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posted in: General

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?

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posted in: General

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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posted in: General

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posted in: General

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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