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posted in: TRCP Marine

June 10, 2014

Little Fish, Big Impact

River herring. Photo courtesy of Jerry Prezioso/NOAA.gov.

There has been a lot of news on the fishing-related websites and blogs recently about forage fish, primarily herring and menhaden. Truthfully, a complete discussion on forage would encompass a much wider range of species, but I think that I’ll at least narrow it down to the major ones.

Herring, specifically river herring, should be a hot topic. It is that time of year when town Herring Wardens get to see what has come back to rivers in towns all along the New England coast. Word has it that a bunch of rivers are looking good. They’re not where they should be but a heck of a lot better than they have been in the last few years. Some of this is due to in-stream restoration projects that now are paying off, and some is due to efforts to minimize the high seas interaction with sea herring caught by so-called mid-water trawling, both single vessel and pair trawling.

The in-stream work is fairly easy to measure. Restore the habitat in the watershed or rebuild or create fish ladder access to spawning grounds, wait a couple of years, and count the increase. These are very prolific spawners that grow relatively quickly, so gratification, while not instant, is pretty darn quick.

The at-sea interaction is a lot harder to measure for a number of reasons, but the main one is the sheer volume of fish caught in the sea herring fishery. It is fairly normal to have 200,000 pounds of herring and whatever else in a net. The volume is so great as to require that the contents are vacuumed out into the boat’s fish hold. An onboard observer may pull samples of a tote at certain points in the transfer process. If they pull a total of 100 pounds, there is a one in 2,000 chance that they will see any bycatch such as river herring. Those are not good odds. In some cases, even if they do get some in the sample, only a trained eye can distinguish the difference in herring species. In sum: it is likely that managers still do not have a good handle on the actual catch of river herring on the high seas. If the truth be told, there probably is not a good handle on bycatch in general in the northeast sea herring fishery. The New England Fishery Management Council has been working on it, but it has been a hard slog.

A lot of in-stream work still needs to be accomplished, but that will be a function of funding and some hardworking local folks to pull it all together. As mentioned above, that work can be very satisfying as the results are relatively quick and easily visible. In the spring, herring runs usually attract a lot of excited visitors, so positive feedback and PR help the process.

River herring
Image courtesy of NOAA.gov.

Sea herring seem to be managed fairly well, and their spawning success is predicated upon the environmental conditions at spawning time and the ability of managers to control access to spawning aggregations of sea herring. No matter how well managers do, there will always be fluctuations in the population. The major consideration of scientists that advise the managers on setting catch levels should be leaving enough resource for predators such as tuna, striped bass, whales, cod fish, etc. to feed on.

When I was on the NEFMC, there was an effort to put in place a measure to weigh all sea herring so that managers could get a realistic handle on what amount was being caught. Managers were using guesstimations, and in my opinion that is not good enough. NOAA’s regional office rejected that effort as being too onerous. Funny that 125 million pounds of lobster all get weighed in the state of Maine, and that is not considered onerous. It is considered smart business. In any case, a recent action may put in place at least a volumetric measure requirement.

As for menhaden, most of the catch of this forage species is in the Mid Atlantic. There have not been any major migrations of menhaden, like we used to see in the 1980s, north of Cape Cod for a number of years. I keep hoping that there will be, as they bring a whole host of predators that like to feed on them.

Some steps have been implemented by the ASMFC to control the harvest of menhaden. For 2013 there was a 20-percent reduction over the average catch for 2009-2011. The biggest issue has been how this has been enforced, or not enforced, by different states. Rhode Island was 7 percent over. New York was 421 percent over. Delaware was 234 percent over. Maryland 34 percent over. The Potomac River Fisheries Commission was 41 percent over. Florida was 152 percent over. Because some states with decent sized quotas were under, the total quota was just about on target at 2 percent under. A long list of folks will be pushing for a fair and equitable enforcement policy to be put in place. There also should be measures that do not allow states like Maryland to have a bycatch fishery after the quota is taken.

