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October 29, 2013

Keys Fishing Has Character

I couldn’t have asked for a better guide. From his well-worn, cut-off sun shirt to the way he used his teeth to nip off the heads of the squirming shrimp we were using as bait to his immaculate 18-foot flats boat – Bob Baker was the quintessential Keys boat captain.

When he opened up the throttle on his Maverick we hauled across the water, quickly making headway on the trip from Islamorada’s World Wide Sportsman toward Everglades National Park. Our conversation settled on fish stories as our ears adjusted to the steady buzz of wind across our faces.

Fishing with us that day as part of the TRCP Saltwater Media Summit was Tom Van Horn, a writer and fishing guide from the Orlando, Fla., area. Between two locals we had enough fodder to keep us in fish tales for the entirety of the journey without any trouble.

We have a great responsibility to ensure that recreational fishing opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico remain. Photo by Christen Duxbury.

It was impossible to persuade my smile to recede as we navigated shallow runnels, cruised past islands dense with mangroves and flocks of seabirds, and wove around wooden channel markers at what felt like a breakneck speed.

Bob and Tom were at home on the water. As my land-locked legs struggled to keep me upright in the slight chop, I asked these captains endless questions about life on the water. Can you really make a living doing this? How many times have you been hooked? How often do you take your boat out of the water? What if I have to go to the bathroom? What are some of your more memorable clients?

They answered my barrage of questions graciously and with a smile.

Bob’s response to one of my questions struck me. As we were cruising back toward the World Wide Sportsman, I asked him if he had a backup plan. Had he thought about what he would do if bad weather or a catastrophic event were ever to take away his ability to fish? He looked at me and said, “No. I’m just a fisherman. I just want to fish.”

As his answer drifted away in the salty spray coming off the bow, it struck me that we have a great responsibility to ensure that recreational fishing opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico remain. Not only is sportfishing essential to the region’s unique culture and quality of life; without it people like Bob and places like the Keys would cease to remain as we know and love them.

To help create a blueprint for healthy Gulf fisheries, the TRCP has released a report outlining recreational anglers’ recommendations for projects and initiatives designed to help the Gulf of Mexico recover from the 2010 oil spill.

“Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery and Sustainability” is the result of a series of workshops the TRCP organized in May with Gulf State anglers, scientists, charter fishermen and guides, state and federal fisheries managers, fishing tackle and boat retailers and representatives of conservation organizations.

Proper management and planning of our Gulf resources is integral if we want to pursue the outdoor pastimes and way of life that make our coastal places, and people like Bob, so unique.

Learn more about the report.

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October 21, 2013

Declining Stocks and Continued Pressure are Accelerating an Already Bad Situation

Things just don’t look good for striped bass right now

 

Man…  Epic fishing the last three days.  There are a ton of sandeels in “that spot” that remained a secret for, I don’t know, maybe 5 minutes before the word got out… and there were lots of bigbass on them.  I don’t think we caught one under 30-inches in the last three days.  Most were in the twenty to thirty pound class.  And it was almost all surface feeding fish, boiling and smashing sandeels for acres…. in the middle of the day!  But get this… there was chatter on the radio about bluefin in 70 to 80’ of water.  So, of course I took the ride, way past the three mile state-water limit, because I’m a full-on tuna addict.  We got to a spot at that water depth.  There were some birds and a bunch of boats set up, including a handful of party boats.  We dropped some tuna jigs down and were on pretty quickly.  Unfortunately, they weren’t tuna.  We released a striper that looked well north of 50lbs at the boat and one around 30.  Probably the largest striper my boat has ever seen.  Because we were in federal waters (EEZ – Exclusive Economic Zone), we were not supposed to be landing or even targeting striped bass.  I imagine readers of this column already know this, but in the unlikely case they don’t, fishing for striped bass in the EEZ is prohibited, and it should be as it’s really the last sanctuary they have…. assuming it is effectively enforced.  In some areas it is (see Justice Department press release).  Unfortunately in our area it isn’t.  Never really has been, and it likely never will be.  It’s just not an enforcement priority.

