by:

posted in: TRCP Marine

September 2, 2013

Watch Out for Those Flying Carp!

Photo courtesy of Syracuse.com

“Ever see any of those silver carp out here?  You know the ones that have knocking people out of their boats lately.”

One night a few years ago a buddy and I were motoring out of the camp canal into a bayou for a night of frogging.  Sweeping the banks with a big spotlight while the short shaft mud motor shoved us into the first turn of the bayou, it was a question I just had to ask.

“Nope, not the first one,” came a somewhat refreshing answer.  But it wasn’t until I snatched the first frog from a 6 inch deep pond did I stop looking for 60 pound missiles launched from the deep to come flying into the boat.  And it wasn’t until 351 frogs later when we had to return to camp back through that deep canal that I again thought about those dreaded silver carp everyone‘s been talking about.

Three hundred and fifty–two frogs caught and cleaned by 2 drivers and 2 catchers have a tendency to take lots of things off your mind.  But the big frog explosion of 2003 is definitely another story for another time.

In case you’ve managed to escape the media onslaught about our state’s latest boating hazard, there have been several reports of nighttime boaters being “blindsided” while running in canals, rivers, bayous and backwaters.  The culprit – the silver carp. And, more and more of them are finding a home in coastal lakes, rivers and marshes across South Louisiana.

The silver carp (Hypopthalmichthys molitrix) is but one of the latest outdoor “aliens” that has found the Bayou State to its liking.  And like its predecessors the fire ant, hyacinth, nutria, coyote, salvinia and zebra mussel, it’s not a welcome immigrant.

Say, why are all the non-native, invasive species bad guys?  Why can’t Louisiana ever be besieged by the likes of rainbow trout, walleyes, small mouth bass, caribou, elk, pronghorn sheep or any of the good guys that wouldn’t threaten to clog up or eat up all of our precious fish, wildlife and habitat?  No sir, we always seem to attract the bad actors that threaten to squeeze out our favorite fish and game species.  Just once I’d like to like to see us invaded by so many ring-necked pheasants and grouse that we’d have to have year-round open seasons just to keep them from overrunning the state.

The silver carp is one of the many members of the Asian carp family and has now been identified in the entire Mississippi River system and its tributaries.  Like so many other cases of non-native infiltration, silver carp are an experiment gone awry.  It’s believed they made their way here via Arkansas where they were introduced in catfish farms.  Since they primarily feed on plankton and algae, their role was to keep ponds clean.  But over the last 15 years they have escaped to the wild and haven’t looked back.

And like an NFL player who can run the ball as well as catch deep passes, the silver carp is what you might call a “double threat.”  You see, because of their large appetites they can displace our native species by competing for food items required by young fry and fingerlings.  That’s bad enough but silver carp also pose another threat – bodily injury or death to humans.

“They tend to jump when they are disturbed by a passing boat and at night they are more easily disoriented in the dark and they panic,” said fish biologist Dr. Glenn Thomas.  “We’ve had many reports from froggers and other people traveling on waterways at night.”  So many reports from such a widespread area that LDWF officials believe that silver carp may be present in just about every freshwater body in the state.

Nighttime incidents have been more prevalent, but it’s not only after-dark boaters who have to be concerned as carp encounters have occurred at all hours of day or night.  “We would like for our fishers and other boaters to be aware that these fish are here.  Being alert on the water is one of the first rules of boating safety, and now we have something new to be on the lookout for,” said Thomas.  My grip on the side of the little flatboat tightened a little as those words echoed in my mind as I checked to make sure the drawstrings on the croaking sacks that bounced against my legs were secure.

As is the case with most of our intruders, there’s not much that can be done about the silver carp invasion.  In fact, we now have so many foreigners presenting so many ecological problems that an “Invasive Species Task Force” has been recently formed to deal with the likes of silver carp.  But without a viable commercial or recreational market to drive an industry, there’s no clear solution to controlling their spread.  While they do have a slight tolerance for brackish water, the salty coast is about the only thing that stops carp in their tracks.

So is there anything positive about silver carp?  Very little.  Although the many species of carp make them one of the most abundant fish in North America, they are one of the least popular.  For those who do fish carp, there’s an untapped potential.  While very popular in Europe and Asia, carp don’t get much respect on this continent.  Among the many nicknames is my all-time favorite – “sewer bass.”  Part of the distaste for carp is exactly that – poor taste.  That reputation is earned by the fish’s feeding habits and lifestyle, in other words, the “you are what you eat” syndrome.  Which in the case of carp, they’re muck and mud.  But according to Europeans and some Americans that may be true in certain situations but carp taken from many locations taste fine.  Others say keeping them in clean, very cold water for a time will purge the muddiness and firm up an otherwise mushy flesh.  In fact England’s unofficial patron saint of anglers chose the carp as one of his favorites.  In his classic book, The Compleat Angler, he called it the “queen of rivers; a stately good and very subtle fish.”

