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August 1, 2013

This is What Rebuilt Fisheries Look Like

The Magnuson-Stevens Act is working, let’s not mess it up.

I’m Captain John McMurray and this is my blog.  I’ll be posting here once a week, save for those “emergency” circumstances where I’m on the water so much I just can’t get it done.  In those situations there may be a guest blogger.  In short, expect new content here once a week, starting now.

For context, more about me: I’ve run a successful light-tackle fishing charter operation for well over a decade, employing three boats and three captains.  I sit on the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional fishery management councils in the United States, as well as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Striped Bass Advisory Panel.   I’m also the Director of Grant Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation, which has distributed over 30 million in equipment grants, much of that used by organizations focused exclusively on fisheries and marine habitat protection.

In this week’s blog, however, I’m writing mostly from the viewpoint of a charter boat captain, small business owner, and perhaps most importantly, a father.

From the business side, being a charter boat captain may seem like a dream, but it’s actually very difficult and quite stressful.  I know what you’re thinking:  “poor guy, he has to fish all the time” yet in this business, there are long hours (not just running trips but maintaining boats); early mornings and little time for sleep; demanding clients who are paying what seems like a lot of money to catch fish; and daunting overhead expenses – the kind that keep you awake at night.   Add to this the fact that at in my region fishing is seasonal, so most Captains, like me, have at least one other job they have to attend to.  Without a doubt, however, the most nerve-wracking aspect of this business is the dependence on a host of completely uncontrollable variables, such as weather, water temp, clarity, bait concentrations, salinity, chlorophyll levels, etc.  But… nothing is more important to a sustainable business model than an abundance of fish to catch.  Without such an abundance of fish, other variables matter little.

With that in mind, in this blog I’ll focus on summer flounder (aka fluke).   I’m having a banner fluke year.  There have been good numbers of large fish around since early May.  Summer flounder is actually one of several Mid Atlantic fish populations that are currently at or near historic high levels.  Yet several years ago they were so depleted I didn’t even bother with them.  Let’s take a brief look at the history to see what happened.

In 1996, Congress enacted the Sustainable Fisheries Act which with limited exceptions, set a ten-year deadline for rebuilding overfished stocks.  Summer flounder was badly overfished.  So, the Mid-Atlantic Council amended the summer flounder management plan to meet the new requirements, but it tried to balance rebuilding with the economic impacts on fishermen, and political pressure inevitably put too much emphasis on the latter.  As a result, when the 1999 quota was set, it only had an 18% chance of success.   The Natural Resource Defense Council (an NYC based environmental group) sued, demanding that the rebuilding plan have a reasonable chance of successfully meeting the 10-year rebuilding deadline.  In 2000, that suit ended with a landmark decision that required management plans to have no less than a 50% chance of ending overfishing and rebuilding a stock within the established deadline.

Congress, with what appeared to be overwhelming support from the American people, reaffirmed the need to rebuild overfished stocks promptly when it reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006, upholding the timeframe first enacted in the Sustainable Fisheries Act.  Revised language in the reauthorization explicitly directed fishery management councils to heed the advice of independent scientists on their science and statistical committees regarding the maximum harvest levels which will permit managers to rebuild fisheries on schedule, thus somewhat isolating the Council from political pressure to allow overfishing.

The Mid-Atlantic Council adhered to the new mandates and made a determined effort to rebuild overfished stocks.  As a result, it is now the only regional fishery management council where, to the best of its knowledge, no stock is overfished, none are subject to overfishing and just one (the tilefish) remains in the rebuilding stage.