So yes, all those boats out there (and there were a lot) were targeting and keeping striped bass.  In fact I saw a few very large fish come to the gaff in those boats before I left in search of elusive bluefin.  As mentioned, included in the fleet were those party boats who are boldly advertising “limiting out” every day on the various internet forums.  Unfortunately, such fishing in the EEZ is not unique to this year, nor is it unique to this area.  Each year we have a brief but good run of big fish in late April/early May outside of Lower New York Harbor, often in that same 50 to 90’ depth.  Because it’s usually the only game in town every single party boat from central Long Island to Central New Jersey is on them.  And yes, it’s generally well outside of the 3-mile limit, most of the time in the old Ambrose Light Area.  And they are all advertising limiting-out as well.  But let’s not put the entire onus on party boats.  There are lots more private boats out there knocking the crap out of these fish also.  However irritating this is, I don’t want to focus on all the illegal EEZ fishing in this blog, because it’s just a small part of what is a much larger problem.  But the point is, striped bass, which are becoming more and more contracted/concentrated as they decline, and more and more susceptible, have literally no sanctuary anymore.

Moving on, I’m certainly not going to harp on what’s been a precipitous decline of the striped bass population for the last several years.  I’ve done it too many times in other blogs, and I have a feeling readers of this blog already know it all too well, more than likely from experience on the water, rather than from my incessant griping about it.  But I will note again that because of the bouts of good fishing I described above, it’s hard to convince managers that this is indeed a serious situation that requires management action now, rather than when they finally figure out that overfishing is occurring and/or that the stock is overfished.   As I’ve mentioned before, managers don’t have the perspective we have, and most just don’t spend the time on the water we do.

So yes, I’ve had some of the best days of striped bass fishing in my life in the last three years.  Days where I’ve seen more 40s and 50s in the space of a day or two than I’ve ever seen in my entire life.  The above described fishing is a good example of that.  But while such concentrations of fish are intense, they are restricted to very specific areas, and they are generally short lived.  And that makes sense given all the good year-classes we had in the nineties and even early two-thousands and the poor to average ones we’ve had during the last 8 years (with the anomalous exception of 2011 of course).   As we fish on these larger older fish, they get fewer and fewer, and show up in fewer places along the coast, but when they show up, boy do they show up.  And herein lies the problem, and why we will likely see an accelerated slide.

Years ago, when such bait concentrations occurred and stripers got on them, it was generally an island-wide event.  In the “good-old-days” in Oct we’d have solid fishing from Montauk to Sandy Hook, NJ.  In other words there was a wide distribution of fish, like there should be when you have a healthy population.  Now, because the stock has contracted (note, this is not anecdotal, a peer-reviewed stock assessment has confirmed a sharp decline since 2006), what we have are exactly these sorts of short but intense slugs of fish showing at very specific areas.  And here’s what really sucks about that.  Because of the internet, smart-phones etc., when such good fishing does occur, the word gets out so quick that every freak’n boat in the region is on them the very next day, if not that afternoon.  And they are all “limiting-out” (I hate that phrase!) every single day, especially the party boats, who often take in excess of 100 fares and run more than one trip a day.  Because we’ve had 8 years of average to below average young-of-the-year indices, we really just don’t have much in the way of schoolies anymore. So when these bodies of fish do show, they are pretty much all keepers, and most people feel entitled to keep their two per person.

Unfortunately, those of us who thrive on releasing most of the stripers we catch are without-a-doubt a minority.  For a long time the catch-and-release thing seemed like it was catching on/growing.  But it stalled once stripers got a bit more difficult to find.  I’d even argue that the catch and release crowd has shrunk during the last few years, for reasons of which I’m not quite sure.  What’s really irritating is that there are plenty of boneheads out there who refer to such anglers as “elitists” for not wanting to kill every darn keeper they catch.  You tell me how having some foresight, or simply wanting these fish to be around so that our kids might be able to catch a few is “elitist”!?

