Chris Macaluso

April 9, 2018

How Fisheries Managers Respond When Trash Fish Get Trendy

Fisheries management can be influenced by the American appetite for (certain kinds of) seafood, which makes it even more important that the system works better for anglers

My brother Joey and I were weird, I guess. When we were kids, we loved to fish for sheepshead, which, at the time, were generally thought to be a “trash” fish and were despised by most Louisiana anglers.

Sheepshead are ugly by any objective standard. They have big, goofy buckteeth, gray and black skin, and a row of foreboding spikes along their dorsal fins. They’re also an absolute pain to clean. Some charter guides I knew when I was in my teens refused to even put them in the ice chest, for fear that they would wind up on the cleaning table along with the better speckled trout and redfish.

But I never agreed with sheepshead getting a bad rap. First of all, they fight like caged, rabid raccoons. And on our summer trips to Grand Isle or fall excursions to Cocodrie, the sheepshead aggressively ate a piece of shrimp or hermit crab on a jig head when the speckled trout wouldn’t cooperate, and they guaranteed that we had some fresh fish to go with our suppers of canned beans, and French bread.

Sure, you had to hack through some thick rib bones and tough scales to get a filet. But crabs are hard to clean, and I don’t know too many folks who consider boiled and steamed blue crabs to be “trash,” just because the meat is difficult to pick out.

Then, about 15 years ago, sheepshead started showing up on restaurant menus under the pseudonym “bay snapper.” Suddenly, a bunch of anglers who would never have kept an ugly, stubborn sheepshead were raving about how tasty their fish-of-the-day lunch special was.

Now, pretty much every restaurant in South Louisiana has sheepshead on the menu or as a fresh-fish special. I guess the cliché about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure applies.

 

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2013 National Survey
Tasty Reputation Prompts Adapted Management

I’m often struck by how frequently recreational and commercial fishermen are pitted against each other over a handful of “popular” fish because they taste good or they fight hard or simply because they are easy to catch. How many fish like sheepshead, once considered less desirable by both recreational and commercial fishermen, are out there? How can fishing for these species lessen the animosity that has been built over fish like red snapper?

I’m also dumbfounded, at times, by the argument that states are not as equipped to manage commercial fisheries as the federal government, especially when states have responded to the increased popularity of sheepshead with adapted management for both recreational and commercial harvest. And still we don’t fight over sheepshead at state commission meetings like we do over red snapper at the federally directed Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council.

State fisheries agencies generally do a good job of conservatively managing commercial and recreational fishing, which is one of the reasons the TRCP and many of its sportfishing partners support the Modern Fish Act—because it would increase the role that states play in federal management and data collection for recreational fishing.

 

CMac’s special recipe.
Cats, Carp, and Courtbouillon

Like sheepshead, there are other fish thought of as trash, simply by reputation. On a late-March trip to Grand Isle, my fishing buddies got to tie into a handful of gafftopsail catfish, another much-maligned, yet hard-tugging and good-eating saltwater predator. I kept the fish, despite some dirty looks, and I used the filets to make a catfish courtbouillon, a rich tomato-based stew my family ate on Good Friday.

Everyone said it was delicious. They had no idea they were eating trash, I guess.

Gafftops, unlike their cousins the hardhead catfish, aren’t bottom-dwelling scavengers. They strike lures as aggressively as redfish and speckled trout and fight every bit as hard. On a memorable day in late August a few years ago, several five-pound gafftops exploded on topwater plugs in the Grand Isle surf when I was aiming for specks. The surface boiled and my drag screamed as if a redfish or big trout had busted the bait. But when the fight was over, my friends looked in disgust at what was on the end of the line. Similar to the way sheepshead were looked at 30 years ago, some of my friends won’t even put a gafftop in the ice chest for fear of scorn at the cleaning table.

But the list of reformed trash fish is growing each year. Bonito were once only kept for cut bait and chum, but if the meat is taken care of, they are just as tasty as their blackfin tuna relatives. Even the dreaded invasive Asian carp is pretty tasty after being dredged in seasoned corn meal and dropped in hot grease. There are more than enough of them available for those who want to give them a taste.

