larger ones.

Then, in 2005 we saw a precipitous decline.  We caught a handful of very large fish, but certainly not in good numbers.  We couldn’t really target them, you’d just have to be lucky to come across one.  In 2006 we caught 4 weakfish the entire spring.  Every single one would have likely blown the IGFA weakfish fly category out of the water had I had a chance to take a girth measurement, but there was always an urgency to get those fish back in the water as soon as possible as we all knew we were witnessing a crash.  In 2007, we caught one fish, a fat 39-incher, probably close to the 20 pound mark.  I should also note here that the all-tackle record (a 19-pounder) was caught from the Jersey Shore in the spring of 2008.  The presence of small numbers of such large fish and no small or medium fish is a classic sign of an impending collapse, and, well, they collapsed.  Weakfish were in trouble then and, unsurprisingly, it got even worse before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) acted.

 

 

A 2009 stock assessment found that weakfish were badly depleted.  The stock had reached an all-time low of 2.9 million pounds, far below the “biomass threshold” of 22.4 million pounds, which is what scientists would consider a healthy stock.  This is an astonishing drop, since the East Coast harvest in 1980 was 80 million pounds.

One would think ASMFC would have shut the fishery down, but of course they didn’t.  Instead they gave anglers 1 fish per person and a 100 pound trip limit for commercial fishermen.  The argument was that this would allow for some data collection and some dead discards to be converted to catch.  Of course, this was one of the usual ASMFC excuses to allow people to continue to kill a badly depleted species.  Once you have such a “bycatch allowance” inevitably it results in a directed fishery, especially on the commercial side.

Moving on…  According to ASMFC biologists, the decline wasn’t due to fishing pressure.   Natural mortality had increased to a level between two to four times that of fishing mortality in recent years.  Surveys showed that juvenile weakfish populations continued to be strong (remember I mentioned all the spike weakfish we were catching in the fall) but that they were not making it to maturity.

Why?  There were all kinds of theories.  Perhaps the most irritating of which was that stripers were eating them all, or that stripers were eating all the forage.  Of course the people who wanted to be able to kill more stripers were pushing that argument.  But remember that I mentioned how abundant both striped bass and weakfish were from 2000 to 2004.  So in my mind the two species could most certainly coexist together in large numbers.  Sure, that’s just my anecdotal observation based on a very limited frame of reference, but here’s a hard example, dating farther back.  The explosion of weakfish in the early 1970s coincided with what was at the time the largest year class of striped bass ever recorded.  And since we’re on the issue of predation, the same sort of thing can be said in regards to bluefish.  Anglers harvested 95 million pounds of bluefish in 1981, and just 19 million pounds in 2008.  So weakfish were abundant when there were lots of bluefish around, and the stock crashed when bluefish numbers were low.  Explain that one to me. The point is, it’s very unlikely that stripers, or bluefish had anything to do with the weakfish crash.

A more palatable theory was that estuaries, which provide not only productive feeding areas, but spawning grounds for adult weakfish and important nursery areas for juveniles, were/are suffering from all sorts of negative influences, such as coastal development, point and nonpoint source pollution, dredging and filling, alteration of natural freshwater flow, treatment plants, power plant intakes… The list goes on.  Certainly, some if not all of these things likely contributed to the decline (along with fishing mortality of course) but given the fact that they are coming back now, I don’t believe that such degradation is the sole reason for the crash.

I think the species is just naturally cyclical.  When you look at the history, weakfish have experienced extreme highs and lows.  They virtually disappeared in the early 50s and showed no sign of recovery until 1972. The early 70s began a period of tremendous growth in the fishery, which peaked in 1980. Then the fishery declined steadily throughout the 1980s, dropping to a low in 1994.  Then the stock grew slowly through 2000. Then they began decline again, and by 2008, were reduced to historic lows.  And that’s pretty much where we’ve been ever since.

Such highs and lows are precisely why I think weakfish are very vulnerable.  During what appears to be a natural ebb, or perhaps more accurately, during a series of years where conditions are not favorable for recruitment (BTW, if you didn’t know already, “recruitment” is just a fancy word for young-fish-growing-up), we shouldn’t be pounding on them, if we want them to come back.  But that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Circling back to the gillnets out in Montauk.  I can’t imagine they aren’t going through their 100-pounds of weakfish a day.  And without a doubt, given the concentration of fish there before the gillnetters I witnessed set their nets, I am pretty damn certain that way more than 100-pounds were caught in said gill net, which were either discarded dead – weakfish are not a resilient species, and are unlikely to survive being entangled in a gillnet – or taken illegally.  And since we’re on the subject of  gillnets, there were a bunch of gillnets in the water every single day I was out there, which were of course targeting striped bass.  Given all the stripers that converge on Montauk this time of the year, I can’t for the life of me understand how such fishermen don’t go through their allotted tags in a matter of days…  I could imagine they could burn through all of those tags in only one!  Even with tags traded/obtained by/from other commercial fishermen.  But I’m gonna resist the urge to get on that tangent.