What I am not aware of is whether the catch is weighed or volumetric conversion to weight. That may vary state to state. We will have to see what the reduction does for overall populations in the next couple of years. It would certainly be great to get back to the 80s when massive schools moved all the way up into mid coast Maine. There were a lot of happy predators and a lot of happy anglers.

It should be obvious, but sustainably managing forage species has implications far beyond the fish themselves. If managers allow forage stocks to collapse, many other species will follow. Luckily, folks are paying attention, and it seems like things are moving in a positive direction.

One Response to “Little Fish, Big Impact”

  1. Joe G.

    Rip,
    I loved the article. I lament sadly the lack of common sense and good guidance by the ASMFC. The commission has been so CLEARLY in the pocket of the commercial interests for SO long it’s a wonder that there are ANY fish left at all! Even the fisherman, closest to the resource and perhaps the biggest part of the problem, refuse to see that despite the shrinking catches they are partly to blame. It’s like saying that humans have NO part in warming the planet. It seems like nobody is willing to accept responsibility for their actions.

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posted in: TRCP Marine

May 21, 2014

Attention all anglers

NOAA Rec Fisheries Summit
Image courtesy of NOAA.gov.

That’s what we are getting: more attention. That’s a good thing. More fisheries managers, bureaucrats and pols are hearing about recreational issues. That’s a great thing. Maybe the sleeping giant is waking up.

I have written about it in a past blog, but last fall the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, also known as the Morris-Deal Commission, began work on a report, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries.”  That vision document was released during the Miami Boat Show and received a great deal of attention. And, yes, I realize that it did not universally make everyone in the recreational industry warm and fuzzy. The two biggest concerns I heard were that it did not represent the “average angler.” There was also a lot of angst about the apparent support for “flexibility” in effort to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which is the main federal legislation that manages fish. From my standpoint this is a valid concern and one that I personally share. However, I don’t think having the discussion is a bad thing. From my standpoint interested and engaged members of the recreational community need to have these kinds of hard discussions. I also feel that the vision should be a work in progress. The good news is it has already made some important folks in D.C. take notice.

Participants at NOAA Rec Fish Summit 2014
Participants at the 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit. Image Courtesy of NOAA.gov.

The introduction of the report by the Morris-Deal Commission was followed by the second national Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit held in Washington, D.C. This was described by one of the organizers at NOAA Fisheries “as taking down the walls, bringing in the community and working on solutions together.” It was an open forum, and folks came from all over the lower 48 and Alaska as well. Like the first summit, the second one was designed to have the stakeholders create and prioritize a list of projects and tasks for NOAA Fisheries to complete to help enhance the working relationship with and engagement of the recreational fishing industry and community. The first summit created an extensive action list, and NOAA Fisheries has completed about 90 percent of that list. It is currently digesting the output from the second summit. One item that was committed to at the summit itself was the creation of a national marine recreational fisheries policy. The plan on how this will be done is almost complete and is scheduled to be release this coming winter. There will be a series of outreach meetings to get recreational stakeholder input. There also will be an online survey available soon. I urge interested parties to make their thoughts known through one of the venues. As John Brownlee, editor in chief at Salt Water Sportsman, said in his keynote speech, “The work will begin when NOAA says yes.” So, get to work folks.

As this is written, I am finishing up the spring session of the Fisheries Forum, which is a collaborative effort of Duke University and Stanford. This forum was on recreational fishing issues. It has a lot of Regional Fisheries Management Council members and staff in attendance. It addressed some of the most problematic issues facing recreational management, not from a policy standpoint but from a process standpoint. Some of the output from this event can be found at FisheriesForum.org. Once again, this kind of effort keeps the recreational fishing industry and community front of mind with many of those making the important decision.

This is all good stuff. The worst thing that could happen would be to have this community ignored. The best is to have the management makers talking about you. I am reminded of James Michael Curley, infamous mayor of Boston, who said time and again, “I don’t care what they write about me. Just make sure they spell my name correctly.” Right on, Mr. Mayor.

