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posted in: TRCP Marine

September 12, 2013

Let’s Get Together

Recreational Fishing Community needs to find common ground with the Environmental Lobby

 

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

 

This past week I spent some time in DC, common slang for our nation’s capitol and a place I like to avoid when the temperature goes above 85 and Congress is in session. I failed on both accounts. I was there to work with a group of folks from the recreational fishing industry/community to discuss the vision for this user group. What do we think the recreational fishing community/industry should look like in say ten years and how do we get there. It is an interesting process and one that is very much still a work in progress.

One of the groups that came to the meeting to participate in the exchange of information was a number of the environmental non-governmental organization (ENGO) community leadership. Wash you mouth out with soap!!! It was soooo intimidating being face-to-face with members of the “great conspiracy.” Okay, I’m just kidding, but there are some in the recreational community that feel we should not be talking to or working with the environmental community. I’ll take the other side and simply say that the recreational community cannot succeed in a realistic future vision without embracing the ENGO community in some fashion.

Let’s take last week’s Blog on the proposed tuna regulations that NOAA Fisheries is asking comment on. Pushing those changes was not done by a single entity, it was a cooperative effort by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC) and the Pew Environmental Group. Could the recreational side of the equation have made this happen on their own? Maybe. Could the ENGO’s have done this on their own? Maybe. But they did successfully do it together and that is what counts.

One of the discussion topics at the visioning project was that all of the groups concerned about sustainable fish resources should be working together more often on issues that move all of us toward our visions. It is my feeling that this is going to be important in an era of budget constraints and increasing demands on fishery managers. Does this mean that the recreational community has to agree with everything proposed by the ENGO community? Heck no. The truth is that the recreational community does not always agree 100% with its own proposals.

A number of years ago, I worked with a member of the ENGO community to bring together a coalition of interested parties to look at common ground where we could all work together to an objective accomplished. We did come up areas of mutual agreement, but the effort lost traction as folks went about their own business, not because it was a bad idea. All of these collective efforts take constant attention and effort to push them forward.

So, do I think that we should be working together with the ENGO community where we have common goals? You bet I do. I do not think that all ENGO’s want to end recreational fishing. It is my feeling that the perception that all ENGO’s are after the recreational fishing community is fear mongering perpetuated by a small and vocal minority. It is my belief that most of the reputable ENGO’s want to see sustainable rebuilt fisheries resources. How does that not benefit the recreational community?

I know that there will be potholes along the road to success, but that does not mean we should not try to work together. I believe that it has the possibility of moving the recreational fishing community/industry toward that ever elusive vision of the future.

Do you have any thoughts on this post?

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September 9, 2013

New Rules for Bluefin

Amendment 7 could curb bluefin bycatch, but at what cost to anglers

By now, it’s cliché to talk about how destructive and bycatch-prone surface longlines are.  But I’ll go ahead and do it anyway.  These boats put out 30 to 40 miles of baited hooks and let them soak for long periods of time.  Anything that swims by and eats one of those baits — turtles, birds, sharks, marlin, sailfish, etc. — usually perishes, and because most of it isn’t marketable or is simply off limits it gets thrown back dead.  These longlines are mostly targeting marketable yellowfin and swordfish, but believe it or not, the total “unintended” catch/bycatch of bluefin in the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico accounts for a whopping 25 percent of the entire U.S. quota.  For lack of a better phrase, that really sucks!  What a tremendous waste of a resource.   Not just a “resource” but an amazing animal capable of growing to 1500 pounds and living to be 40 years old.  If you’ve ever hooked into one, you know the unparalleled strength, power and speed.  They are awesome fish, and well, the unintended mortality from such indiscriminate gear is infuriating.

Certainly, NOAA Fisheries understands the problem.  For the past three decades they have tried to limit the number of bluefin caught and killed by surface longlines, including a prohibition on directly targeting bluefin in the Gulf of Mexico, closing certain areas to surface longlines, and requiring the use of “weak” hooks intended to straighten out on large bluefin in the Gulf.   So far, nothing has provided an effective long-term solution.   Believe it or not, U.S. surface longlines catch more bluefin tuna in the Gulf now than they did prior to the 1982 prohibition on direct targeting.