So getting back to weakfish.  Yes, there appear to be a slug of fish around.  Good ones too.  It would have been great if ASMFC had done the right thing and simply stopped fishing on them when they were at historic lows.  Frankly, we still shouldn’t be fishing on them, even with a one fish bag limit.  And certainly we shouldn’t allow a 100-pound limit for commercial fishermen.  Weakfish are a tight schooling fish, very susceptible to large bycatch events, not just in gillnets but trawlers as well.  Instead of a 100-pound trip limit, a total bycatch cap would serve the stock much better.  In other words the gillnet fishery should be shut down when it’s been determined that a certain number of weakfish are caught/killed.  I mean for Christ’s sake, give this fish a chance to come back.  They could be a boon to the fishing industry, both recreational and commercial, if we gave them a chance to fully fill in.  Unfortunately, that’s not really how things work at ASMFC.

So…  Will we see this big body of weakfish next year, or in the subsequent years?  That’s of course anyone’s guess.  But given ASMFC management history, and what I’m seeing on the water, I’m not very confident we will.  I do hope I’m wrong.  These are some of the most beautiful fish in the sea, with so many shades of purple and pink.  And they eagerly take both flies and small jigs fished on light tackle.  Not to mention, it would be a boon to my business, particularly in light of the striped bass decline.  I’m keeping my figures cross, but experience has made me cynical.

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posted in: General

September 27, 2013

CCA MC Has It Right on Stripers

Photo courtesy of John McMurray

I’m in Montauk this week and next.  So being that I’ll be writing blogs in-between 8-plus-hour stints of chasing unusually sparse pods of albies and stripers, expect uncharacteristically brief pieces for these two weeks (unfortunately, as regular readers of this column have likely noticed, I don’t really have the gift of saying something meaningful in under 1000 words).

But, here goes…  Earlier this week, Tony Friedrich, CCA MD’s Executive Director, sent me their comments on the 2012 Benchmark Striped Bass Stock Assessment.  Yes, the benchmark was released a few weeks ago, but I’ve avoided writing about it because the 2012 numbers still need to be added (presumably that will happen in Oct), and because, well, I’ve been too darn busy fishing to read and digest the whole thing.  But getting back on point, Tony forced me to give it a look this week.   I think CCA MD pretty much has it right.  CCA MD Comments on 2013 Striped Bass Stock Assessment.

I will note here that it’s good to see that at least one CCA state still believes in one of the founding principles of that organization…  That is, the needs of the fish must come before the needs of any user group (I’m paraphrasing of course).  That doesn’t appear to apply to any of the CCA chapters down south right now, but that’s an entirely different blog.  I suspect this is an indication that the Mid Atlantic and New England CCA states will take a solid conservation position on striped bass.  Indeed that’s a good thing.

As I understand it, the old striped bass stock assessment was kind of a mishmash.  In assessing the appropriate fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass levels, it averaged out two “Ricker models” and two “statistical catch-at-age models”, and it came to a conclusion that was neither fish nor fowl (all pun intended).  The Ricker model for striped bass probably wasn’t appropriate in the first place.  I’m told that such models are generally used for species such as salmon, where overcrowding in limited nursery habitat actually reduces recruitment (not the case with a species like striped bass where there appears to be plenty of spawning habitat), and where a reduction in the population, within reason, leads to higher recruitment.  The Ricker Model is one of those things that gets hauled out every time someone wants to kill more fish (e.g. RFA was pushing it for fluke back around 2004 or 2005).Getting back to the stock assessment itself, as expected, it shows that stripers are not overfished, and overfishing still isn’t occurring.  Before you throw your hands up, let me explain.  This does not necessarily mean more of the same.  Clearly the stock is in trouble, and there is some acknowledgement of that in the assessment itself.  And I think even those managers prone to avoid any tough decisions are beginning to see the writing on the wall.

The new assessment is strictly “statistical catch-at-age”, and comes to the conclusion that you’d expect once the less appropriate model is off the table.  That is, the fishing mortality reference points are too high. The stock assessment concluded that we need to reduce fishing mortality pretty significantly if we are to avoid big problems in the future.  As mentioned, the final 2012 numbers will be added to the assessment at the October ASMFC meeting.  Until then, it is difficult to put a number on the percentage of reduction recommended.  But it will probably somewhere around 40 or 50%.  Which is entirely reasonable, and a worthwhile sacrifice if it will stop the decline and get the stock back to abundant levels.

Without any change in fishing mortality, overfishing is a virtual certainty in 2014, and there is an increased chance of an overfished stock by 2015/2016, although that begins to decline thereafter when that anomalous strong 2011 year class (amongst 8 years of average to below-average year classes) begins to recruit into the fishery.  That’s of course assuming that a significant number of 2011 fish do indeed recruit into the fishery.   Given the lack of much before or behind them, and the pressure they will likely face, I have my doubts.