Without-a-doubt, I’ve benefited from the Mid-Atlantic Council’s actions.  On the water, I see more fluke than I have ever seen in my 13 years as a Captain, or my 25 years as a saltwater angler.  This is one fishery where I don’t have to stress about abundance levels.  I wish I could say that about striped bass! (Note: will cover this in a future blog)

As I mentioned, up until the last few years I never even bothered with fluke, as the inshore fishery was composed almost exclusively of small, young fish.  The large ones were few and far between, and you generally had to go out to 60 or even 90 feet of water and fish with 10 or 12oz of lead if you wanted to catch them.  Today, summer flounder make up a substantial portion of my business, as 20-inch-plus fish are relatively abundant and can be caught in shallow water close to home.  They are really fun to catch on light-tackle and a ¾-oz bucktail, and of course they are great eating.  My clients really enjoy fluke fishing these days, and it seems to be consistently good from May to September, providing me and my clients something to target in the traditional “dog-days” of summer.

Business interests aside, I want to emphasize how important this fishery has become to my family.   Early in May of this year I took my 4-year old twins out for their very first fluke trip.  First drift in a spot less than 5 minutes from where we live, my son catches a 28” fluke.  Second drift my daughter sticks a 24” fish.  As is usually the case with 4-year-olds, attention spans ran out quickly, but only after several more large beautiful fish.  I was stoked!  My kids were stoked!  The look of pure and utter joy on their faces were worth more than any aforementioned business interest.  We now try and do such family trips at least once a week.  We all look forward to them.

This is what a fishery rebuilt under the current Magnuson Stevens Act looks like, and it exists because the Mid-Atlantic Council made the hard decisions and adopted the hard caps on harvest that they recognized were essential to successfully rebuilding the stock.

Those decisions were not popular at the time that they were made.  It was inevitable that there would be some economic pain associated with the summer flounder’s recovery, which was suffered not only by the commercial fishing industry, but the recreational fishing industry as well, which saw its seasons and bag limits shrink while the stocks recovered from decades of overfishing.     However, the facts now demonstrate that such pain has been well rewarded.

In the Mid-Atlantic, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, recreational fishermen caught some 2.7 million summer flounder in 1989. In 2011, after rebuilding, that number jumped to more than 21 million fish. That’s a 700 percent increase!  NOAA fisheries service’s numbers show angler trips over the last decade along the Atlantic Coast up 41 percent from the 1980s. In the Mid-Atlantic alone, according to the fisheries service, that has brought in an additional $1.4 billion in economic activity and supported 18,660 jobs.  On the commercial side, the success story is similar. Gross commercial revenues for summer flounder are up more than 60 percent since 2000, when the rebuilding plan was put in place. And, in total, all of the rebuilt fish stocks brought in, on average, $585 million in gross commercial revenues every year from 2008-2010.

During the rocky-road to recovery many in the fishing industry said rebuilding couldn’t be achieved — the rebuilding goals were too ambitious, the timelines were too tight, and that catch limits were too strict.  But it’s precisely because of such management action that we’re once again catching those larger, older summer flounder.  I take clients out on fluke trips now and know that we have a good shot at catching big fish.  Perhaps more importantly, I can take my family out with a reasonable expectation of catching a few keepers and so can other Dads.

Without a doubt the Magnuson Stevens Act requirements greatly benefited the general public, even if a few business interests may have suffered a short-term decline in profits.  But, as the aforementioned statistics show, even they now benefit from a fully restored stock.

The story is similar for other recreationally important fish the Mid Atlantic Council manages, such as black seabass and scup.  But of course the picture is not all rosy.  Some management problems remain.  In the summer flounder fishery, because the size limit is considerably higher than it has historically been (undoubtedly the reason there are large fish around now), the recreational discard mortality (about 10% of the throwbacks don’t survive) is significant.  This is a problem deserving of the Mid Atlantic Council’s attention, and it’s getting it.  Yet, I can’t help but note that the fishery has been rebuilt despite such discards, so overfishing was clearly a much bigger problem and, in the end, something eats those fish; they all go back into the marine ecosystem.  There are also serious “fairness” issues with the state-by-state allocation system that currently exists, but that is a complicated political issue deserving of full coverage in a future blog, and I do believe we are on the verge of working that one out.

