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posted in: TRCP Marine

March 12, 2014

Rules clarified for Florida snapper and tilefish take

Vermillion snapper
Vermillion snapper. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.

You gotta love it when fishery managers admit they messed up and go back to doing the right thing.

That’s why, as of March 13, charter captains and crews in Florida will be allowed to keep their recreational bag limits of vermilion snapper, groupers and golden tilefish in state waters of the Atlantic, including all of the Florida Keys.

Here’s the back story: In 2009, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council wanted to reduce the number of gag groupers and vermilion snappers kept by recreational anglers in federal and state waters of the Atlantic Ocean to help increase those fish populations. In addition to closed seasons, the council prohibited captains and crews of charter boats from keeping their recreational limits of vermilions. They also weren’t allowed to keep any groupers and tilefish, in the hopes of preventing bycatch of gag groupers. But captains and crew could keep their recreational limits of fish such as dolphin and other snappers, which led to confusion.

A year ago, the council voted to get rid of the rule. As of this past Jan. 27, captains and crew could keep their limits of vermilion snappers, groupers and tilefish in Atlantic federal waters. At its meeting last month in Tampa, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to eliminate the rule in Atlantic state waters, which means captains and crew can keep the recreational bag limit of all species of reef fish caught in those waters.

The reason for the change? The council said the decrease in the harvest of those species because of the rule was minimal. Plus, doing away with the rule eliminates confusion and will have a negligible effect on the populations of those species. More helpful was a five-month closed season for vermilion snapper. And there continues to be a four-month closed season for shallow water groupers, including gags, reds and blacks, the three most popular grouper species in Florida.

The vermilion snapper closure in Atlantic state and federal waters was Nov. 1-March 31. That closed season was eliminated because the closure worked and vermilion snapper populations had significantly increased. Lately, fishing for vermilion snappers and tilefish has been the best bet for South Florida anglers seeking to bring home fish for dinner. Fishing for sought-after species such as kingfish, cobia, wahoo, dolphin and tuna has been inconsistent at best.

Golden tilefish. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.
Golden tilefish. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.

Being deepwater fish, golden tilefish are quite tasty, and they are fairly easy to catch. They are typically targeted in 600-700 feet of water by dropping bait to the bottom using an electric fishing reel. When you get a bite, you flip the reel’s switch, and up comes the tilefish. Captains I know regretted not being able to provide their customers with more golden tilefish than their allotted one per person. Now they can make additional drops and provide one or two more fish to take home.

The vermilion snapper change definitely won’t make much of a difference, as the fish are almost exclusively caught by drift boats in 160-300 feet of water. The limit on vermilions is five per person, and allowing the captain and the mate to keep their 10 fish on a drift boat with 15 or more anglers would not be significant except, perhaps, to those anglers who didn’t catch anything and would like to go home with a couple of snapper fillets.

 

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posted in: TRCP Marine

March 6, 2014

A busy fishing February in the Gulf

Garret Graves
Garret Graves. Photo courtesy of Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Wow! It’s difficult to believe that so much fishing news could be crammed into the year’s shortest month.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Louisiana was dealt a blow when Garret Graves, the top man in the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, tendered his resignation to make a run for Congress.

Graves’ experience in D.C. gave him a good start into such a volatile position in Louisiana government, and his energy in jump-starting several long-delayed coastal restoration projects was a welcome change from past administrations.

His six-year tenure was highlighted by the state’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan, a course for prioritizing work estimated to run as high as $50 billion. The problem in past years was that the mountain was too high to climb, especially considering Louisiana has lost a couple-thousand square miles of coastal marshlands during the last 70 years.

Louisiana' s Sustainable Coast Master Plan
Louisiana’ s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. Image Courtesy of Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Somebody had to take the first giant step on that climb, and Graves did that.

As if anyone with that much to tackle needed more on his plate, 2010’s BP-Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was akin to adding an elephant’s weight on top of the monkey already on his back.

While Graves’ second-in-command, Jerome Zeringue, has taken this lead role, it’s sure that Graves’ command of Louisiana’s coastal problems, its solutions, the battles over freshwater diversions contained in the Coastal Master Plan and his stature gained in the BP multi-layered settlement plan will be missed.

So what does that have to do with fishing?

It’s acknowledged that Louisiana coastal marshes mean more than terrific redfish, speckled trout and flounder among other near-coast species as well as crabs and shrimp. They are also a vital nursery ground for a host of offshore species, including several snapper species.

Back in the late 1980s, when Louisiana was battling low redfish recruitment and the first inkling of the state’s gill-net war that would come years later, just a handful of marine biologists talked about the decline of the coastal marshes.

They mentioned the decline of the marsh habitat was productive in the short term because the decay and erosion added nutrients to the system, but they added that there was a point of no return when the habitat reached a critical point where its productivity would rapidly decline. The word “collapse” was used often when it comes to the marshes’ ability to provide and sustain so many coastal and offshore species.