As the CCA comments point out, there’s no doubt that reductions are needed.  Where the real doubt lies is whether ASMFC has sufficient guts or integrity to make such real and likely painful reductions.  If I had to make a guess, given the rumblings I’ve heard, I’d have to say that ASMFC will approve some sort of reduction in fishing mortality.  Yet, given the management body’s reluctance to make the real hard choices, and its constant proclivity to “meet half-way” (e.g. invoking half-measures), I’m not confident it will be the 50% reduction in F we really need.  Yet, as mentioned in other blogs.  I’m perpetually cynical, which is likely the result of being around this stuff too long.

Now might be a good time to contact your commissioners and ask them to reduce fishing mortality significantly, and to do it now!  So that we can stop what is so obviously a decline in what has become perhaps the most important fish to the Mid-Atlantic and New England recreational fishing community. Here’s the link to your Commissioner’s contact info:  ASMFC Commissioners.

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posted in: General

The F-word Again

Signing the reauthorization of the Magnusson Stevens Act in 2006 — Compliments of NatGeo

 

The penalty for using the F-word when growing up was worse than having to wash one’s mouth out with soap. It usually meant getting grounded for some period of time and that meant no fishing expeditions to local ponds and rivers. These trips were executed on bicycles outfitted with rod holders and tackle box containers. In those days, most did not get cars until well past the driver license age. Losing fishing privileges was a big penalty.

Today’s F-word and fisheries are far different. Some think that not believing in the F-word as it applies to fisheries should get a punishment far worse than oral soap or getting grounded. They think that if one is not for the F-word, then one is against recreational fishing and the industry it supports.

What is today’s F-word? Well, it is “flexibility” and seems to be the central concept being pushed for the current Re-authorization of the Magnusson Stevens Act (MSA), also know as the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), so named after its re-authorization in 2006. I am hoping that this reauthorization does not become the “Flexible Fisheries Act.”

What’s the problem with making fisheries more flexible to help accommodate the needs of the resource users. Nothing really. But do we need to make a change to do that? A lot of folks do not think so.

Last week, one of my fellow bloggers, Capt. John McMurray, wrote a good piece on the current efforts to Re-authorize the MSA/SFA, whichever you’d like to call it. He gave a good look at all the major issues. If you want a refresher give it a read. I am going to focus in on one issue that continues to give me heartburn. This issue is also getting some traction after a recent report was released by the National Research Council, which is an arm of the US National Academy of Sciences. Several former members of Congress requested the report. I cannot criticize the report as I have felt that the arbitrary re-building timeline mandated in MSA was just that. Arbitrary. But the mandated timeline does hold managers feet to the fire as well as tying their hands on some species.

The report does say that the existing law works. It noted that a good percentage of the stocks examined were now rebuilt or rebuilding. This is all good news. What the report points out is that current science capability is not good enough to precisely manage to a specified biomass level. Given that constraining element, they suggested that managing to a mortality level rather than an arbitrary timeline “might” be a better way to go. Note they said “might” not “would be.” From a managers standpoint, managing to a mortality level is very attractive because it is fairly straight forward. Set it and forget it!

In a discussion with John Pappalardo, CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance, he made a very good observation about this report. “This report is an intellectual debate that will unfortunately be used to inform a policy decision.” Spot on.

With some of the problematic stocks, the allowed mortality (landings + discards + natural mortality) would be set at a low level with no rebuilding timeline. That may work for the commercial industry as it avoids the huge swings in quota currently being experienced and gives some level of stability. I doubt that it will be much help to the struggling groundfish industry in New England.

However, my strong sense is that this type of management strategy will absolutely cream the recreational users that share resources with the commercial users. What drives the recreational industry? Fishing trips. What drives fishing trips? Abundance of fish. This has been proven time and again. People want to catch fish and since recreational users have the least efficient gear, they need lots of fish. Keeping them at low levels until the stars align to cause a lot of high recruitment events will not help the recreational industry. I think that a lot of the push from the recreational industry for the F-word is due to one or two specific fisheries. Ya, ya, red snapper is one. There may be other ways to address these specific fisheries and it appears that the Gulf is working on one.

I do not think that there needs to be a complete remake of MSA to solve some specific issues. Rick Methot, Chief assessment Scientist for NOAA Fisheries supported that idea, “the agency is investigating how it can revise its national management guidelines to provide more flexibility, while still preventing overfishing and rebuilding fish stocks. We are interested in finding the right balance of flexibility and firmness.”

If there are ways to improve MSA that make the managers jobs simpler and more effective, I am all for it. However, allowing stocks to remain at low levels for prolonged periods will do nothing to rebuild and sustain the recreational fishing industry. I’m pretty sure of that.

 

For More Information

  1. The Bottom Line
  2. Report shows gains in many fish stocks

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