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August 23, 2013

TR Quote Friday

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Striped Bass Gamefish Rationale

A case can be made, but it’s not the one we’re making

In my Aug 8th blog The Straight Dope on Striped Bass I mentioned “Assuming striped bass continues to decline, there is a rationale for gamefish, but thus far the angling community hasn’t picked up on it.  I don’t really have the space to fully explain this here but will certainly do so in a future blog.”  So…  Let me do that now.  If you haven’t read the above referenced blog, stop right here!  Read it, then continue.

Let me be clear that on its face, gamefish doesn’t appear to be about conservation.  It’s about a reallocation of a public resource.  Again, on its face, it’s a policy decision, not a conservation one.

There was a comment following the blog along the lines that, according to my rationale, we should reopen market hunting for terrestrial game.  Sounds silly, and it would be.  But it is true that as long as total mortality is controlled, such populations would remain healthy.  A dead duck is a dead-duck, likewise, a dead fish is a dead fish, regardless of who killed it.  It matters little where the mortality comes from, it’s still mortality.  As Charlie Witek pointed out in the comments section, wildlife managers simply chose broad public access over commercialization.  It’s important to point out that this was not a decision mandated by biological imperatives.  It was a policy decision on how to allocate limited resources.  They chose the greater public rather than a few guys still trying to make a buck off of it.

 

striped bass gamefish rationale
A nice May striped bass – photo by Capt. John McMurray

If the true motivation is conservation, and I believe that at least with most gamefish advocates that’s the case, they could avoid a lot of grief by being very clear in their “conservation” goals.  In other words, stop talking about killing small fish, either by reducing the minimum size or creating  a slot limit, and shift the conversation toward reducing fishing mortality.   Decommercializing the fishery may actually be a good way to do that but no one is taking that track, and frankly, I’m not sure they should be right now.  I’ll explain this later.Managers obviously haven’t done that with striped bass, and I don’t disagree that they should.  I think decommercialization could achieve a number of objectives, yet I also feel like the entire striped bass gamefish issue has blinded people to the total fishing mortality issue, often to the extent that people can talk about killing smaller slot fish for dinner and then promote conservation in the same breath, while few notice that they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth.

I do believe that once we get the 2013 Benchmark assessment, reducing mortality, particularly on older fish, will quickly become a management goal.  And, while the “fairness” issue still exists, decommercialization of striped bass is a realistic means to achieve it, particularly since decreasing recreational harvest is likely to lead to increased catch-and-release mortality.  (Again I want to note here that in 2006, when the recreational fishery peaked, the number of fish killed as recreational discard mortality was double  the total commercial catch).

However, such action would only be justifiable if the former commercial harvest is used as a buffer of sorts, to increase the population, and not merely transferred to recreational landings, as was the case in New Jersey when they went the gamefish route.  I’m certainly not bashing Jersey.  The fact is that, given the amount of fish they took from commercials and gave to anglers, only a small portion are actually killed pursuant to their 3rd “bonus program” fish, which I believe was suspended anyway last summer.  So in reality, there is indeed a conservation benefit there.  Of course that doesn’t translate to decision-makers who see only an unfair reallocation, perpetuated by a movement that, instead of promoting the conservation buffer idea, talks about killing a smaller fish.  Certainly they get an earful about it from commercial striped bass fishermen in their states.

Getting back on point, decommercialization could indeed eliminate some bycatch-prone commercial gear such as gillnets and would stop the practice of discarding smaller, dead fish in favor of larger ones (“highgrading”) in order to maximize profit.  (While I hate to say it, that sort of thing happens on charter/party boats as well.)  Regardless, making striped bass a gamefish would likely quell the rampant illegal harvest along the coast.  Sure there would still be some poaching, but certainly not to the extent that it has existed in the last two decades, since the profit motive would be eliminated.

Striped bass Gamefish Rationale
A nice striper from the Navesink River – photo by Capt. Paul Eidman of Reel Therapy Charters