Watch video coverage of the 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit:

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posted in: TRCP Marine

April 29, 2014

Turn down the heat

red snapper
Red snapper. Photo courtesy of NOAA.gov.

Just before NOAA Fisheries’ Saltwater Recreational Fishing Summit that I wrote about recently, a court in Washington, D.C., issued a verdict in the lawsuit of Guindon (a commercial fisherman) vs. Pritzker (the secretary Of Commerce). It had to do with what some perceive as NOAA Fisheries’ lack of ability to control the catch of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico by the recreational fishing community. However, by any reasonable measure it has a lot more moving pieces.

This issue has been bubbling away down along the gulf for a number of years, and this verdict has precipitated an immediate boiling over. Normally rational people have gone ballistic. People in the “media” are taking verbal shots at those they blame for this mess. The environmental community has jumped on the issue. The net result may cause this to get totally out of control. Or maybe it already is.

For those of us in the Northeast, we might simply turn to another station and go about our business. That might be the normal response, but this issue does have the potential to impact recreational fisheries all along our coasts. Its outcome might even impact the crafting and implementation of NOAA’s forthcoming national recreational fishing policy. This is not just a bunch of “good ol’ boys” spouting off about a decision they do not like. It has the potential to be a very important and impactful decision.

What’s it all about? Going back a few years, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council set quotas for both the recreational and commercial users of red snapper. The commercial harvest was implemented in the form of catch shares, in this case individual transferable quotas, which in its own right amped up the overall angst. The recreational harvest then proceeded to exceed the quotas for a number of years, except in 2010 when the BP oil-rig blowout essentially closed down the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, the commercial quota now was well controlled. But the commercial fishing industry felt that its ability to take its quota and to have that quota increase with the rebuilding of the red snapper population was in jeopardy by the recreational overharvest. In fact, the population has continued to grow, and the potential for them to increase their take has, as well. By the way, because red snapper are slow-growing critters, the rebuilding period was not 10 years, but the built-in flexibility in the Magnuson-Stevens Act allowed a 24-year rebuilding period. Now that is real flexibility, but I’m not going there. A good overview of the red snapper fishery can found here.

As mentioned above, there are a lot more moving parts to this situation, but you get the general gist of it. So the Washington, D.C., judge who has minimal understanding about Gulf of Mexico fisheries supported the plaintiff in the lawsuit and ruled that NOAA Fisheries was not fulfilling its mandate under the Magnuson-Stevens Act to control the recreational catch of red snapper. The judge did not issue any remedial action. Perhaps one of the things that the judge discovered during the trial was that NOAA Fisheries has only a vague understanding of what the actual recreational catch is.

After the decision was rendered, one well-known blogger called the recreational red snapper fishery “embarrassing.” Another writer said of efforts to allocate additional quota to the recreational users, “stop asking for an additional helping when you’ve already taken more than your share.” The commercial industry, environmental groups and the recreational industry all are pointing fingers and shouting at each other. The individual angler is getting creamed and taking the heat. How is it that the individual angler is “embarrassing” or “taking more than their share”? I have not heard that there have been excessive numbers of anglers exceeding the limit or taking undersized fish. They stuck to the limits and season, so what’s wrong with that? Some of the pro-recreational organizations are advocating for more allocation and getting criticized for it. Well, duh, what should they advocate for? Less allocation. As more and more folks move to coastal communities, do we really know the number of angler trips and what their catch is? If we simply say that the current allocations will not change, that means a lot of folks only access to a public trust resource is through the local fish market.

If folks would work on pulling together all this disparate energy, maybe the problem could be solved. NOAA Fisheries needs to finish up the inner workings of the Marine Recreational Information Program. Then there might be a better understanding of what the recreational catch is and what the potential demand will be. There needs to be a new allocation model based on up-to-date and better recreational participation and, yes, it needs to have some element of the socioeconomic value of this fishery. Also, there needs to be some real cooperation and coordination between state and federal fisheries managers.

