Jim Bryce AR photo
Do you have any thoughts on this post?
The New England Bluefin tuna season has seen a slow start and it does not seem to have gotten a whole better better. Some would say that it has gotten a lot worse. For those who have been able to find the fish, the average size is up over that of the last few years. What does this mean?
I should also say that this blog contradicts what one of my fellow bloggers reported last week, but his comments came from the Mid-Atlantic area. He has been seeing a lot of what I am calling smaller bluefins. They don’t seem to have shown up the same way north of the Cape. In the New England area, I cannot believe that the low reported numbers is all a product of non-reporting by the angling category permit holders.
At the time this was being written, I did not have the latest landings data from National Marine Fisheries Service, but all the anecdotal information pointed to lower landings of bluefin with an increase in the average size. That was confirmed by one of the very top bluefin scientists Molly Lutcavage, who is a research professor for UMass and works out of the Large Pelagics Research center at Hodgkins Cove north of Annisquam on Cape Ann. She indicated, “The availability of really big fish seems to be higher than the last couple of years.”
Some think that the low numbers are a product of poor weather during June and July, but it may also be a product of low forage base. On the other side of that are reports from a number of spotter pilots that indicate they are seeing much larger schools of really large fish. That is good news and bad news.
One boat out of Gloucester, MA did land a pretty decent fish that weighed in at 920 pounds. I did not confirm this, but suspect that was bled weight so the fish in total would have been over a grand. It was landed by one of the boats from “Wicked Tuna,” a somewhat moronic show in my opinion, but that has little to do with the tuna fishery for this summer. Good news.
This year’s Bluefin Blowout tournament out of Cape Ann’s Marina and Resort had 45 boats that fish hard for two days from Cape Cod up to Nerw Hampshire and well offshore. The result was not a single fish was landed during the tournament. Bad news.
This overall scenario reminds me of the mid-1980’s when the size of the average bluefin was on the rise and the numbers were in decline. During that period, the All-Tackle IGFA record for bluefin seemed to get broken every year. Most of those fish were taken up off Nova Scotia in the Auld’s Cove area which is near the Canso Causeway. I fished several years back then off North Lake, Prince Edward Island. We saw many granders and my largest weighed in at 1,115 pounds bled weight. I’d like to know what it would have weighed in total. I digress. What was happening then was that we were witnessing the end of a cycle of abundance. The remaining fish got really big, but there was not a lot to fill in behind it. Those big fish are prolific breeders and they were taking the brunt of the fishing pressure. It was not a good situation. My concern is that we may be seeing the beginning of the same type of cycle.
The other thing that is concerning is that the big fish have brought out the tuna seiners, who have been sitting on the sidelines for quite a few years, some since 2004. They have been making some sets and doing pretty well. This was the same scenario back in the 1980’s. There was all kind of effort to keep them out of Massachusetts Bay to give the harpoon, general category and recreational boats a chance at the fish. That did not work and the seiners took most of their quota in big fish.
I realize that they made a deal to stay away from small bluefin tuna in order to get a quota of giants, but I have thought all along that this is a very poor use of a valuable resource. Their quota has a far greater socio-economic value being caught by general category, harpoon or recreational users. Now let’s face it, there are not many true recreational users when it comes to the giants, but the net value still is far greater. As for a product, those caught by hook and line or harpoon are higher quality than those fish that are beaten up as the net is pursed along side the seiner vessel.
It is time for the majority of bluefin tuna users to push for the elimination of purse seining of this valuable resource in the western North Atlantic ocean. It seems to me that the remaining vessels in this fleet have survived catching other fish and they should make that a full time effort. This is a great opportunity to support the small boat fleet and create a greater socio-economic value from the public trust resource. Maybe this should be part of the Magnusson-Stevens Act re-authorization or maybe it can be a regulatory fix. Whatever the answer, it will not get done without a lot of us making it happen.
“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.
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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