 

Making the Most of Our Time on the Water

I’m not suggesting that I would give up on a good trout bite or a school of hungry redfish to chase down gafftops or throw chunks of hermit crabs at sheepshead. But, like many fishermen who have busy home- and work-lives, I like to catch something while I’m out there—I’m not going to turn down the opportunity to hook aggressive-striking, hard-pulling fish and keep a few of them for the grill or the fryer.

And I’m not suggesting that improving the management of popular species like red snapper or cobia is less important because there are other fish out there to catch. My point is that, too often, anglers fall into the trap of getting hung up on catching one fish or another, and it can lead to a less enjoyable time on the water if a particular season is closed or the target species doesn’t cooperate that day. It might be up to us to “dig in the trash” more often.

But as attitudes towards these fish evolve and change, it will be even more important that our system of federal fisheries management does not ignore recreational fishing—because restaurant trends will come and go, but the importance of predictable seasons to local outdoor recreation businesses will not.

 

Top photo by Anna Hesser via Flickr

4 Responses to “How Fisheries Managers Respond When Trash Fish Get Trendy”

  1. Kelly McPhillips

    Spent January thru March on the south side of Tampa Bay catching hunts, spots, sheephead, sailcat and hard head cats, mullet, a few blue crab, Jack crevalle, and a cooperative snook. The mullet and even hard head cats, when properly cleaned provided excellent table faire that I prepared for our hosts and relatives. They claimed it was some of the best fish they’d ever enjoyed and these are dyed in the wool grouper lovers! Let’s hear it for the underdog!

  2. Matthew J Van Camp

    We were out boating on Black lake, basically an old mill pond, out here in the Olympia, Wa. area when one of the girls hooked into a big Cat. No one even wanted to touch the damned thing and so I stepped in. Fire up the bbq (which we carried on the boat at all times) and I set about gutting and skinning the thing, then cutting it into filet’s. We also kept a bag of Krustaez onboard so it was quickly breaded and on the barbie. Everyone loved the flaky meat and wished we had some tarter sauce! Cats are as delicious as they are ugly.

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Guest Blogger Brett Fitzgerald

March 30, 2018

There’s an Access Payoff for Reporting What Fish You Catch and Throw Back

Anglers who report catch data using the latest apps help fisheries managers adjust seasons in real-time, so why are some still resistant to sharing?

Recreational angler self-reported data has come a long way. As it has suddenly dominated many of the recreational fishery management discussions over the past year, one might think the concept has come out of nowhere. But the Snook and Gamefish Foundation (SGF) has been working on refining the process for almost a decade, and our work has provided some valuable results. The Angler Action Program (AKA iAngler), a service project of SGF, was born in 2010 after an historic cold event severely damaged a host of tropical Florida wildlife, including snook—a native and highly prized gamefish.

In response to the possible crisis, we partnered with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to design and build a voluntary self-reporting database that would start to get a handle on just how hard the fishery was whacked by the extreme cold weather. Snook anglers—who range from passionate to completely obsessed—were an easy target for soliciting help.

There were many successes over the following years, most of them ‘firsts’ in the world of fishery management at the state level. After helping with the design of the database and angler survey, FWC left us to run and manage iAngler and its data. Participation was fairly high, with thousands of hours of snook-directed fishing trips reported within months of program initiation. FWC found data useful almost immediately in a few areas, particularly regarding data on the fish we let go, called ‘discards’ by researchers.

Within five years, iAngler was expanded to include all species of fish on a global range, and it was used directly in five different Florida stock assessments for snook, spotted seatrout, and red drum. This is the first time that data collected and managed by anglers was used in a state-level stock assessment.

Around that same time, a lab at the University of Florida began running some analysis of iAngler data and comparing it to numbers from the Marine Resources Information Program, which currently collects data for all federally managed fish species. Despite having some design flaws, especially where the program forces commercial models on recreational fisheries, MRIP is responsible for what has long been considered to be the “best available data” for use by federal agencies.