From what’s happened on the west side of the Mississippi River, from Buras south and west through Yellow Cotton Bay and to the Gulf of Mexico, it appears the decline in speckled trout catches in the last three years is proving the biologists’ prediction made nearly 30 years ago. Yellow Cotton Bay, once a place unrivaled in the Gulf for its fall speckled trout run, isn’t even on the map anymore after being totally wiped away by Hurricane Katrina.

So, restoring the marshes and the Louisiana coastline has more plusses than saving homes, communities, the oil and gas production and supply chain for the country that starts along the state’s coast, and vital overwintering waterfowl habitat. These projects can go a long way to providing food for U.S. tables.

Need more about February?

GMFMC logo
Image courtesy of GMFMC.

When the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council talked about reallocation of the red snapper resources, who could’ve figured Amendment 28 would give recreational fishermen across the Gulf a chance to take an increased share of red snapper from a stock that’s recovered more quickly than anyone, even marine scientists, could have imagined?

A series of public hearings throughout the five Gulf States in March will be held to get comments about a change that would grant recreational anglers a 75-percent share (commercials would get 25 percent) of any annual quota approved by the GMFMC more than 9.12 million pounds. At 9.12 million pounds or less, the allocation continues to be split 51-49 percent respectively between commercials and recreationals.

A list of the hearings can be found on the GMFMC website: http://gulfcouncil.org.

If you can’t attend one of the hearings, comments will be accepted at: http://bit.ly/MS14U0.

What’s grand about February and leading into March is that redfish are biting darned near everywhere on the coast. It’s a transition time for speckled trout, but we’re closing in on the time when giant trout will begin blasting artificial baits in Calcasieu Lake, and the trout will move to the bridges in Lake Pontchartrain.

The bonus is that all the frigid conditions up north have lowered the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River (all the while knowing that the melt-off will run our rivers high in April, May and even June) and bass fishing is terrific in the cane-lined runs off the Mississippi and in the lakes, bayous and canals in the Atchafalaya Basin, the country’s largest overflow swamp.

 

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posted in: TRCP Marine

February 28, 2014

Public input prompts red snapper changes

red snapper
Gulf red snapper. Photo by Geeklikepi/Wikimedia Commons.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission always considers the needs of the state’s recreational anglers. The latest example came out of the FWC’s recent meeting in Tampa, where the agency gave tentative approval to an earlier start to the red snapper season in state waters.

Why? So recreational anglers could fish for the popular species over the Memorial Day weekend.

For the past several years, the red snapper season started on June 1 in state and federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. At a meeting this past November, the FWC’s commissioners asked staff to come up with a rule to allow the season in state waters to start “the Saturday before Memorial Day to optimize angler fishing opportunities.” The 52-day 2014 season would open on May 24 and run through July 14. The current 40-day federal red snapper season is June 1-July 10.

The rule presentation to the FWC noted that the red snapper season in federal waters off Florida could be modified when state seasons do not match federal seasons. The rule goes before the FWC at its April meeting for final approval. The season’s length and dates also could be modified at that meeting by the FWC.

The week before the FWC meeting in Tampa, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council met in Houston to discuss Reef Fish Amendment 28, which manages red snapper. The council chose the amendment alternative that maintains the red snapper allocation at 51 percent for commercial anglers and 49 percent for recreational anglers if the red snapper quota is less than or equal to 9.12 million pounds.

If the quota is greater than 9.12, and currently it is 11 million pounds, then recreationals get 75 percent of the amount in excess of 9.12 and commercials get the rest. According to the council, based on the current quota, recreational anglers would get 5.879 million pounds and commercial anglers would get 5.121.

At that same meeting, the council came up with a new alternative that would make the shares a little more balanced by giving recreationals 75 percent of the red snapper quota in excess of 10 million pounds.

Public hearings from Texas to Florida have been scheduled in March to get comments about the red snapper allocation. The council will hold a final public hearing in May on Amendment 28. Meeting dates are available here.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation CommissionThe FWC has scheduled public workshops next month for a recreational fishing permit that would result in better information about recreational fishing for a variety of species in the Gulf. The proposal for recreational reef fish data collection “would better define the population of offshore reef fish anglers for survey purposes using a mandatory permit or registry system.”

The proposal said the system would give fishery managers better information on nine Gulf reef species: red snapper, gag grouper, red grouper, black grouper, greater amberjack, lesser amberjack, banded rudderfish, vermilion snapper and gray triggerfish.

Workshops will be held from Fort Myers to Pensacola, and there also will be a phone conference for those who can’t attend a meeting. The list of workshops can be found here.

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posted in: TRCP Marine

February 25, 2014

Tipping point

Atlantic cod
Atlantic cod. Photo by Hans-Petter Fjeld/Creative Commons.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the academy’s official journal, looks at overfishing or, should I say “species depletion” to be politically correct, in a series of examples from around the world. One of these examples was right here in New England. The examples point out how over exploitation of specific resources have impacts on other resources and in some cases trigger a tipping point that essentially creates an irreversible change in the food web and species interaction.

