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August 30, 2013

Report Your Bluefin!

With reporting compliance comes better data

Noah Bressman with a nice bluefin tuna- photo by Capt. John McMurray

 

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.

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August 28, 2013

Fisherman Prosecuted for Illegal Tuna Sale

Photo courtesy of wptv.com

Chalk one up for the good guys and for fishermen who just can’t help showing off.

Two Florida men who tried to illegally sell a 700-pound giant bluefin tuna were caught and fined a total of $27,500 by NOAA Fisheries.

They probably never would have been caught if pictures of the catch had not been posted on social media websites.

When word got out about the catch, law enforcement officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took notice.

The tuna ended up being confiscated and NOAA Fisheries agents were brought in on the case because giant bluefins are a federally managed species and federal penalties can be much greater than those levied by the state agency.

A Notice of Violation and Assessment of Administrative Penalty, more commonly known as a NOVA, was sent to David Fidel, of Boynton Beach, who was fined $12,500 for violating the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

“Specifically, on or about June 3, 2013, [Fidel] transferred a giant Atlantic Bluefin tuna landed on board his vessel to a person that did not have a valid dealer permit issued under [Magnuson-Stevens Act regulations] for commercial purposes.

“Moreover, when the giant Atlantic Bluefin tuna was landed aboard [Fidel’s] vessel, [Fidel] had an Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Angling Permit, which precludes the sale or transfer of recreationally caught Atlantic Bluefin tuna for commercial purposes.”

The person to whom Fidel transferred the tuna was Mikylo Senkowicz, of Boynton Beach, who received a NOVA for $15,000 for his Magnuson-Stevens Act violation.

“Specifically, on or about June 3, 2013, [Senkowicz] received a giant Atlantic Bluefin tuna for the purposes of selling said tuna that was landed by the owner of a vessel that was not permitted to sell the tuna.”

According the NOVAs issued to the two men, law enforcement officers seized $2,260 “from the sale of one Atlantic Bluefin tuna.”

So, essentially, Fidel was fined for trying to sell a tuna he wasn’t allowed to sell and for giving it to a dealer who wasn’t authorized to sell it. Senkowicz was fined for taking a tuna to sell from someone who wasn’t allowed to sell it.

The NOVAs state that the violators can ask to have the amount of their penalties modified if they don’t have the ability to pay them. They have 30 days to respond to the NOVAs, during which time they can ask to have the penalties reduced, accept the penalties or request a hearing before an administrative law judge to contest the violations and penalties.

The tuna was caught on Fidel’s boat while daytime swordfishing. That has become a popular pastime in South Florida and the Florida Keys. Anglers typically use electric fishing reels to put baits such as squid and dolphin bellies on the bottom in 1,500-1,800 feet to catch swordfish.

Those anglers occasionally catch sharks and some deep-dwelling bottom species. This was the first giant bluefin tuna heard of being caught while daytiming, but then again, others may have caught bluefins and kept the fish stories to themselves.

 

More Information:

Bluefin Tuna Regulations

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The Colorado River Just Entered a New Paradigm, and It Could Mean Less Water for Sportsmen

Lake Powell as seen in 2013. National Geographic has an interactive graphic where you can compare this with Lake Powell in 1999 and see what it looks like when the second largest reservoir on the Colorado River drops to less than half full. Photo courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

Did the Bureau of Reclamation just announce that the first domino had toppled toward water shortages in the southwestern United States? Here’s the seemingly innocuous language only a water engineer could love:

“[I]f the August 24-Month study projects the January 1, 2014, Lake Powell elevation to be less than 3,575.0 feet and at or above 3,525.0 feet and the Lake Mead elevation to be at or above 1,025.0 feet…the water year release volume from Lake Powell will be 7.48 [million acre-feet (maf)]. This August 2013 24-Month study projects that…the January 1, 2014, Lake Powell elevation [will] be 3,573.69 feet and the Lake Mead elevation [will] be 1,107.39 feet. Therefore…the Lake Powell operational tier for water year 2014 is the Mid-Elevation Release Tier with an annual release volume of 7.48 maf.” – August 24-Month Study (emphasis added)

Let’s back up a moment before answering that.

Sitting at either end of the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the two primary storage reservoirs on the Colorado River. Lake Powell, the upstream reservoir, sits on the border between Arizona and Utah. Lake Mead is in the southeastern corner of Nevada about 35 miles east of Las Vegas and supplies water to Arizona, Nevada and California. The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates both reservoirs, tries to equalize the amount of water in each reservoir to maximize their combined storage capacity. However, this goal becomes difficult to achieve when there simply isn’t much water in the river, which is the case right now.

The southwestern United States is suffering through an extreme drought. The last 14 years have been the driest period in the last 100 years. Both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are less than half full. The elevation of water in Lake Mead is 120 feet below its maximum, leading to the infamous “bathtub ring”.

Receding water levels in Lake Mead reveal a white ring around the reservoir – known as the “bathtub ring” – indicating how high the water used to be. Currently, Lake Mead is about 120 feet below its maximum fill height. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Waycool27.

Fortunately, the seven states in the Colorado River Basin – Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California – and the Bureau of Reclamation saw this coming. They came together in the early 2000s to reach an agreement for how to share the pain during times when water is scarce. Their agreement is known as the 2007 Interim Guidelines. Among other things, it specifies how much water Reclamation will send from Lake Powell to Lake Mead based on the water levels in each reservoir. Historically, this amount is 8.23 million acre-feet.