In the black seabass fishery there are issues with uncertainty in the stock assessment and the way accountability measures are applied in the recreational fishery.  Because of imprecise estimates that show big picture trends rather than year-by-year accuracy, accountability measures such as pound-for-pound paybacks are not practicable.  But the Mid Atlantic Council is in the process of developing reasonable solutions to such problems.   Such individual solutions should be created by the competent regional councils as they arise elsewhere.  The changes in Magnuson some are suggesting to fix such regional problems will likely effect all fisheries, and they could have negative consequences across the board.

Regardless, summer flounder, and the other fisheries managed by the Mid Atlantic Council, provide a good example of how that Council took the right approach to management, setting hard catch limits and enforcing them, despite the political pressure brought by some narrow economic interests.  They stand in stark contrast to the still-depleted fisheries managed by, for example, the New England Fishery Management Council, which relied on various input controls such as trip limits, days at sea, etc. in order to avoid setting poundage limits on landings, and so never effectively reduced harvest.  Now truly painful measures are required because they failed to embrace effective measures—such as hard harvest caps – since the Sustainable Fisheries Act was enacted in 1996.

I’ve been directly affected by such failure, for while the summer flounder’s recovery has been spectacularly successful, the collapse of the winter flounder, jointly managed by the New England Council and the ASMFC, has been dismayingly sharp and complete.  In 1984, New York anglers harvested nearly 7,400,000 flounder; in 2012, they harvested only 43,500.  When NMFS finally realized the depth of the flounder’s distress in 2009, and closed the fishery in federal waters, ASMFC left the state seasons open.  But that doesn’t really matter to me, because instead of flounder fishing in March, I keep my boat on land because there are hardly any fish around.

Unfortunately, winter flounder are only one of the species managed, in whole or in part, by ASMFC that haven’t fared very well, precisely because that management body doesn’t have to comply with Federal Magnuson-Stevens Act standards, may ignore overfishing and is not required to rebuild overfished stocks.  Weakfish, which used to be a substantial portion of my spring business, provide a good example.  Today they are virtually gone; the last stock assessment indicates that just 3% of the spawning stock remains, yet ASMFC refused to follow the advice of its scientists, who advised that closing the fishery was the only way that the stock might begin to recover by the year 2020.

Striped bass remains ASMFC’s only notable “success”, but the real success took place 18 years ago after things got so bad that many states imposed a moratorium on the fishery, and it was finally recovered under a management plan that protected 95% of the spawning stock.   Now, while it still hasn’t reached the spawning stock biomass or fishing mortality thresholds, it is declining rapidly.  ASMFC’s 2011 Stock Assessment Update states that the striped bass spawning stock biomass will fall below its threshold in 2017, which means that the stock will be overfished in four years.  Despite that fact, proposals to reduce harvest and stop the decline have been deferred or rejected by ASMFC’s striped bass management board, even considering that 99% of the public wants to see some precautionary action.

The point is that ASMFC rarely, if ever, takes action to avert a crisis.   Unconstrained by federal law so instrumental in recovering stocks like summer flounder, it generally waits until their managed stocks are on or beyond the threshold of disaster before they do anything.  That is not the way to manage fisheries that are so important to the public and the businesses like mine that depend on them. But that’s what you get when you don’t have firm rebuilding goals, deadlines, and accountability measures.

Abandoning the conservation and management provisions of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, in favor of an ASMFC-like model, as some in the recreational fishing community are now suggesting, is a step back in time that will ultimately hurt both fish and fishermen.  Firm rebuilding deadlines appear to be the only things that get managers, who are often under intense pressure from constituents to continue overfishing, to take action.  As unpopular as they may be, hard quotas represent the only approach that has ever fixed things.

There are certainly improvements to the law that should be made.  The most important is to create a funding source for the science needed to produce better stock assessments, as well as funding for improved data collection and monitoring of our managed fisheries.  Black seabass provide a good example of such a need.  Fishermen argue that there are plenty of black sea bass around and that landings can be safely increased, but given the currently available information, managers can’t prudently concur.  The only way to find the real answers is to dedicate adequate financial resources.