I doubt if any self-respecting Cajuns, willing to try anything as we are, will ever give carp that much credit.  So if we can’t pull off another species-threatening blackened redfish episode, is there any hope for carp control by sport fishermen?  Maybe the best carp fight is the kamikaze-style battle they offer to boaters.  I’ve never met a dedicated carp fisherman or at least one who admits it.  Not much chance we’ll ever see a CARPMASTER CLASSIC and I would say that the few carp that are landed are accidentally hooked by catfish and bream fishermen.  But those willing to try their luck carp fishing need only look to Europe for a variety of baits to try.  Among the stranger items recommended are cheese, beans, potato and carrot cubes, peanuts, rice, bread, dog biscuits, cat food and luncheon meat.  Not very discriminating are they?  Doughballs however, are the most popular bait used specifically for carp and they are concocted from cornmeal, flour, anise oil, vanilla extract, syrup and rolled into a ball.  Doughballs are then cast out over an area chummed with some of those same items used as bait.

While the value of carp as food is debatable, there doesn’t seem to be much argument about their ability to stretch a line.  The silver and some other carps have been known to make leaping runs when hooked.  Depending on the species carp can grow to enormous size for a true member of the minnow family.  The world record for common carp is a 75 pounds 11 ounce fish caught in France.  Although not the most hotly contested category in state Louisiana Outdoor Writer Association (LOWA) records we do have a category for Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) only.  James Rogers hold the distinction of first place with a 35-0 pounder caught at Bussey Brake in April of 1981.

While they’re not very easy to tempt into biting a hook, there is an exciting side to carp catching.  Because they’re slow movers and are pretty easy to spot either under a light at night or along shorelines where they root during daylight, carp make good targets for bowfishermen.  But even if every bowfisherman in the state makes a concentrated effort to shoot as many as possible it probably won’t put a dent in their numbers.

I wonder if it will get to the point where Louisiana has so many invasive species that they in turn, will be pushed out by future exotics.  Looks like for now, silver carp are here to stay and are something else we’ll just have to live with.  So next time you head out night fishing or frogging, keep your eyes open and your head down for those flying carp.

 

For More Information

Binational Cooperation Key to Preventing an Asian Carp Invasion in the Great Lakes

Invasion USA: Asian Carp Invaders Have Taken the Mississippi, Are the Great Lakes Next?

Do you have any thoughts on this post?

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

by:

posted in: TRCP Marine

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.

by:

posted in: TRCP Marine

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

by:

posted in: TRCP Marine

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

by:

posted in: TRCP Marine

August 26, 2013

We Can Restore River Herring!

But the Mid Atlantic Council and NOAA Fisheries need to step up

River Herring traverse a fish ladder

 

If you’ve been lucky enough to be there when river herring (bluebacks or alewives) clash with striped bass you know why we call them, “striper candy”.   It’s a big bait that attracts big fish, and makes them act really stupid.  Of course not only striped bass, but bluefin, yellowfin, cod, bluefish, weakfish and dozens of other predators go nuts over river herring…  At least they used to.

Unfortunately, river herring numbers have declined precipitously.  While in 2006 NOAA Fisheries listed them as a “Species of Concern”, a 2012 stock assessment recently confirmed river herring are in dire straits.  Alewife and bluebacks are anadromous species – spending most of their lives at sea, then ascending unique rivers to spawn.  Out of 24 assessed river runs 92% were determined to be badly depleted. A number of runs have dwindled so far that fewer than 100 adults return each spring to spawn.  Last year, the National Resources Defense Council submitted a petition to list river herring under the Endangered Species Act, and while NOAA did a full review, they recently issued a statement declining to list, not because they didn’t believe river herring were in trouble, but because they just didn’t have enough data to support it.  Which I still don’t understand given the ASMFC assessment and the well-known fact that these fish spend most of their lives at sea.  But moving on….

The cause of the decline is heavily debated.  There are still those who want to blame a resurgence “ravenous” striped bass, which frankly is silly given the two species’ historical abundance and coexistence, and, well, there aren’t really that many stripers around anymore anyway.  No one really argues that pollution and impediments to upriver migrations haven’t played a large part in the decline.  Yet despite greatly improving water quality, dam removal, fish passages, and other efforts to restore habitat, not to mention state-imposed moratoria, river herring numbers, at least in the Mid-Atlantic, continue to tank.  (Note:   there are indeed some runs in New England that appear to be recovering, more on this later).