The UF studies focused on how many fish anglers are catching and how big the fish are. This is especially important with discards, as this is an area of fishery information where many species are ‘data poor,’ meaning whatever the best available data is, it ain’t enough.

In general terms, the UF study found that iAngler data in Florida did have some limitations, or biases, however for areas where enough anglers participated the data lined up nicely with MRIP.

Right around the time these very positive results of iAngler data analyses started rolling in, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) reached out to SGF to see if we could partner up with the goal of getting a better handle on the Atlantic Red Snapper situation. Similar to the Gulf of Mexico, recreational anglers have been reporting anecdotally that they are experiencing an explosion in the population of this prized fish, yet the season had been closed since 2014 in the South Atlantic because the current data and modeling suggest that the population is still in trouble. Managers understood that there is a problem, but until data collection was improved or at least changed, their hands were mostly tied.

This new partnership led to a reporting tool called MyFishCount, which will allow anglers in the South Atlantic to report their catches – keepers and discards, along with a host of other data points – by this coming summer.

A pilot program was launched during the 2017 Atlantic Red Snapper season, and the results were again very positive. Anglers were able to report a variety of aspects of their planned snapper fishing trips through the system, researchers were able to see the data in real-time, and managers reacted to the data nearly as fast.

For example, the 2017 red snapper season was originally set for six days over two three-day weekends. Through MyFishCount, biologists and managers were able to see that the vast majority of planned fishing trips never took place, because the weather was not favorable for offshore fishing on those dates. Using this information, SAFMC was able to open a third long weekend of fishing.

The point is that anglers were asked to contribute, and because they did, their data was put to immediate good use. In this case, it led to more fishing access.

Not for nothing, the weather on that third weekend was pretty horrible, too. But this is ok for anglers: It means that the estimated harvest over the full nine-day fishing season is unlikely to overestimate the fishing effort, which could have led to less access in years to come.

“This is one of the few instances where you have technology, industry, fishermen, and scientists all agreeing on one thing—that we need better data in the recreational fishery—and most of us are seeing a similar approach to reaching that goal,” says Dr. Chip Collier, an SAFMC fisheries biologist who has been involved with the MyFishCount project since its inception.

He and his staff are very excited to have a new and improved version of MyFishCount up and running before summer 2018, and it will be functional for a wide variety of fish species, not just red snapper. “One of the great things about having it ready before the summer is that will be able to show anglers what self-reporting actually looks like,” says Collier. “The ‘fear of the unknown’ can make a lot of people hesitant to take the first step towards getting involved, and this will help.”

“The amount of positive comments we’ve received from anglers who participated has been great, and it feels like it really gives a voice to management,” says Kelsey Dick, SAFMC’s fishery outreach specialist. “I have been very grateful to see people coming together and being supportive of this project.”

The benefits of self-reporting are many. Through this kind of reporting, managers and biologists will get a better understanding of angler behavior on the water.

“We don’t have enough time to interview a lot of recreational anglers, so we don’t really know if people are using descending devices, or circle hooks, or other behaviors.” Dick said.

Mass, real-time self-reported data opens the doors to these types of data streams and that is extremely critical when trying to get a handle on how to best set management rules for a given species in a given region.

For example, in 2017 MyFishCount anglers reported very low use of descending devices or venting tools in shallow water (less than 5%), yet a very high (over 90%) in deeper water. Without the opportunity to self-report behavior like this, Councils have no way of estimating how many anglers are taking extra measures to help ensure fish survive release. And when you are managing ‘data poor’ species such as red snapper, any uncertainty in the modeling usually translates to less access.

Still, with all indicators pointing in a very positive direction, there is a lot of work to be done, and it is going to take time. “Managing expectations across the board is hard,” says Dr. Collier. Fishermen, scientists, managers and the industry all want this issue solved.

It is going to take some time, but the more anglers that get involved now, the faster we can improve the system and expand the functional uses. This type of data is not yet ready to answer questions like overall effort or fish abundance – researchers first need to understand just how this information represents the fishing community at large. But the mindset has changed greatly over the past couple years, from ‘the data is no good’ to ‘we must understand and measure biases in data, then account for those biases.’ This is an extremely encouraging trend.