Such longline bluefin bycatch is of particular concern in the Gulf of Mexico, the only known spawning grounds for the western Atlantic Stock.  In the spring, the region’s powerful eddies bring nutrients to the surface creating distinct hotspots for spawning giants.  The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) effectively prohibited targeting bluefin in the Gulf in 1982, and theoretically, NOAA Fisheries complied.  Yet longline vessels are still allowed to keep a certain number of bluefin incidentally taken as bycatch while targeting other species.  It’s not a terribly big number (still, keep in mind that these are all large fecund fish).  Yet, as it stands now, once the longline boats catch their allotted quota, they still keep fishing, tossing those bluefin they encounter back.  Unfortunately, there is an exceptionally high mortality rate for bluefin released from longlines in this area.  While the warm waters of the Gulf are favorable for the development of the eggs and larval stage offspring, they create physically stressful conditions for giant tunas, which have large metabolic demands and die quickly from lack of oxygen in the warm water.   So, in other words, just about every tuna caught and released on longlines in the Gulf is doomed.  And these are Earth’s largest giant bluefin.  The big breeders that produce the most offspring.  The fish we should be trying hardest to protect.

To NOAA Fisheries’ credit, they are trying to address this, among other issues, in Amendment 7 to the Consolidated Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan, a draft of which they just released a couple of weeks ago.   The initial draft is a huge step in the right direction, but there are certainly drawbacks and it can and should probably go a little further than it does.

NOAA Fisheries’ preferred alternatives do indeed stipulate a significant surface longline closure in the northwest Gulf in April and May.  For decades, angling and conservation groups have advocated for such a closure, and this is a welcome change in position by NOAA Fisheries, yet it’s probably too small and too short.  Published science shows that the eastern Gulf has a hotspot as well, and this closure completely misses it.  It has also been well documented that spawning takes place from January to June and that March is a very significant month.  At the very least, what we should be advocating is a closure of the entire Gulf in U.S. waters from March to May.  Such a closure would capture the majority of bluefin bycatch in the Gulf of Mexico, and would finally be compliant with the ICCAT probation on fishing for bluefin in the Gulf.   Right now, we are indeed fishing for bluefin in the Gulf, whether incidentally or not.

I should also note there’s a significant surface longline bycatch issue off of North Carolina.  If you read any of the print or online fishing media you likely know about the extraordinary winter bluefin fishery off of Cape Hatteras that had popped up literally overnight a little less than a decade ago.  So it’s not hard to understand that the surface longliners operating in that vicinity would be encountering those same fish.  It’s important that NOAA Fisheries addresses this, and the agency is, however it’s probably not as critical as the Gulf closure as those Gulf fish are all western Atlantic giants there to spawn.  According to some recent science (referenced in my last blog) it’s likely that around half of those fish off of North Carolina are of eastern Atlantic origin (spawning in the Mediterranean), and well, those fish are doing a litter better than our western fish that spawn in the Gulf.

Getting back on point, one of NOAA Fisheries’ preferred alternatives is to restrict surface longlines in a relatively large area off Cape Hatteras.  Under the proposed rule, surface longlines could be used from December through April in this area, but only by vessels that have proven able to use the gear without catching bluefin.   Conditional access would be granted for 143 Pelagic Longline vessels, while 18 vessels would not have access.  Doesn’t sound all that significant, but it would apparently reduce the bluefin discards in the Atlantic by 77 fish, and would reduce the bluefin discards overall by 29%.

Now, let’s get away from closed areas for a minute and talk about some other noteworthy parts of the proposed rule.  NOAA Fisheries is proposing a “catch-cap” for bluefin killed on surface longlines along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  As mentioned, under current regulations, the longline fleet is permitted to continue fishing, thereby killing bluefin even long after its bycatch quota is met.  In other words, they keep fishing and keep catching bluefin that they dump overboard, mostly dead.  Under a catch-cap system, they would have to stop fishing entirely when that cap is reached.

One noteworthy component of this catch cap program, and one that industry seems to generally support, is an Individual Bluefin Quota (IBQ).  Each surface longline vessel would be allocated an incidental quota share (a certain poundage of fish).  Each share would represent a set percentage of the Longline category bluefin quota. Based on that percentage, the vessel would receive an annual quota allocation of bluefin. Vessels would need a minimum amount of quota allocation to depart on a fishing trip with surface longline gear, or else they couldn’t sail.  Bluefin landed as well as dead discards would count toward the IBQ.  If a vessel catches more bluefin than the amount of bluefin allocation it has, it could finish the trip and land the bluefin, but must then account for the bluefin landed by leasing it from another vessel before another trip can be made.  Under the system-wide cap, once the total quota is reached, all surface longlining would be shut down.

Both of these alternatives sound pretty darn good to me, mostly because they would shut the fishery down once the quota has been met.  That’s dramatically different than how the fishery is currently managed, allowing longliners to continue fishing/continue killing long after it has reached its quota.

They both introduce a level of responsibility at the vessel level never before seen in this fishery, and create a real economic disincentive to catch and kill bluefin on surface longlines.