That said, one could certainly argue that decommercialization is valuable not because it will permit a bigger recreational kill, but because it is a reasonable way to reduce overall striped bass mortality, increase the spawning stock, better assure the long-term health of the striped bass fishery and better represent the long term interests of the general public.  However, simply reallocating the resource without reducing overall mortality fails to achieve any of those goals.  The fact that the gamefish advocates haven’t tried to quell the “more fish for me” impression has really harmed anglers’ credibility with fishery managers and it has dealt commercial interests a winning handAnd then there is the economic argument.  It’s pretty well established that anglers create quite a bit more economic activity than commercial striped bass fishermen.  That’s been demonstrated in more than one academic study, and the argument that we deserve more fish, if not a total allocation, as a result has certainly been made.  Yet, having spent the last five years on one of the regional fisheries management bodies, I can say with certainly that managers simply don’t do allocation based on economic value of the fishery.  If that were the case, just about every dual-component fishery would have had all the fishery resources, except perhaps mackerel, tilefish and bluefin tuna, over to the recreational side.  The economic value of those fisheries are heavily weighted to the commercial side; thus we probably would lose them all together if NMFS were to base allocation on economic impact.  Several years ago, Stripers Forever retained Southwick Associates to prepare an economic study of the fishery, which unsurprisingly determined that economic activity generated by striped bass anglers was, I think, 26 times greater than that produced by the commercial fishery.  But it mattered little.  The ASMFC Committee on Economics and Social Sciences reviewed the study, then rejected it in its entirety.  About a decade ago, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science also produced a study which concluded that allocating the entire striped bass harvest to anglers would yield the best economic result.  It, too, was ignored.

Several years ago, Stripers Forever President Brad Burns told me “If the striped bass were a personal-use-only species, the values of recreational fisherman would control its fate… Sure, a few would be eaten, but a healthy stock and high-quality fishing experience would be the primary values.”  I think he’s right about that when we talk about fly fishermen and even a lot of the surfcasting community, but when you start to look at the party boats and the six-pack charters, along with a significant segment of the private boat community, a lot of bass are being killed.  In those venues, conservation-minded sportsmen can be pretty thin on the ground.

First, Striped bass must be managed in a way that makes biological sense.  Once that is achieved, like terrestrial game, bass should be managed in a way that brings the greatest overall benefit to the general public.  Permitting the continued commercial exploitation of striped bass doesn’t really appear to achieve that objective.  But, we have to keep in mind that this is a historical and culturally significant commercial fishery.  We can’t expect it to just go away.

A nice striper from Capt. Dave Bitters at Baymen Charters

A nice striper from Capt. Dave Bitters at Baymen Charters

Unfortunately, a lot of anglers do think we can just make commercial fishermen disappear.  Such people are still living in the “us vs. them” age.  As I indicated in my Straight Dope column, I get it.  It’s irritating to see one guy kill lots of fish 20 or so yards away from where you are releasing them all.  But at a point in time so critical to the striped bass population, when we have a chance to convince managers to do the right thing, we’ve got to realize that it’s not about what is best for me, it’s about what’s best for the resource (although in the long run that’s usually the same thing).

So, while I do believe gamefish could have benefits for the stock, assuming the fish that had been harvested commercially were all maintained as a conservation buffer and not reallocated to anglers, I also believe that decommercializing striped bass is politically impossible at this time.  Yet, since chasing that impossible goal tends to blind people to the total mortality issue, I can’t say I’m a big advocate anymore.  There are other more important things on the table.

I’ll say it one more time, then I’ll shut up about bass, at least until we get the results of the benchmark: as a community greatly concerned with the future of this precious natural resource, we need to put the blinders on and focus solely on reducing fishing mortality.  Clamoring about gamefish, slot limits etc., isn’t doing us any favors.  There may be a time when there is an opportunity to achieve decommercialization, but that time is not now.  Distracting ourselves from the most important goal of reducing mortality is likely to hurt the bass—and us—in the end.

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posted in: General

August 20, 2013

Redefining the Hero Shot

My husband Neil and I take a lot of vacation photos.  Most of them are pretty typical: a smiling couple, breathtaking scenery, a group of friends around a campfire. Less typically, some feature one or both of us with a dead animal.

You see, we are hunters. While other couples are taking the kids to Disneyland or relaxing on a beach, we spend the summer eagerly anticipating September, that magical month when hunting seasons are open in the Rocky Mountain West. It is no exaggeration to say that as an archer who does not participate in rifle seasons later in the year, Neil lives for September.

Often referred to as “hero shots”, sportsmen commonly take pictures of themselves and their quarry at the conclusion of a successful hunt. The concept is not new; people have been taking hero shots since photography was invented. What has changed is how we share these pictures. Until recently, the people most likely to see a hunter’s photos were those close to him who, for the most part, understood why the picture was taken.

However with the emergence of digital technology and social networking sites that allow anyone to instantly email or post pictures on the internet, today’s hunters are facing new ethical questions regarding the images they share. The reaction of a non-hunter to having one of these pictures show up unexpectedly on their computer screen is often as predictable as it is inaccurate – that the pictures are gruesome, perhaps even disgusting, and that the hunter is an insensitive braggart flaunting his or her bloodlust.