We also need better protection of forage and guidance on “ecosystem management”.  The ecological consequences of fishing – “ecosystem overfishing” – are rarely considered when catch limits are set fishery-by-fishery.  We know through experience that even what is commonly referred to as “sustainable fishing,” especially of keystone predators or prey, can cause dramatic shifts in ecosystem communities.   Councils need statutory guidance on developing regional Fishery Ecosystem Plans that apply basic ecosystem principles to all fishery management decisions.  A new National Standard requiring that all management measures prevent ecosystem overfishing would give these comprehensive plans teeth, a change that will, in turn, trigger new federal guidelines akin to what we have done to prevent conventional overfishing

Lastly, as a recreational industry member of the Mid Atlantic Council, I would like to see statutory language that requires a periodic—every five years or so—look at the allocation between sectors to provide the greatest overall benefit to the nation, as the Regional Councils are generally uncomfortable addressing such unpopular questions on their own.

Congress is currently embarking on the arduous process of reauthorization.  In fact, most this blog is taken directly from testimony I recently gave to the Senate Committee that deals with this stuff.  You can find the archived testimony here.  Note that my testimony begins at 1:29.

There will most certainly be efforts by some to weaken the law that has been so critical to rebuilding stocks like summer flounder.   Particularly by South Atlantic and Gulf states upset by the red snapper situation.  Granted I’m no expert on what’s going on down there, but given what I’ve read on the subject, the complaints sound an awful lot like the gripes we were hearing on summer flounder five or six years ago before we rebuilt.  Unfortunately, it will take a lot longer to rebuild red snapper given they live a lot longer and grow slower.

Last year NOAA Fisheries announced that the end of overfishing is in sight, with annual catch limits, mandated by the 2006 reauthorization, now in place in all federally-managed fisheries.  In a marine environment where overfishing has long been the rule, reaching a point where it is the exception is indeed a milestone.

As a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council I can tell you that implementation of the 2006 Magnuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization has not easy, but it is important that we stay the course.  The Magnuson-Stevens Act is working, and this is important for my business, my community, and my family.  The Mid-Atlantic has turned the corner and ended overfishing, and we have rebuilt depleted fish populations like summer flounder, black seabass and scup.  Now is not the time to retreat from the hard work we’ve done and the progress we are seeing on the water.

As we move into the period where Congress considers reauthorization, we’ll really need support from anglers to stay the course.  Despite some regional problems, which are currently being addressed on the regional level, we should not weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s conservation provisions just as they stand on the threshold of success, for those measures are responsible for the turnaround in the Mid-Atlantic and around the country, and the last thing we want to do is to go back to the failed policies of the past.  Yet, that’s exactly where some in the commercial and recreational fishing communities want to take us.


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July 31, 2013

Fishy Business: Debates over Bluefin Tuna at ICCAT Annual Meeting

A School bluefin taken off Long Island with Capt. Chris Hessert of Manhattan Fly

Well it must be summer time, which is hard to tell by the current weather. Rain, rain, and more rain. It must be summer because the different sides are turning up the rhetoric for the annual debate on bluefin tuna. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) will be meeting in November, and the U.S. delegation is beginning to craft its position to take to the annual meeting.

The harvesting side of the resource users would like to see the quotas increased as, in their opinion, the western Atlantic stock is in reasonable shape and those who have sacrificed for so many years should get some benefit from that sacrifice. The other side says that the stocks are still at historic lows and need more protection if they are ever to recover. How can there be such a difference? It boils down to three differences of opinion in what is the “best available science”; recruitment age at sexual maturity; and one stock or two for management purposes.


The first is the question of recruitment and what is the correct recruitment scenario. Harvesters support a low recruitment scenario which, if correct, says that changes have altered the ability of these fish to reproduce at the levels they once did. This decrease in reproductive capacity means that the spawning stock biomass will never reach the size it used to be, so cutting quotas will not make any difference. The more conservative side supports the high recruitment theory which says that the stocks can recover to historic highs and that quotas should be cut in order to achieve these levels. There are some very well known scientists that support both sides of the question. I wish I thought that ICCAT could be the arbiter of this question, but it is highly likely they would support the harvesters.