It is painfully obvious that what is being done now is not working. Solving this is not rocket science, unless folks are only interested in protecting the turf they have staked out.

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posted in: TRCP Marine

April 17, 2014

A national recreational fishing policy

Rod and reel courtesy NMFS/NOAA
Photo courtesy of NMFS/NOAA.gov.

Well, it looks like the recreational fishing industry got an April Fools present. No, really, we did. It’s not a joke.

NOAA Fisheries has committed to establishing a national recreational fishing policy. What does that mean? The real answer is in the future, but the door that some like to say was “rusted shut” has been opened.

During the first days of April and what finally felt like real spring, I attended the Recreational Fishing Summit organized by NOAA Fisheries in the Washington, D.C., area. This summit was the fourth time the recreational fishing industry has come together to try to influence federal policies on fishing in general and specifically the policies that directly impact the recreational fishing industry and the 11 million saltwater anglers.

The first summit was held on the West Coast. Then came St. Petersburg, Fla., in the early 2000s. The last was in the D.C. area four years ago and started the ball rolling to change how the recreational fishing industry has been and is viewed by federal policy makers. This summit produced a fairly long list of changes that attendees wanted implemented. To his credit, Eric Schwab, then head of NOAA Fisheries, committed to getting that list checked off as soon as possible. While 100 percent of the items were not completed, most of did get done. One of the outstanding and frankly most important items is to get the “new” Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP, completed and functional. Time after time, at the summits and just about everywhere else, the recreational industry has questioned the data being used to manage the recreational users. There are substantial fluctuations in some of the catch number that just do not make any sense. If bad data are being used to set seasons, bag limits or assess catch, then folks’ suspicion is warranted. MRIP needs to be fully functional and completely trusted.

Marine Visioning Report for America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries
Image courtesy of Trcp.org.

This year’s summit was a follow-up to the previous one. The output was a list of things to be addressed by NOAA Fisheries. The list was not as long, but it has some fairly complicated issues to address. To a great extent the list is directly reflective of the Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries and the report presented by the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, Recreational Working Group. The “vision report” had a short list of important items, but several rise to the top in my mind. They did also at the summit. First, establish a national recreational fishing policy. Next was allocating marine fisheries for the greatest economic benefit to the nation. Also managing for the forage base. All of these were high up on the short list from the summit. All of these would change management policy and finally recognize the value of the recreational fishing industry.

I am happy to report that Eileen Sobeck, the newly appointed head of NOAA Fisheries, concluded the summit with the commitment to move ahead with establishing the national recreational fishing policy. Great stuff! But from the recreational industry standpoint, the real work now begins. We need to make sure that what goes into this policy is the right stuff. John Brownlee, editorial director of Salt Water Sportsman, Sport Fishing and Marlin magazine and keynote summit speaker, put it correctly when he said that the real work begins after we get NOAA Fisheries to say yes!

Yes, I do think that we are making headway. Rather than looking back and saying, “It’s about time,” I look forward and say, “We need to make sure we get it right this time!”

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posted in: TRCP Marine

April 11, 2014

For us humans to digest, first we must swallow

Red snapper on ice. Photo courtesy of Jeff Dute/www.al.com.
Red snapper on ice. Photo courtesy of Jeff Dute/www.al.com.

For recreational fishermen along the Gulf of Mexico, swallowing was a difficult task last week.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council set out what is sure to be an unpalatable menu for recreational fishermen last Thursday at its meeting in Baton Rouge, La., when it voted a shortest-ever 11-day recreational red snapper season for 2014.

Just three hours later, the Louisiana Department of  Wildlife and Fisheries found the decision so distasteful the agency’s top man, Secretary Robert Barham, announced that come Monday, April 14, his state will open state waters to a year-round recreational red snapper take.