River herring are managed inshore by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).  That body has required most state fisheries to shut down; a few continue, subject to very small quotas, under state sustainable management plans.   Yet, at sea, industrial fisheries for sea herring and mackerel are still allowed to kill unlimited amounts of river herring, usually taken as bycatch, and most of that is simply unaccounted for.  The building consensus is that a lot, perhaps most, of the mortality is happening at sea.

River herring’s demise has been concurrent with the proliferation of mid-water small-mesh-net trawlers.  Since the late ‘70s, there has been a significant motivation for US fishermen to capitalize on fisheries for such low-trophic level species, in the form of federal subsidies among other things.   As a result, such fisheries grew in size and scope in a relatively short amount of time.

Operating mostly out of New England ports, such trawlers are quite large, with holds that can store over 1 million pounds of fish.  They employ an array of electronics to pinpoint and scoop up entire schools by dragging nets the size of a football field with mesh so small little escapes.  Apparently, one tow can put 50 tons of fish in the hold.  It’s not unreasonable to speculate that a single tow, in the wrong place at the wrong time, could wipe out an entire river’s run, particularly if it’s already depleted.

So, incidental catch is likely a big factor in river herring’s depletion and failure to recover.   There is some data to back this assertion up, but not enough to be definitive, and therein lies the problem.   Observer coverage of the small-mesh-net fleet is very low.  Such observers, 3rd party contractors that sample and observe catch at sea so as to evaluate the composition of a fishery, are vital if managers are to know what goes on on those boats.

Both the Mid Atlantic and New England Councils, to their credit, sought to address this in their Mackerel, Squid, Butterfish and Sea Herring Fishery Management Plans (FMPs) respectively.  Last year, despite significant pushback from the industry, the Councils voted to recommend that NOAA Fisheries impose 100% at-sea observer coverage on industrial herring and mackerel trawlers, having industry share the cost with NOAA.

A few weeks ago, however, NOAA Fisheries disapproved the 100-percent observer coverage requirement, rationalizing the decision by claiming the agency had not yet developed a legal way share observer coverage costs.  What’s incredibly odd about this is that NOAA fisheries is already doing such observer cost-sharing in Alaska.  Upon further clarification, it appears that there is a mechanism for doing this in Alaska that was, many years ago, written into the Magnuson Stevenson Act, but only for Alaska?  Frankly, I don’t really understand it.  Public/private cost-sharing partnerships are pretty common as far as I know.  But I don’t venture to understand the complicated workings of such federal bureaucracies.   Regardless, even if they could implement a cost sharing program, the agency claimed it didn’t have the funds even for their part of the additional observer coverage.  Honestly, while it certainly isn’t a popular opinion in some circles, I believe that if any industry is granted the privilege of utilizing such large-scale gear to harvest a public resource in such large volumes for profit, then they absolutely should be required to fully fund whatever monitoring is necessary to insure that what they are doing is sustainable, not just in a maximum-sustainable-yield context, but an ecosystem context as well.  But moving on…

 

herr-fs-by-the-numbers-lw

 

NOAA fisheries also rejected a requirement that all catch brought to shore in the fishery be weighed, and a limit on “slippage” events where bycatch is dumped at sea before it can be counted.  The latter is important, because NOAA Fisheries did uphold the Mid Atlantic Council’s requirement for an annual catch limit/cap for river herring and shad in the mackerel fishery, beginning in 2014.  In other words the mackerel fishery would close if it’s determined that such a cap is met or exceeded.  Yet the fact that large tows dominated by river herring can be dumped overboard dead before anyone can determine what was killed, seriously diminishes the enforceability of such catch cap.  Not to mention, without a significant number of observers for the fleet, it’s pretty difficult to determine if that catch cap is met even without slippage events.

So where does all this leave us?  Unfortunately not in a really good place.   And it’s more than a little frustrating.  The Councils worked hard on both amendments for years.  The provisions were fully vetted by the Councils and included carefully considered compromises.  In the end they had broad public support.  Really, we all thought we had the monitoring/accountability problem solved.  NOAA fisheries says they will work with the Councils to develop a solution to the monitoring issue, but I’m not holding my breath.  Even if they did figure out a legal way to cost share with the industry, if the money for observers isn’t there, it’s not there.