The next issue is the age at which bluefins reach sexual maturity. In the western  Atlantic it has been thought that sexual maturity was later than in the eastern stocks. If they reach sexual maturity earlier, then the fish add to the overall population sooner. Harvesters support the younger age at maturity. Those who are conservation minded do not.

Different Stocks

The last item is the concept of two distinct stocks, western and eastern. Some believe that they should be managed as one stock. Managing as one stock is less conservative for the western North Atlantic stock, and those who want to increase the quota embrace that concept.

So, on goes the argument as to whose science is the “best available.” If this argument about science does not make you nervous, then this should: ten northeast Senators and Congressmen are adding their “expertise” to the science debate by requesting a specific action from the head of the U.S. Delegation to ICCAT. These are the same members of Congress who cannot get the important issues resolved for our country, and now they are experts in fisheries matters. Yikes, I don’t know about you, but that makes me very nervous. Stand by and we’ll see where this one goes.

Further info:

Read the letter from 10 Members of Congress to Russell Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Fisheries and US Delegate to ICCAT

Read the letter from the Pew Charitable Trusts to ICCAT

Read the Pew document, “The Best Available Science on Western Atlantic Bluefin Tuna”

Read “Response to PEW factsheet on ‘The Best Available Science on Western Atlantic Bluefin Tuna'”


“Rip” Cunningham, who got the nickname in infancy when he tore up everything in his crib, has applied the same energy to his work at Salt Water Sportsman. An accomplished writer and photographer, Cunningham has received several awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in such magazines as Field and Stream, Rod and Reel, Gray’s Sporting Journal and Australian Boating. Among his many accomplishments, Rip was recognized as the Conservationist of the Year from both the International Game Fish Association and the Coastal Conservation Association of Massachusetts. “I’ve earned a living from fishing, and I believe strongly that people with an interest in a given area should give something back,” he says. “It’s rewarding every single day.” Cunningham received his MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, MA and his BA from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He has two grown children and four grand children and lives with his wife and hunting dog, Rocket, in Dover, MA and Yarmouth, ME. When he’s not fishing or working through the items on his wife’s “honey-do” list, Cunningham does some hunting, fishing, and skiing.


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July 29, 2013

Balancing Energy Development With Fish and Wildlife Habitat

State and federal public lands hold some of the most productive fish and wildlife habitat in the country and are vital to meeting our country’s energy needs.

  • Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development is a coalition led by the TRCP, the National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited that is dedicated to conserving irreplaceable habitats so future generations can hunt and fish on America’s public lands.
  • A 2012 SFRED study found that from 1969 to 2009, the top 50 counties in the Rocky Mountain West region that contained the highest percentage of land managed for conservation had higher per capita income, higher population growth and higher total employment compared to the 50 counties with lands managed more for intensive energy development.
  • SFRED works to ensure that our nation’s economic portfolio is considers the responsible development of energy resources as well as the $821 billion annual outdoor recreation economy.

Learn more about the TRCP’s work to ensure responsible energy development.

Read the TRCP’s FACTS for Fish and Wildlife.

The TRCP and our partners are working to ensure energy development is balanced with the needs of fish and wildlife. Learn more by visiting the websites below.

Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development
Trout Unlimited
National Wildlife Federation


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July 22, 2013

Morel Mushrooms: Wild Game’s Best Friend

If you’re like me, you are always looking for different ways to prepare wild game. One of my favorite accompaniments to grilled elk is sautéed morel mushrooms.  Considered a delicacy in many parts of the world, morels have a delicious nutty flavor that pairs wonderfully with grilled backstrap, and they are a lot of fun to gather.

Two bags of morel mushrooms.

While expensive at the store, morels can be picked for free in the same woods where you hunt deer and elk. Morels appear in the spring months when the weather begins to warm, and can be found in cottonwood bottoms, woodlots and mountain forests. In the high elevations of the West, morels can be picked as late as July. As a general rule, when you’ve bagged your tom turkey, the time should be right for picking

Morels must always be cooked. Raw, they are toxic and will make you sick.