The Snook and Gamefish Foundation is working with The American Sportfishing Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and a host of other conservation and fishing industry groups, state and federal agencies to explore ways to better integrate self-reported data the use of technology to improve fisheries management.

Management is going to happen whether the data improves or not. So getting involved and reporting through iAngler now, no matter where you are, is a very important step for recreational anglers. It not only allows you to contribute immediately to a brighter fishing future, but also to keep tabs on how the technology is changing fishing behavior and management so you can help shape the direction in the future.

 

Brett Fitzgerald is the Executive Director of the Snook and Gamefish Foundation. He is also a contributing editor to Florida Sportsman Magazine, and a special education instructor in the Palm Beach County school system for where he promotes an academic curriculum through environmentalism and resource conservation. Fitzgerald is an avid guitar player, fly tyer, photographer and fisherman.

Kristyn Brady

March 28, 2018

What If You Could Level Up on Hunter Education to Get Better Access?

A new certificate program in Montana helps hunters understand more about conservation, ethics, and respect for private land in order to gain access to more of it

Asking permission to hunt on someone’s land is a vulnerable proposition. There’s a tremendous upside for your access close to home, but it all depends on the landowner taking a bet on you, your skills, and how you’ll treat their property. And we all know that one bad actor can make this ask even more challenging for others.

That’s why a Montana non-profit with an eye toward improving sportsman-landowner relations and hunting access has created a program to certify sportsmen and women that they can vouch for with private landowners—some of whom have never opened their gates to hunters before.

“Landowners might not know what they’re going to get—it really makes a difference when someone comes to your property with an understanding of your needs, respect for your land, and respect for the wildlife,” says George Bettas, project coordinator for One Montana’s new Montana Hunter Advancement Program, which was created to promote safe, ethical, and responsible hunting on enrolled private lands through its Master Hunter certification course. “Our goal is to send out skilled, ethical hunters who landowners know they can trust, to hopefully create new opportunities on properties that have provided little to no access for hunters in the past.”

The certification program has a core curriculum with three parts: A history of conservation and hunting ethics, a section on the value of agriculture and the landowner’s perspective, and a field session for testing and improving competency with a rifle or bow. They will accept 30 applicants into the pilot course for rifle hunters this spring. The cost is $200, which covers a weekend worth of instruction, ammo, provided lunches, and facilities—but scholarships are available. Program leaders are looking for a diverse range of ages, backgrounds, and skill levels for the pilot course.

Part of the process is generating an awareness of a visiting hunter’s impact on the farm or ranch, and what kinds of activities may be happening on private land at certain times of year. Bettas hopes this will help create a bond between landowners and sportsmen, who will know enough to avoid crossing freshly seeded winter wheat or tearing up an access road with tire chains just to get closer to a downed animal. He believes more educated, ethical hunters are less likely to put themselves in danger, take a shot where they can’t recover the animal, or give up on a critical contract with the landowner—to help manage wildlife that damage crops or property.

“I’m confident that when we send the first 30 graduates out to hunt the available properties, they will be great ambassadors for hunting, and the landowners are going to want them back again,” says Bettas.

Two hunters at a BLM annual pheasant hunt to learn safe hunting techniques while enjoying traditional pheasant hunting.

Certified Montana Master Hunters will be able to access an online reservation system for enrolled properties made possible by Huntable.com, an Airbnb-like service that allows landowners to approve certain dates and know who is going to show up when.

There has been some criticism on the group’s Facebook page about the course being “elitist,” but Bettas stresses that anyone with some hunting experience can apply and potentially receive assistance with the fee. “Overall the response has been tremendous, and we hope to eventually make some of the coursework available online for anyone who is interested,” he says.

With the decline in hunter participation and a wave of out-of-state and urban buyers taking over properties that have traditionally been open to hunting and fishing, sportsmen’s access and landowner certainty about who they are letting use their property are as critical as ever in Montana. The TRCP has been supportive of the Hunter Advancement Program and certificate course, because it enhances access, promotes conservation ideals, and helps to retain active hunters who keep the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy flourishing. And farmers and ranchers who believe the best of hunters and anglers can often have an outsize impact on the health of fish and wildlife habitat, too.