Now, here’s the bad news.  NOAA Fisheries’ preferred alternative seeks to add another 7 percent to the current surface longline allocation to account for the new catch cap and/or IBQ by taking it from the angling category as well as commercial tuna fishermen who use highly selective methods of fishing.  Groups specifically fishing for bluefin, from anglers to general category fishing boats, could lose nearly 63 tons of their current quotas to create the new longline quotas.  Arguably, this appears to reward the people who have the worst bycatch issues.

I have to point out here, however, that there is some justification for this.  The current quota (the fish surface longliners are allowed to keep) was really for landings only.  If I’m understanding this correctly, what the quota increase does is reinstate an ICCAT dead discard allowance that was repealed in 2006.  Still, there’s something not right about giving the people responsible for most of the dead discards a larger piece of the pie, so personally I don’t support it.  The surface longline quota should remain at 8.1 percent (the current level) and the fishery should be shut down under the catch-cap and/or IBQ when that quota is reached.

But let’s be honest here.  Regardless of whether we have to give up quota on the angling side as well as those other less bycatch prone gear sides, the cap/IBQ system is still a pretty darn big step in the right direction, because when they reach their quota, that’s it.  They have to stop fishing.  And that likely will translate into less needlessly dead bluefin.   Equally important is that  under this system, there is very real incentive to avoid catching bluefin.  Sure, it might not be fair, but if we’re thinking about the health of the resource alone, it’s still a very good thing for bluefin.  In the end, it’s the resource that’s important, not how many fish we get to kill.

A few other things of note before wrapping up.  One is the angling category “trophy” fish (over 72”) quota.  Right now, that quota is split two-thirds for the northern region (north of Egg Harbor, NJ) and one-third for the southern.  There is no trophy quota for the Gulf which makes sense given we are not supposed to be fishing for them in the Gulf, but fishermen in the Gulf can land giants under the southern trophy quota.  NOAA Fisheries is suggesting giving some fish to the Gulf by splitting the northern, southern and Gulf trophy allocation evenly.  How they could be suggesting such a thing is beyond me, and it certainly appears to be out of compliance with the ICCAT prohibition on fishing in the Gulf.   Not to mention, it would restrict the number of trophy fish in our region to about eight fish.

Also, NOAA is proposing new and improved monitoring of surface longline bycatch in the proposed rule.  There would be enhanced reporting requirements, electronic monitoring (e.g. video cameras on board), and Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) requirements among other things.  Such a measure will allow real-time monitoring of any catch-cap and/or IBQ system.  Without-a-doubt, this is a good thing.

Another thing to note is that NOAA Fisheries is proposing limited surface longline access to previously closed areas.  There’s actually a pretty large area that has been closed since 1999 to surface longlines in June off of NY and NJ. It’s currently the only closed area off our coast designed to reduce bluefin interactions.  Access to this area, among others, would be based on past vessel compliance with things such as reporting, etc.  A certain number of surface longline vessels would be allowed to fish in these areas, but would have to have an observer onboard.  Given the requirements, I don’t expect this will be all that significant, but still, probably something I wouldn’t support.  Those areas were closed for a reason, they shouldn’t be reopened.

In addition to bluefin, NOAA Fisheries also proposes to establish a North Atlantic albacore tuna quota.  A northern albacore quota is long overdue; those fish are nowhere near as abundant as they were even 10 years ago.

What the proposal doesn’t seriously address is the issue of underreporting in the angling category, and the possible overharvest of angling-category fish.  See last week’s blog (Report Your Bluefin) for more info on that.  While that subject may be an uncomfortable one for us to broach, it still needs to be addressed.

So, here’s what comes next.  NOAA Fisheries will seek public comments on the proposed rule until October 23. The agency will host a series of hearings during which the public can urge NOAA Fisheries to issue a stronger final rule.  Written comments can be sent electronically: or by fax: 978-281-9340, Attn: Tom Warren.  Or by mail: Tom Warren, Highly Migratory Species Management Division, NMFS – Northeast Regional Office 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930

NOAA Fisheries will consider comments, finalize an Environmental Impact Statement, and then publish the final rule (estimated for Spring-2014).  The effective date of most measures would be January 2015.

Like I said, there are certainly some parts of the proposed rule I don’t like, but overall I think it goes a long way to address the insidious problem of surface longline bycatch.  Can it be strengthened?  Absolutely…  But not unless anglers really make their voice heard on this one.  So, attend one of the hearings close to you, or submit comments detailing what you like about the rule and what you don’t.  And if you need help with comments or a letter, don’t be afraid to shoot me an email:john@nycflyfishing.com.

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posted in: TRCP Marine

September 4, 2013

Big Fish May Spell Trouble

A slow bluefin tuna season with larger than average fish prompts concern

 

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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.

For More Information:

Cove-based study eyes ‘juvenile’ bluefin tuna

New bluefin tuna rules proposed in Atlantic, Gulf

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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?

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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.

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