Morel pickers generally have their best luck finding the mushrooms in recently disturbed areas, such as forests that burned the previous summer, or in cottonwood bottoms with significant beaver activity. From my experience, fires can be the most productive morel picking areas and a single person can gather several pounds in a day if the conditions are favorable.

Morels can easily be dried in a food dehydrator and then stored for a long-time. I generally set aside a bowl of fresh morels to use in the near-term and I then dry the rest and use them for special occasions throughout the year.

If dehydrated, morels can be saved for a long time.

When grilling deer or elk steak, sauté onions and morels in butter and finish the mushrooms with a splash of sherry. When the onions are caramelized and the moisture is cooked out of the morels, I pile the mushrooms and onions on top of elk or venison steaks. The blend of flavors is hard to beat, and guests always ask for seconds.

Morels can be used in an almost endless array of meals. You can stuff them with sausage, use them in gravy and get fancy with French cuisine.

While morels are fairly easy to identify, always do your research and know what you are doing before eating wild mushrooms. Morels must be cooked before eaten. Raw morels contain a toxin that will make you sick. That toxin is removed when they are cooked.

Try morels with deer or elk steaks.

Check out our favorite morel recipes at Honest-food.net.


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Feeding Frenzy on the Gunnison

“You think it’s worth a go?”

My buddy Ryan and I were standing over his kitchen table looking down at a map of Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness Area. The stretch of the Gunnison River that we were eyeballing had the potential to produce some nice trout, and we had heard rumors that the salmon fly hatch might be on. What that means, for anyone who might not be a fluent trout junkie, is that the fish would be feeding on giant bugs with reckless abandon.

But there were other factors to consider.

“I dunno, that’s a hell of a drive down there… and then there’s the hike in,” I responded.

Judging from the map, the route from the rim of the canyon down to the river looked impassable without a parachute. It descended 2,722 feet in two miles. With our fully loaded packs, it would be brutal.

Gunnison River, Colo.

The previous three days fishing the Yampa River near Ryan’s home in Steamboat Springs, Colo., had produced some nice rainbows, but overall things were tough. We were looking to change up our strategy, and the Gunnison seemed like a good bet.

We put in a couple of calls to the National Park Service (the wilderness area is surrounded by Gunnison National Park) and a handful of fly shops that confirmed…well they didn’t confirm anything. Our guts told us that the salmon fly hatch could still be on. We didn’t have a lot to go on, but so what? We loaded up the truck, cranked some bluegrass and were on our way.

The hike down into Black Canyon was just as challenging as it had looked on paper. There was no marked trail and the terrain was made up of boulders, loose rock and sand that left us constantly on tenuous footing.

Feeling a bit haggard about half way down to the river, we crossed paths with a couple from Denver who were on their way back out after a three-day fishing trip.

“It’s on!” they said, beaming with excitement.

They relayed a few stories while we stood there wide-eyed and grinning ear-to-ear, and went on their way. The good news was refreshing, and it fueled us as we made our way down the final, sketchy descent.

When we reached the river, we were greeted by salmon flies the size of B-52 bombers buzzing awkwardly around the canyon and the sweet sound of trout plucking their fallen comrades out of the surface film. They say that trout can take in 70 percent of their yearly protein during the salmon fly hatch. After spending five minutes taking in the scene next to the river, there was no doubt in my mind that this was an accurate statement.

TRCP’s Brandon Helm with a brown trout from the Gunnison River.

The two days that we spent in the canyon were unforgettable. Big, healthy Gunnison River browns were hitting salmon fly imitations so big and ugly that I would be reluctant to throw them at the scrappy smallies on my home waters of the tidal Potomac. I don’t remember how many fish we caught before a dam release upstream put a damper on the hatch. What I do know is that there were plenty of big fish to keep us both entertained, and to solidify this trip as one of the most unique fishing experiences that I have had to date.



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