Of course, you don’t need to be certified to build a relationship of mutual respect with a private landowner. But it’s pretty cool to see this example of a solution that brings both sides together to find common ground.

Montana residents can apply for the program here until April 1. For the pilot course, just 30 rifle hunters will be selected, and scholarships are available. Visit mtmasterhunter.com for details and to watch for future courses.

Travis Cooke

March 27, 2018

How Maintenance Backlogs Could Affect Your Hunting Season

Deferred maintenance projects without suitable funding crop up on more than just national park lands, and it could waste your precious daylight hours afield—here’s everything you need to know about the backlog issue, proposed solutions, and why it’s personal

Picture this: You draw a special deer tag in a unit you’ve never hunted before, and like most people, you’re busy. So, you study maps and satellite imagery to mark roads and trails on your GPS, but family and work obligations prevent you from being able to get out there and scout in-person.

You could be pulling into camp the day before a six-day hunt, with your entire strategy reliant on being able to use access that you’ve never laid eyes on. It’s not ideal, but it happens. And there is a real possibility that you’ll be confronted with washed out roads and deep ruts that make passage difficult or impossible by vehicle, while some non-motorized trails are so overgrown that you can’t even find them to hike on.

No one wants to burn up half their hunt frustrated by road and trail conditions that fall short of their expectations. But this kind of access to public lands has become more difficult for America’s sportsmen and women because of the massive maintenance backlogs at many federal land management agencies—not just the National Park Service. It’s time to recognize the breadth of this challenge and how it plays out during your hunting and fishing season.

Know the Numbers

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 36 percent of American hunters depend on public lands for some or all of their access. In the West, where the BLM oversees 245 million acres of multiple-use public lands, 72 percent of hunters rely on public lands. When the roads and trails on these lands become difficult to navigate, these are the sportsmen and women who waste their precious time afield and get frustrated with land managers.

Currently, the Interior Department has a maintenance backlog totaling roughly $16 billion. While the bulk of that figure—or $11.6 billion—is tied to national parks, America’s sportsmen and women remain concerned about the backlogs at the Bureau of Land Management and the National Wildlife Refuge System, which have a combined backlog of $2.2 billion. Meanwhile, at the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service has a backlog totaling more than $5 billion, an issue further exacerbated by the practice of “fire borrowing” before this fix.

Combined, these agencies manage public lands that provide some of the best hunting and fishing opportunities in the country. But nothing is more frustrating than having to ground-truth every route to make sure they are accessible as presented on a map. Especially in today’s world, when time is precious and most people don’t have extra days to spare.

Loss of access is often cited as the number-one reason hunters quit the sport. With hunting numbers already in decline, creating a ripple that reduces funding for state wildlife conservation, we can ill-afford to let a backlog of repairs put negative pressure on hunter retention and recruitment.

Finding a Solution

The deferred maintenance backlog across federal agencies and Americans’ access to public lands appears to be top-of-mind for the administration. In his recent infrastructure proposal, President Trump offered a new funding stream to address the maintenance backlog on lands managed by the Interior Department, including our nation’s parks and wildlife refuges. And Secretary Zinke has been outspoken about the maintenance backlog issue, even as he has urged agency staff through two Secretarial Orders to prioritize public access to outdoor recreation like hunting and fishing.

Creating a solution will be critical, but it can’t come at the cost of other important conservation programs. While the TRCP supports initiatives to address the significant maintenance backlog on our nation’s public lands, we are opposed to efforts to restructure programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund with an aim of shifting funding from one important need to another.

Instead, we need an all-of-the-above strategy: Reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund to continue creating access where there is none, recognize that the maintenance backlog issue is meaningful for more than just national park visitors, and identify new funding sources to deal with it.

We urge Congress and the administration to work together and find a bipartisan solution to address the maintenance backlogs on BLM lands, wildlife refuges, and national forests—in addition to a critical fix for our national parks. A true solution will also uphold the integrity and purpose of other critical public lands programs, like LWCF—it won’t rob Peter to pay Paul.

