With reporting compliance comes better data
There is a lot going on with bluefin tuna right now. Not only is there some new science refuting some of the old ideas we had about migration patterns of Eastern and Western stocks (which has serious implications for management), last week NOAA Fisheries proposed new bluefin tuna regulations which are quite significant. The proposed rule is well over five-hundred pages long, and people much smarter than I are currently pouring over it. But, what is beginning to emerge is that the rule takes significant steps toward ending the insidious problem of bluefin bycatch in the surface longline fishery in the Gulf of Mexico. Will briefly touch on these before getting into the purpose of this blog, but will cover it in full next week.
Of note is the critical bluefin spawning habitat in the Gulf of Mexico that would be closed to surface longlines during a specific time period (April and May) where scientists have determined most of the spawning takes place. Initial rumblings, however, appear to indicate that the spawning area closure is not large enough and that time period is not long enough. Also noteworthy is the proposed annual catch-cap for the surface-longline fleet. In other words, the surface longline fishery would close down when a certain number of bluefin are caught. The rule would institute an individual bluefin quota system that would introduce responsibility at the vessel level. The bad news is that quota would come from anglers as well as commercial fishermen using more selective gear. The rule appears to punish anglers as well as commercial fishermen who are using less bycatch prone gear. More on this next week as the picture becomes clearer.
I will note that the proposed rule does not address the issue of underreporting from our side (angling category). Unfortunately, it’s significant. Let’s face it. There are a lot of bluefin being caught right now, by me among others, and most are not being accounted for. There are two sides to this really. One is that the angling category may be overharvesting. The flip-side is that underreporting or non-compliance might be seriously messing up managers’ idea of how many bluefin are actually out there, and I feel like there are a lot more than managers realize. Either way it needs to be addressed.
Now, let’s talk about abundance. Each year differs, but without a doubt, during the last 7 years we’ve seen more fish become available to the small-boat/center-console angler then there has been in well over a decade. Not only are there more around but they appear closer to shore, indicating a possible expansion of the stock. And it’s not just in historic tuna rich areas; it appears to be a coast-wide phenomena stretching from Maine to North Carolina, somewhat reminiscent of the “good-old-days”.
Still, according to NOAA, Western Atlantic bluefin are badly depleted, bouncing along at around 30% of where they were 30 years ago, the Eastern Atlantic stock isn’t doing much better. Some believe that fishing for the Western Atlantic Stock should have been shut down years ago, but it’s actually managed very conservatively in the US, especially if you are an angler. Anglers can currently retain only one fish measuring 27 to 73 inches per vessel per day/trip (note that this is not per-person, but per boat). Boats are also allowed a “trophy” fish over 73” per year.
The one fish per-boat recreational limit has discouraged lot of boats from making the trek out to the grounds, and has shut the party-boats almost completely out of the fishery (although they may keep two fish). That’s a good thing, as recreational mortality would likely skyrocket if party boats were permitted to exploit the bluefin concentrations that we’ve been seeing. (Keep in mind how many stripers these boats kill daily). Commercial fishermen cannot keep a fish under 73” and the bag limit per boat is anywhere from 3 to 5 fish (although there’s an unjust exception for a small but highly-effective purse-seine fleet, but that’s an entirely separate blog).
Getting back on point, while such regulations vary a bit from year to year, they remain relatively tight. Over time, such tight regulations, along with a few good bluefin tuna spawning years, could be contributing to a recovery. Although I would not advocate loosening the restrictions on the fishery, and the population is likely still a shadow of what it used to be, it’s pretty hard to deny that there are more fish around now than there have been in many years. However, there still isn’t any substantial uptick in estimates of catch or population abundance for Western Atlantic fish over the past 6 years. This is confounding given the exceptional bluefin fishery that’s literally sprung out of nowhere.
It’s hard to say exactly why this perceived abundance of bluefin isn’t showing up in NOAA Fisheries assessments. I tend to believe it has at least something to do with anglers’ failure to comply with catch reporting requirements.
By law, all recreationally caught bluefin tuna must be reported to NMFS within 24 hours of landing. This is easily done online at hmspermits.gov, or by phone at (888) 872-8862. If you live in Maryland and North Carolina note that they have their own state reporting requirements. Permit holders in those states need to report their bluefin landings at state-operated reporting stations (for more info on that you can call (410) 213-1531 (MD) or (800) 338-7804 (NC).
Of course, all anglers targeting bluefin must first obtain an HMS (Highly Migratory Species) permit every year. Most anglers think this is just another unneeded $20 tax, but it isn’t. NOAA Fisheries uses that list to gauge fishing effort. By calling permit holders, they can estimate effort/vessel trips, and then use dockside surveys (and reported harvest) to calculate catch-rate info. If contacted on the dock or by phone, anglers must cooperate in the Large Pelagics Survey or Marine Recreational Information Program.
NOAA believes that compliance with recreational bluefin reporting requirements is a mere 20%. I’d suggest that it’s even lower. I believe that most of the noncompliance is because people simply don’t know that they are supposed to report. And I fault NOAA Fisheries as well as the fishing-press for not making the requirement better-known. Yet there are also some people who just choose not to report. Some anglers and captains don’t participate in the phone and/or dockside surveys either, because they simply don’t trust NOAA fisheries. They think that if they do report their catch, the fishery might shut down early. And then there are others who are just lazy, or claim they don’t have the time. But the thing is, noncompliance hurts the fishery and subsequently everyone who participates in it. The more reporting, the better the recreational data. The benefits of which should be self-explanatory. Better data equals better management, and of course that translates to the long-term sustainability of any fishery.
Now, let me talk purely from the perspective of a charter boat Captain that has developed a good portion of my business in the last several years based on a real abundance of bluefin. There’s a lot of freak’n fish around, both big and small. And it ain’t just me, just about everyone from Maine to North Carolina who ventures past the 20-fathom curve is getting into these fish. And it’s not just that documented good 2003 and 2004 year class. We’re seeing school fish and even some much larger fish. So when I hear and read how “critically endangered” bluefin are I have to admit that I roll my eyes a little bit.
Don’t get me wrong, having known quite a few guys who fished for bluefin in the good-old-days, I do acknowledge that bluefin are likely a shadow of what they once were, but I also believe they are coming back. To some extent that perception is beginning to show up in the numbers. The 2012 ICCAT stock assessment suggests that the Western Atlantic population has grown 13 percent since 2009. That’s significant! However, the population is still just 36 percent of what it was in 1970, a time when western bluefin had already been severely depleted by industrial fishing. I can also acknowledge the concern that any population growth may be a reflection of increasing eastern migrants in western fisheries (the new science I referenced in the beginning of this blog) than an actual increased number of true western bluefin tuna. But like I said, there certainly appears to be resurgence, from a coastal, albeit anecdotal perspective.
Why is this not showing up in spades in the assessments? And why is this not being more publicized as, uhm, good news? Well, I think it’s partly because you dummies aren’t reporting your bluefin catches as you are required to do by law, so none of these pointy-headed scientist types know about how many fish we’re encountering on a regular basis.
So for God’s sake, please report your bluefin! Who wouldn’t like to see more accurate information on bluefin, as such information will benefit not only the fish but probably anglers in the long run? And it may even help us avoid those dirty looks from people who have never felt the extraordinary power of a 100-pound fish, and who, well, just don’t understand the real situation with these fish. It’s entirely reasonable to believe that a clearer picture of the bluefin stick could come with better angler participation and compliance with both the reporting requirements and the Large Pelagic Survey.