But there is hope.  The Mid Atlantic Council is currently developing an amendment that could add river herring and shad as directly managed “stocks in a fishery” (SIF) to their Mackerel, Squid and Butterfish FMP.  Doing so would force NOAA Fisheries to manage and conserve river herring when they are at sea, through the adoption of measures such as Annual Catch Limits, identifying Essential Fish Habitat, and establishing joint management plans in conjunction with bodies such as the New England Fishery Management Council and/or the ASMFC.  Whether it moves forward, however, is indeed in question as certainly there is opposition.  Making river herring a stock in the fishery (SIF) would require resources, and NOAA Fisheries is already indicating a reluctance to take this on.   But there’s a legal mandate here.  Federal FMPs must describe the species involved in a fishery, and NMFS and the Councils are required to manage those stocks in need of conservation and management.

That said, there will likely be those who will argue that river herring are not in need of conservation management in federal waters, or that we just don’t know enough about the status of the overall stock to proceed.  I think that’s BS!  We do know that 92% of the individual river runs are in bad shape.  Given all the recent evidence of the species’ decline and the building body of science indicating mortality at sea, I don’t know how that argument could fly.  NOAA Fisheries appears to support the catch cap, so that in itself would tell us that they do believe river herring are in need of such conservation and management.  Some will argue that the catch-cap is enough, but as mentioned, without observers it is virtually unenforceable.

There will also be those folks who argue that river herring simply don’t need federal management because they are already managed in state waters.  That is complete BS also.  It seems pretty darn obvious at this point that they are falling through the cracks in federal waters where they spend most of their lives, and where the bulk of the fishing mortality is probably occurring.  Again, NOAA Fisheries did support the annual river herring catch cap we passed a couple of meetings ago, so I think it would be strange for them to say they don’t need federal management.

There are those who argue that in-state/in-river barriers to migration are the cause of the problem, and the populations won’t come back no matter what we do in the ocean. That may be true to some extent, assuming such barriers weren’t being removed or mitigated across the coast.  Regardless, what SIF designation would do is enable NOAA Fisheries and the Council to identify Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) inshore.  When state and federal projects require federal licenses (energy projects, dams, etc.) those agencies would have to consult with NOAA Fisheries, which could stop or require mitigation of potentially habitat-damaging projects.  That would indeed be a good thing.

Lastly, industry has been arguing that volunteer bycatch avoidance projects are and will be sufficient.  Certainly industry should be commended for such efforts, and they may be working to some extent.  However, they are strictly volunteer, and managers should acknowledge that they are not a substitute for binding federal action to reduce river herring bycatch.

There is evidence that river herring can come back if given the opportunity.  There have been recent reports of recovering runs in New England as dams and other impediments to upriver migration patterns are removed.  There are those who argue that such recovering runs are evidence that river herring are not in trouble and that as long as we deal with inshore habitat issues they will come back.  But such anecdotal reports of a recovery are generally restricted to some very specific areas up north, and there’s some speculation that herring from such northern regions don’t spend their lives at sea in the areas small-mesh-net trawlers frequent.  And such recoveries are not happening in the Mid Atlantic’s rivers.  Regardless of whether the above is true, what the recovery of such local runs shows me is that they can recover.  We should be trying to facilitate that recovery, not allowing large bycatch events to set them back again.

As we move forward with the stocks-in-a-fishery amendment, we should acknowledge and stress that we can rebuild this culturally and economically important fish that has historically been a critical part of the marine food chain.  And that we can, at least to some extent, control mortality both inshore and offshore.  A stocks-in-the-fishery designation would give us the tools to do that.   It won’t be easy for NOAA Fisheries, or Council staff, to make it happen, but it’s their/our obligation.  This is not entirely new ground.  Such stocks-in-a-fishery management models do exist (e.g. salmon in the Pacific Northwest).  I would really like to hear more from NOAA Fisheries about how we can do it, instead of reasons why we can’t.

The public has made it more than clear that they want us to restore river herring, and as a key part of the problem becomes clear (bycatch mortality in the sea-herring and mackerel fisheries) the public has put it in no uncertain terms that they want it addressed.  States have invested and continue to invest resources while imposing draconian fishing restrictions including moratoria.  The Council and NOAA Fisheries have an obligation to their part in federal waters to make sure those efforts aren’t in vain.

If we can restore river herring runs to the Mid Atlantic, in my lifetime, that would be huge, and I think that we can.  The Mid Atlantic Council leads.  We have successfully rebuilt or are rebuilding every species under our jurisdiction.  No other Council can make that claim.  Making river herring and shad a stock in one of our FMPs would allow us to do the same with alewives and blueback.  And those once epic river herring bass-blitzes will once again come back.  We can successfully restore these historical and culturally important species and we will!

What we need now is the strong support of the public, particularly anglers, as we move forward.  Stay tuned, and we’ll let you know when and how you can provide such support.

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.

Learn More
Subscribe

You have Successfully Subscribed!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

You have Successfully Subscribed!