Neil and I take these so-called “deadhead” or “grip & grin” pictures because they are an important part of our vacation memories. As the image of someone’s toddler with Mickey Mouse reminds them of a day spent at the magical kingdom, so our pictures remind us of our time spent in the great outdoors, and the many wonderful experiences we shared before, during and after the hunt.

And while this may seem like a contradiction, we take pictures out of respect for the animal. They illustrate the brief moment in time when we experience both gratitude for the sustenance it will provide, and humility at the magnitude of the decision we made when we chose to end its life. We take a picture of every animal, whether it’s an antelope doe, spike bull elk or giant bighorn ram. One is no more or less deserving of respect than another according to the presence or size of antlers, horns, or any other trophy quality. The smiles you see in our pictures reflect many things – from pride at successfully putting hunting skills developed and honed over many years to use, to the knowledge that we have provided food for our own table. But never, ever, do they imply a joy in death.

When we have spent days or weeks on a hunt, capturing the memory is well worth a few extra minutes to thoughtfully compose a photo.  We take the time to position the animal in its natural setting and clean up any excess blood before pulling out a camera. Nothing is more cringe-inducing to me as a hunter than seeing a picture of a dead deer laying in the back of a pickup, legs splayed, tongue hanging out and blood pooling on the tailgate. Is that scenario going to happen as you travel home from your hunt?  Perhaps, but that is not the moment to preserve or publicize.

Some will disagree, arguing that they have nothing to hide and that anyone who does not appreciate their pictures can choose not to look at them. I maintain that there is a distinction between hiding your pictures and not rubbing people’s noses with them. There is a difference between a private email to a friend or a post on a hunting website and uploading an image that is going to appear on your vegetarian Aunt Susan’s Facebook page. This goes back to the respect issue, in this case respect for your audience. Every hunter must be cognizant of the fact that we are ambassadors for our sport, whether we choose to be or not, and that it’s not just like-minded individuals who see our pictures when they are made public.

My husband and I have our “hero shots” framed in the hallway of our home and in a private online album shared with hunting friends. Collectively, they reflect a lifetime’s passion for wild things and wild places. We often look through them, and I am always struck by the same thought – killing a deer, elk or any other game does not make you a hero – it makes you a hunter.

 

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posted in: General

August 16, 2013

Quartering and Packing Big Game Demystified in New How-To Video

A lot of hunters feel uneasy about hunting backcountry public land because they’re worried about what to do when they get a deer or elk down on the ground a mile or more from their rig.

Join Steven Rinella and seven sportsman-conservation organizations in a new instructional video, “Quartering & Packing Big Game” that demonstrates big-game field dressing and packing techniques for public land hunters.

In this video, Rinella offers tips and techniques to help public land hunters develop the skills and confidence necessary to hunt away from their vehicles – in places where their odds of success often are higher.

Millions of American sportsmen depend on public lands, and these lands can receive a lot of hunting pressure. That pressure can push deer and elk deep into areas that are far from roads and vehicles, prompting many sportsmen to hunt on foot, quarter their kills and pack out the meat on their backs.

Watch “Quartering & Packing Big Game” right now.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Wild Sheep Foundation, the Mule Deer FoundationOrion the Hunters Institute, the Pope and Young Club and the Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance teamed up with Rinella to produce and distribute the new video. All of these groups are committed to ensuring the responsible management of public lands and to safeguarding habitat for fish, wildlife and sportsmen.

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posted in: General

August 15, 2013

On LNG… What is RFA Thinking?

Liberty Natural Gas’ “Port Ambrose” just seems bad all around

I had to do a double-take when I opened a New York Times link last week to read an article: Fight Over Plan for Natural Gas Port Off Long Island .  Inset was a photo of the Recreational Fishing Alliance’s Jim Donofrio.  Not unusual really (while I rarely see eye-to-eye with that organization, they usually seem to be on the right page when it comes to things like this) except that the text under the photo read “Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, urges people not to dismiss the idea of a natural gas port.”  Seriously?  Everything I had read up to now has shown that Liberty Natural Gas’ “Port Ambrose” is bad for anglers, or any ocean users. Also from a security standpoint, it appears to be pretty bad for New York Harbor.  Given this is an area I fish pretty hard every single year, it got me a little worried.  So, I’m scratching my head wondering why.

“Port Ambrose” is a proposed liquid natural gas (LNG) port that would consist of two submerged buoys sitting about 30 feet off the seabed, with a radius of about 40 feet.  It would potentially be located about twenty miles due South of Jones Beach in Long Island and 30-miles due east of Monmouth Beach in Jersey, allowing huge ships to directly connect to the region’s natural gas system.