At any rate, the point here is that we are putting an awful hurting on those fish up and down the coast when they do show like this.   If you want to get angry and subsequently depressed, just take a look at any of the online forums/fish reports.  Lots of photos of dead bloodied fish, piles of dead stripers etc.  So many short-sighted folks out there bragging about “limiting out”.  And the party boats are doing their best to advertise such “limiting out”, so they can fill their boats, and take people out again to beat the crap out of these fish before they move on to the next region where they will likely get hammered.  It’s a real bummer.  Makes me want to drink.

I usually try and end these blogs on an upbeat note.  Like there IS something we can do.  But in this case, I’m not sure there is anything.  We now just have to wait and see what the ASMFC does at the meeting later this month (note:  for more information see CCA MD HAS IT RIGHT ON STRIPED BASS blog).   I really do hope that they vote to make a substantial reduction in fishing mortality, although judging by what I’m hearing from some of the managers themselves, I suspect they will “compromise” with something much less than what is required.  I don’t think they will balk and do nothing. I also don’t think we get what this fishery really needs to stem the decline which is somewhere around a 50% reduction in mortality.

For God’s sake please don’t respond to this blog with more talk about gamefish and slot-limits.  This is NOT the solution and was already covered in this blog:  THE STRAIGHT DOPE ON STRIPED BASS.  All we need is for significant number of managers at ASMFC to realize the importance of a significant reduction in mortality, now, before we find ourselves in a really bad situation with these fish.

Striped bass are so darn important to me and a huge constituency of anglers.  For a long time they defined who I was, and to a large extent they still do.  I not only built a business on striped bass, I built a lifestyle.  And over the years, I have developed a profound respect for the animal.  It’s so darn frustrating and infuriating to see managers sit there with their thumbs up their rears, and it’s equally maddening to see all those gaffed fish coming over the rails, all the photos of dead fish, all the bragging, and virtually no acknowledgement of the deteriorating situation.

Regarding this recent slug of fish off of Fire Island, keep in mind that it’s only been going on for a few days.  Assuming these fish stick around, (this may sound funny, but I do hope they move on) this weekend will be an absolute slaughter while these fish are so vulnerable.  And that really stinks.   The reality though is that I don’t blame those folks killing fish, at least those killing fish legally.  They are just doing what managers have allowed.  It’s the weak-spine managers that are really at fault.  How could they not know what the right thing to do is?  It’s become so obvious.

I can’t help but sit here and feel completely helpless about it all.  I would love to be able to say that we’re gonna go in to the next ASMFC meeting, guns blazing, and change things.  But having been involved in the management world, I’m jaded enough to realize that this simply isn’t the way the system works (it certainly doesn’t help that the October meeting is in St. Simons Island, Georgia).  Change can and does come, but it’s a slow process.  It certainly doesn’t happen quickly and managers certainly aren’t swayed by yelling and screaming at public meetings.   But I can say with some confidence, they have indeed gotten the message that a large portion of the recreational fishing community wants precautionary action on striped bass.  And while many, perhaps most, will choose not to represent those concerns, others will.

The striped bass situation will likely get considerably worse before it gets any better.  History has been pretty clear that ASMFC doesn’t take significant action until the situation is quite dire, and there’s no reason to believe it will be any different here. What’s really unfortunate is that managers are probably looking at such fishing reports off of Fire Island and thinking “there are plenty of fish around, the stock is fine”.

Yet, it’s not all gloom and doom.  I don’t think we’re stupid enough to allow another crash like we saw in the early 80’s, and while history does tend to repeat itself, striped bass has developed a constituency of zealous advocates.  Nothing generates more passion from fishermen than striped bass.  When push comes to shove, we will rally.  For that reason alone I have hope.

The ASMFC annual meeting starts Oct 28th.  There is still plenty of time to contact your state Commissioners and let them know how you feel about striped bass.  The stock needs a clear and significant reduction in fishing mortality (Again, for God’s sake don’t mention gamefish or slot limits or it likely won’t get read).   Managers just need to have the balls to push something close to a 50% reduction through.  You can help:  http://www.asmfc.org/about-us/commissionersPlease, take five minutes to write.

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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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