The future of our access and outdoor traditions depends on it. If you agree, sign the Sportsmen’s Country petition now.

John Cornell

March 20, 2018

Local Sportsmen Rebuilt the Gateway to 40,000 Acres of Public Hunting Land

Members of a local sportsmen’s group helped to open up 40,000 acres of state trust land in New Mexico by providing materials, volunteers, and a little elbow grease

In central New Mexico, 40,000 acres of state-owned public hunting land can be found beyond a two-track road that, until recently, dead-ended at a fence. This state trust land—home to mule deer, cougars, oryxes, pronghorns and more—is surrounded by private land, and was all but inaccessible after a gate between a ranch and state trust lands was removed and fenced over.

For a long time, all we could do was point to this spot on a map and wish we could get there. Until a group of sportsmen and women joined state officials to create a DIY solution.

A Little Background on State Trust Land

There are state trust lands in 32 of New Mexico’s 33 counties. When New Mexico became a state, it was stipulated that such lands, totaling 13.4 million acres, were to be held in trust for the benefit of public schools, universities, and other beneficiary institutions. And each acre of land is designated to a specific beneficiary.

The New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands, an elected official, is charged with generating and optimizing revenue from state trust lands to support public education and other institutions, while simultaneously working to protect, conserve, and maintain these lands for future generations. The State Land Office leases lands for grazing, agriculture, commercial use, renewable energy, oil and gas drilling, mining, and other surface and subsurface activities.

Because hunting, fishing, and trapping are key tools of fish and wildlife management, sportsmen and women are granted access to most state trust lands through easements purchased by the New Mexico Game Commission. But being allowed to hunt and fish on public land is only meaningful if we can access it.

Recently, the Commissioner of Public Lands ordered that the State Land Office make it a priority to identify and restore vehicular access to New Mexico state trust lands within the Chupadera Mesa Area, which are largely surrounded by private property and have historically been inaccessible to public land hunters. One particular pinch point was created when a gate between state trust lands and a ranch was removed, and the only entry point large enough for vehicular access was fenced over.

The project improved hunter access in Unit 18, and the State Land Office’s maps will be updated on April 1. Click here to learn more.
Collaboration Was the Key

The State Land Office first approached the Doña Ana County Associated Sportsmen about the project in October 2017. Our group has forged positive relationships with government agencies and helped with hundreds of volunteer projects since the organization was founded in the early 1970s. They appealed to the club to purchase materials and provide volunteers to help complete construction of a gate that would reestablish opportunities to hunt and trap in the state land beyond the ranch.

So, in December, I went along with other members of DACAS, our families, and representatives of the State Land Office and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to get the job done. Fortunately, DACAS was left a generous endowment by one of its founding members to be used for scholarships in the Wildlife Department of New Mexico State University and to benefit future hunting, fishing, and trapping anywhere in New Mexico. This project was a perfect place to invest these funds to help make a difference. It took two months to coordinate volunteers and materials and three days to construct and finish the gate. And when we were done with our part, we all gathered to fire up the disco for an elk burrito lunch and stories of past hunts. A weekend afternoon is a small price to pay for access to 40,000 acres that will allow the next generation of sportsmen and women to have their own stories to tell.

Find Your Gateway to Conservation

It seems that when local hunters and anglers get involved and put our weight behind a solution, success is nearly always possible. The Chupadera Mesa Hunter Access Project has successfully enhanced hunting opportunities in eastern Socorro County, and I couldn’t be more proud of what our crew accomplished. But I know that a project of this scale may seem daunting to others out there, even those who truly want to make a difference.

Start small. As access to our public lands becomes increasingly pressured across the West, it is even more critical that we be willing partners with our state and federal agencies to ensure that we have quality places to hunt, fish, and trap for the foreseeable future. But we should keep an eye on the shots being called—locally and nationally.

Sign up for our updates, and we’ll let you know how to get engaged in a meaningful way. Then, sign the Sportsmen’s Country petition to let lawmakers know that we won’t take access promises over balanced management of our best fish and wildlife resources.

 

HOW YOU CAN HELP

WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?

The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.

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