Some may think that I am simply pointing a finger at the commercial fishing industry and blaming it for causing the over exploitation. Not exactly, but let’s face it: We would be having a different discussion if there had never been any commercial fishing in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. Don’t get me wrong – there should be commercial utilization of our marine resources, but we should have historically done a better job of managing that commercial utilization. I also think that all user groups need to recognize that they have impacts and, yes, that includes recreational users. Once we all take that big step of recognition, the management process can become a lot better.

Atlantic cod collapse graph
Image by Lamiot/Wikimedia Commons.

The New England case study (although actually the PNAS report discusses the northwest Atlantic) looks at the decline of cod and its inability to recover. Essentially, overfishing that persisted after passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Act or may have actually been promoted by the implementation of the act caused a severe decline in the cod population. The void created by the decline allowed other species that had been held in check by the abundant cod to proliferate. They in turn feed on the juvenile cod and keep the cod from rebuilding. This is demonstrated by the Canadian Maritimes closure of approximately 20 years that still has not produced an upturn in cod populations.

While not in the finfish realm, the lack of cod in the 1980s led to a strong increase in the sea urchin population. At one point Maine’s urchin fishery produced $30 million in revenue. The lack of regulation allowed urchins to be overharvested in about 10 years. The lack of urchins that consume a variety of seaweed allowed the proliferation of seaweed. Crab populations benefited from the seaweed as it sheltered them from predation, and they in turn fed on the remaining urchins, making it almost impossible for them to rebound to their former numbers.

The PNAS study formalized what a number of marine scientists have said for years. Basically, if human or any other interaction with ocean resources creates a void by taking away a dominant species, that void will not remain empty for very long. Something else will fill it. They have contended that the total biomass of the oceans has varied very little over recorded history. It has changed, however, from desirable species to less desirable species. That is a trend that does not bode well for the future.

It is likely that we have reached the tipping point with New England’s iconic fish, the sacred cod. Certainly, changing water temperature has not helped and may well be the final nail in the coffin, but water temperature cannot be solely responsible for the dramatic decline in the cod’s population. Having gone past the tipping point, it is very possible that nothing can be done to recover this once robust population.

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posted in: TRCP Marine

February 20, 2014

What’s in a name

NERO is now GARFO
Photo courtesy of NERO/NOAA.gov.

Ever hear of a GARFO? I bet most folks have never heard of a NERO, and that was GARFO’s predecessor. These are both government acronyms for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries regional office. NERO stands for North East Regional Office and has been the name for a while. GARFO is the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. This name change was done to satisfy Congress, as the regional office does cover fisheries in New England and the Mid Atlantic.

I am reminded of Shakespeare’s line in Romeo and Juliet, “A rose by any other name ….” but let’s not go there. I doubt there will be a sea of change with a new “gummint” name, although GARFO will have an opportunity right out of the starting gate to show that the name change has helped to change the fisheries management philosophy.

It appears that $75 million of taxpayers’ money will go toward mitigating the impacts of the “groundfish disaster” declared a while back by the Secretary of Commerce. How much comes to the New England – or, should I say, “Greater Atlantic” – area is yet to be determined, as the funds are meant for Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and the Northeast. There is also the question of whether NOAA Fisheries will take a cut of the funds to cover “administrative expenses.” Some members of Congress have warned against NOAA siphoning off any of the funds, but that is what government does so well. For every taxpayer dollar in, you’re lucky to get 50 cents out.

But I digress. In previous blogs, I have commented that I do not believe simply handing out the money is a good idea. Thoughtful programs that will have longer-term benefits are better in my mind, but I’m likely in the minority.

Atlantic cod
Photo courtesy of NERO/NOAA.gov.

The party/charter sector has put forward a request or plan to the regional administrator based on the number of trips taken for groundfish species averaged over a few years. In discussing this with recreational industry folks, I feel that a plan or request for funds should be based on demonstrated losses to party/charter participants due to the known decline of groundfish. This should be easily determined by the changes or declines in the number of trips taken to catch groundfish species. All the necessary information should have been submitted by the active party/charter vessels in the required vessel trip reports. On the commercial side, there has been discussion of distributing funding to those businesses impacted by the groundfish decline. Again, I think that should be the same with those in the recreational fishing industry. I suspect that determining what those losses are will be more complicated for both the commercial and recreational industries. I also suspect that widening the distribution will begin to make any mitigating support meaningless. At least here in the heart of the Greater Atlantic, John Bullard, the regional administrator of GARFO, has convened the Groundfish Economic Coordinating Committee, composed of members of both the recreational and commercial sectors, to give input on how the funds should be distributed. So at first blush, the recreational industry has a seat at the table. Whether they get a reasonable share, just scraps or nothing at all is yet to be determined. I am not a betting man, but I’d guess at the middle or end of that list.

NERO or GARFO – I don’t think it will make any difference. If it makes Congress happy, wonderful. I would just like to see any mitigating funds made available on an equitable basis to both sectors of the fishing industry.

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