“After reviewing what our biologists expect Louisiana’s recreational red snapper landings to be this year, and the recent action taken by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to have a very short federal season, I have decided to support our anglers and the associated fishing industry by opening state waters 365 days until further notice,” Barham said in a prepared statement.

“The Gulf Council’s action is clear evidence that their process is broken and they give no consideration to the needs of individual states. For two years, I have been trying to persuade the Gulf Council to move forward with regional management, allowing the states flexibility in management by empowering our anglers and fishing industry to decide how they want red snapper managed. That hasn’t happened.”

The move aligns Louisiana with its neighbor Texas in having 365-day seasons in state waters. Louisiana will continue its two-fish-per day limit, while Texas allows a four-per- day take. Florida has elected to not comply with federal regulations in state waters as well, citing similar frustration and distrust of federal management.

It was clear the 17-member Gulf council was running in fear of an early April ruling by a Washington, D.C., district court that told the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Gulf Council that its recreational red snapper management schemes allowed recreationals to exceed their sector’s quota during five of the six years between 2007 and 2012.

A group of commercial fishermen brought the lawsuit and used NMFS data to show the recreational overages, numbers some on the recreational side believe are drawn from the upper end of a built-in “fudge factor” in the federal formula. Numbers on the factor’s low side show recreationals are within, or very close to, their sector’s annual quota.

Louisiana’s reaction came after NOAA Southeast Region Administrator Roy Crabtree announced a 40-day recreational red snapper season late last year, a welcomed addition of nearly two weeks from 2013’s 27-day season.

Last year’s season came after Crabtree, (who has a Gulf Council vote) was forced to recommend a Gulf-wide 27-day season after he issued a directive for respective nine-day and 14-day seasons in federal waters off the Louisiana and Texas coasts. A Texas-based federal judge ruled the directive was punitive towards individual states, which is prohibited by federal fisheries-management law, and forced a more equitable number of season days across the five Gulf states last season.

Presumably, and only if 2014’s 11 days follows precedent, this year’s season will begin at 12:01 a.m. June 1 and run through 12:01 a.m. June 12.

A more complete picture of what ultimately happened began last Tuesday when the council’s Reef Fish Committee debated 14-day, five-day and no season. That’s right: NO DAYS for 2014 despite recent stock assessments showing the largest ever stock of red snapper recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s when the recreational fishing world got a primer on “buffers,” especially a 20-percent buffer, an addition to the formula to restrict a season to try to ensure red snapper harvest comes as close as the federal managers can estimate in keeping the recreational take under its current quota.

A 14-day season with a 20-percent buffer is an 11-day season when the buffer removes its 20 percent, or 2.8 days.

Another suggestion last week was for an eight-day season with a 30-percent buffer, but that proposal had so little traction it slid by with minimal debate.

The short explanation of it all is that the Gulf council will forward its decision to NMFS showing the council’s willingness to make sure recreational fishermen stay under their 5.39 million-pound allowable catch (49 percent of an 11-million-pound quota for 2014). Plugged into the formula, the 20-percent buffer produces a 4.312-million-pound “annual catch target” when the daily creel limit is two-per-angler per day.

There was more, much more, and without sharing the fatigue of listening to nearly 20 hours of the back-and-forth of the council meeting in Baton Rouge, here are other items of interest:

–The Gulf Council approved an exempted fishing permit for Alabama’s near 100-vessel charter boat fleet.

The proposal came from Alabama charter boat operators who want to extract what was outlined as an 8-percent total catch by charter operators from Alabama’s historic recreational red snapper catch. That 8 percent would be doled out to charter operators with a 10-per-day take for “six-pack” charters and 20 per day for larger charter boats, effectively making charter boat operators, who are taking recreational anglers fishing, exempt from following the same rules and regulations private recreational anglers have to follow. Six-pack boats are those vessels on which the captain is only licensed to take six customers.

What happened this week in Baton Rouge certainly will give us more to chew on in the coming weeks and months. Whether recreational fishermen can or should swallow any or all of it is another story.

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