However, when the water level in Lake Powell gets low enough, Reclamation will send less water downstream. This month – for the first time ever – Lake Powell crossed that threshold.

So in 2014 Reclamation will release 7.48 million acre-feet of water to Lake Mead, a decrease of 750,000 acre-feet from the historical amount and the lowest amount ever released since Lake Powell filled in the 1960s. This doesn’t mean that 6 million fewer people in Arizona, Nevada and California will get water next year. (An acre-foot of water is approximately as much water as two families of four will use in a year.) It does mean there is about a 50 percent chance these states will get less water from the Colorado River by 2016. (Circle of Blue has a good description of how this supply reduction will likely play out in practice.)

What Reclamation’s announcement makes clear is that we have entered a new paradigm in the Colorado River: Water shortages, which never have occurred before on the river, are not something that may happen sometime in the distant future – they are on the doorstep. Population growth and climate change will put more demands on the river and make droughts more frequent and more severe, ensuring that managing water in the face of shortage will only get harder from here.

The Colorado River Basin states and Reclamation are making decisions now about how to live in this new paradigm. There are ways they can keep the southwestern United States vibrant for the next 50 years, but if sportsmen don’t engage in those decisions, making their preference for strong habitat and species protections known, water for fish and wildlife could be the first to go. That’s why the TRCP is working to conserve and improve water resources management for hunting and fishing areas. Sign up to become part of this effort. (Bob Marshall at Field & Stream makes an impassioned case for why sportsmen need to get engaged.)

The goal for sportsmen should be to keep Reclamation’s announcement from becoming the first domino toppling toward a tragic, inevitable conclusion. Rather, we should take it as a call to action to ensure the Colorado River – and other critical waterways – is managed for the 21st century and beyond.

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August 27, 2013

Bad Comparisons: Economic Value of Recreational vs. Commercial Fishing

Have you heard this one lately? “Recs just play with their food.” This has been a common misconception put out there by some who simply wanted more from any allocation of the resource between the recreational and commercial user groups. The idea was to make sure that those making the allocation decisions looked at the recreational user as simply someone who was having fun, but creating nothing. On the other hand, the image of the commercial user was someone who was feeding a hungry nation and by doing so, created jobs and economic activity. Unfortunately, as wrong as the image is, it has had some real traction since day one. How is that possible? Let’s look at several factors.

Most importantly, the overall economic statistics show a completely different picture. These may vary from region to region and fishery to fishery, but lets look at the numbers in aggregate. Recreational anglers comprise about 97% of the resource users and take about 3% of the resource. However, from that 3% they generate substantially more economic activity than the 3% of commercial users do from the 97% of the resource. Given those numbers it is amazing that every single allocation decision does not go to the recreational user. But they don’t because “recs just paly with their food”. But that message has not seen a lot of promotion.

Saltwater sport fishing makes up a substantial portion of the overall numbers. In 2011, about 9 million salt water anglers fished for almost 100 million days. This activity generated about $13.5 billion in retail sales, over $32 billion in economic activity, about $10 billion in wages, and almost 250,000 jobs. While we are not a big fan of taxes, when they are used to enhance the activity that pays them, they are beneficial. Marine anglers generated $2.3 billion in federal tax revenue and almost another $2 billion to the states. Wow! If the sport fishing industry were a single business, it would be ranked 51st on the Fortune 500 ™ list. If that is the benefit of “a bunch of guys playing with their food,” bring it on.

The economic activity generated by sport fishing does not just benefit the manufacturers of tackle, marine electronics, boats, and motors. It supports many rural communities along our coasts. Fishing is part of their heritage. More than most, they understand the need to maintain healthy ecosystems and sustainable resources. Those two things have formed their history and will maintain their future.

Sport fishing participants love to catch fish both for fun and for a healthy source of protein. They also understand the need to protect and enhance the environments that support fish. They realize that no fish means no fishing.

Anglers contribute to the funding of our nation’s fisheries conservation and environmental improvement in a number of ways. This past year, 2012, marked the 75th anniversary of a conservation funding system that is envied throughout the world. The Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund in 2010 generated $390 million from excise tax on fishing tackle and from the transfer of boat fuel tax back to the trust fund. This money is apportioned back to states by a formula based on metrics of fishing activity. License sales in 2010 also generated $657 million used by states to operate their fish and wildlife agencies. Beyond all of that, anglers annually donate over $400 million to a variety of conservation and fishing organizations. That is an impressive tally and one of the reasons that the US has maintained generally robust fish populations and quality habitat.

Okay so the participation and economics should be a slam dunk. There is still the issue of how recreational users are compared to the commercial user. It is an unfair comparison that the recreational user will lose every time. The angler is the end user on the recreational side. They are compared to the commercial user who is one rung up the ladder. The commercial user employs people and sells a product, albeit a product that is given to them. Never is the recreational user compared to the person who walks into the supermarket to buy seafood, but that would be the correct comparison. Conversely, never is the commercial user compared to the tackle shop owner or marina owner, but that is the correct comparison. Those folks employ people and produce a product or service. They are the engine that helps generate the socio-economic benefits from the recreational use of fisheries resources.

This image has to be changed if the recreational industry wants to get its fair share in the allocation battles. So when you hear someone saying, “recs just play with their food.” You can say that recreational users are the ones who pay to play and thereby support the economy and the resource.

Make sure that your Congressional delegation and fisheries managers understand this value!

For more information:

NOAA Report—Fisheries Economics of the United States 2009

Understanding the Potential Economic Impact of Marine Recreational Fishing: California

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