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November 4, 2013

Everglades National Park Back in Business

Everglades mangrove snapper
With the government shutdown over, fishing guides and their clients have returned to Everglades National Park. Photo by Mac Stone.

The end of the federal government shutdown was especially good news for guides who fish in Everglades National Park.

For the first time in more than two weeks, they were allowed to legally fish in park waters.

“People don’t realize the effects of the shutdown on guides,” said Capt. Jason Sullivan, who lost several trips because of the park closure.

That anglers were not allowed to fish in the park, even though many of them access the waters in Florida Bay and along the Gulf of Mexico coastline by boat, was bureaucratic pettiness at its worst.

It was one thing not to allow anglers to drive their tow vehicles into the park and launch their boats at Flamingo. But what did it matter if guides drove their boats across park boundaries from the Florida Keys?

That was the same spiteful mentality behind the National Park Service putting up barricades at the open-air World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., although federal bureaucrats said they had no choice but to close the park.

At least Everglades National Park’s rangers didn’t hassle boaters who ended up in park waters, some of whom didn’t realize they were not allowed in the park and some of whom didn’t care. The rangers told boaters and anglers they could not stop in park waters and sent them on their way without issuing any citations.

Capt. Brian Sanders was one of the lucky ones. He fishes out of Chokoloskee Island on the northwest side of the park and typically goes after snook and redfish in park waters along Gulf beaches and islands.

With the park shut down, Sanders headed 30-plus miles into the Gulf so his clients could fish for snapper and grouper. Fortunately, he had good weather that allowed him to make the long run in his 24-foot bay boat. Even better, the fish were biting – so good, in fact, that after park waters reopened, he still made the trek into the Gulf.

Sanders said that some guides still fished in the park during the closure because of economic necessity.

“I talked to a few of them,” he said. “They said, ‘The park’s not going to pay my mortgage for me, and the park’s not going to pay my bills for me,’ so they went fishing. This was not a lot of days, it was a few days. Those days they never saw anybody.”

Sullivan said he, too, was fortunate. He said he lost about four trips. He could have lost more, but he was able to talk his clients into fishing at night for tarpon and snook in Biscayne Bay in Miami.

Guides in the Keys either had to cancel trips for snook, redfish and tarpon in the park or, like Sanders, make a long run into the Gulf of Mexico or fish shallow reefs in the Atlantic Ocean for Spanish mackerel, snapper and grouper.

As soon as they were allowed back in the park, guides out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada reported great fishing for snook and tarpon, according to marina owner Richard Stanczyk.

Stanczyk did note that the timing of the shutdown was good because early October is a slow time of year for business.

“Out of our 24 guides, only six were fishing,” said Stanczyk, who added that all of his marina’s guides obeyed the rules and stayed out of the park. “None of them lost any trips, but there were people who didn’t book trips because of the closure.”

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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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