LNG is gas that has been super-chilled to -260 degrees, turning it into a liquid that is 1/600th the original volume of gas, so large volumes can be transported overseas.  The gas is clear, colorless, and extremely explosive.  So much so that Governor Christie vetoed a similar proposal in 2011 and in 2012. According to the Governor’s original veto, it “created a heightened risk in a densely developed region, including potential accidents or sabotage disrupting commerce in the Port of New York and New Jersey.”

According to the permit application, among the environmental impacts, the port would discharge 3.5 million gallons of chemically-treated seawater used for pipe tests.  During construction the project would apparently dredge up over 20-miles of seafloor, which would likely wipe out the fishing in a large area for a long time.  There will most certainly be significant underwater noise pollution during construction as well.  And given the volatility of LNG there will most certainly be a large exclusionary zone where there will be no fishing, or any sort of recreational or commercial activity, both during construction and probably for the life of the port.  It’s hard to see how Port Ambrose wouldn’t affect just about all ocean uses in the area including fishing, diving, boating, and shipping.  And, the possible site, in the middle of a recently proposed offshore wind area, would pretty much stifle what has been significant and recent movement toward wind-power in the area.

Upland, there is concern that construction of such an LNG port could lead to increased shale gas extraction, aka “fracking”.  The port would of course be close to the Marcellus Shale, which lies beneath parts of New York and Pennsylvania and contains natural gas that can be extracted, should a state moratorium on the process known as “hydrofracking” be lifted.  There are certainly those that argue that such fracking would destroy the Delaware River trout fishery, and it likely would.

A LNG Port off Long Island could cause the NY ban on Fracking to be lifted

Liberty Natural Gas contends that the proposed port will be used to import LNG from abroad, not export it, yet there is nothing in the law that would prevent the company, or a future owner of the port, from using it to ship shale gas to foreign countries.

Liberty Natural Gas filed the proposal with the federal Maritime Administration and the Coast Guard last month.  It must go through a rigorous yearlong process, including environmental impact studies and public hearings.   Assuming it clears all the numerous hurdles it faces, in the end none of it would matter if Governor Christie and/or Governor Cuomo veto it.  Given the recent history, I can’t imagine they won’t.

So why on earth is RFA even engaged here?  And seemingly on the “wrong” side to boot.  Certainly there isn’t a way anglers, or the recreational fishing industry could benefit?  Or could it?  While I can’t confirm it, there have been rumors that Liberty Natural Gas would provide more than $20M in mitigation money for the exclusionary zone the facility would require.  A lot of that would likely benefit the party boats from central and Northern New Jersey and of course Long Island.  I’m one of the most cynical guys around, but I can’t believe that this would be a reason RFA would consider supporting this.  I mean come on man… that would be the true definition of “selling out”.  So let’s take that off the table right now.

In the New York Times Article, Donofrio refers to the opposition to the Port Ambrose as “showroom environmentalists”.  I get it! RFA is and has been anti-environmental/anti-conservation for an awful long time.  Because of course everyone knows that environmentalists, even if they are fishermen themselves, are out to end all fishing, right! To simplify it, the RFA folks support the taking of more fish, and the folks that want to keep more fish in the water so we can enjoy healthy more abundant fisheries often stand in the way of them getting what they want.  But to support something that seems so obviously bad for anglers to spite the enviros?  Naaa…  Still not that cynical.

And I should note here that Clean Ocean Action, the folks that seem to be leading the opposition to Port Ambrose, is hardly a “showroom environmentalist” group.  They are about as small, local and grassroots as you can get.  And a good portion of their constituents include commercial and recreational fishermen.

RFA hasn’t come out in outright support of the Port Ambrose proposal.  According to the New York Times article they are “reviewing the proposal”.  But given the photo and the quotes in the article they certainly appear to be leaning that way.  Yes, there may be benefits to such a facility.  It could lower heating costs by increasing supply, create construction-related jobs and generate in state and federal tax revenue, but at what cost?  I can’t see how such a port wouldn’t adversely affect fishermen.  Like I said, I’m scratching my head on this one.  I sure would like to see an explanation.

That said, I don’t expect to get a reasonable one.  I expect the usual personal attacks for just putting the question out there.  More of the same, about how I’m a radical or some crap like that because after all, in addition to generating a significant amount of my income from my charter fishing business, I also run the grants program for a foundation that funds equipment for organizations working to protect natural resources (e.g. CCA, Trout Unlimited, RiverKeeper, etc.).  But I’d have to think that the large majority of anglers think like I do on this one.

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