Weakfish appear to be abundant again, and we should be protecting them…
I’m back from Montauk today, which was, I have to admit, a little disappointing. I’ve been going there for the same two weeks for 12 years now, and this was without-a-doubt the worst two weeks I’ve ever experienced there. The albies were virtually absent. There were very few to no bass boils. Seems like when they did start to come up, it was in small pods that didn’t stay up for longer than 10 seconds or so before an entire fleet of boats descended. There were indeed stripers down deep on sand eels, some of which were quite large. In fact we caught a handful of fish over 40-pounds, but it was, for the most part, jigging, down deep. It certainly wasn’t the kind of fishing that makes Montauk, well… Montauk.
Why, who the H knows… But the purpose of this blog is not to talk about Montauk, but to discuss weakfish. Because, believe it or not, a bit west of the Point in 40 to 50’ depths, the bottom was often absolutely covered with them. Not the 7’ to 10” spike fish that seemed to be abundant every Oct and haven’t yet recruited into the fishery, and likely wouldn’t recruit. These were nice fish in the 7 to 10-pound range. We caught a bunch before the gillnets showed up anyway.
This sort of weakfish abundance isn’t restricted to Eastern Long Island. I’ve actually got good numbers of weakfish minutes from my house in Oceanside. Jamaica Bay has been full of them this summer. And Cape Cod got a good slug of fish this spring and early summer. In fact, if you look at the coastal fishing reports, it appears that weakfish catches were pretty good all over. So… What the hell?
I guess I should provide a little background here before moving forward. Weakfish are really interesting to me. When I first started guiding in 2000, in the spring we would catch just as many weakfish as we did stripers. And if you recall, the bass fishing was pretty darn good back then, even though we didn’t have the extra-large fish we have now. Still, in a 4-hour trip we’d consistently catch a dozen to two dozen schoolies with a few larger fish mixed in, and of course, every once in a while a really big fish. And the weakfish were mixed in, in the same sort of numbers. It was solid fishing on both fronts (note: remember this for a later point). 2001 to 2003 were just as good, but the weakfish just got larger. Once we got into 2004 there were definitely fewer fish, but again, larger ones.
Then, in 2005 we saw a precipitous decline. We caught a handful of very large fish, but certainly not in good numbers. We couldn’t really target them, you’d just have to be lucky to come across one. In 2006 we caught 4 weakfish the entire spring. Every single one would have likely blown the IGFA weakfish fly category out of the water had I had a chance to take a girth measurement, but there was always an urgency to get those fish back in the water as soon as possible as we all knew we were witnessing a crash. In 2007, we caught one fish, a fat 39-incher, probably close to the 20 pound mark. I should also note here that the all-tackle record (a 19-pounder) was caught from the Jersey Shore in the spring of 2008. The presence of small numbers of such large fish and no small or medium fish is a classic sign of an impending collapse, and, well, they collapsed. Weakfish were in trouble then and, unsurprisingly, it got even worse before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) acted.
A 2009 stock assessment found that weakfish were badly depleted. The stock had reached an all-time low of 2.9 million pounds, far below the “biomass threshold” of 22.4 million pounds, which is what scientists would consider a healthy stock. This is an astonishing drop, since the East Coast harvest in 1980 was 80 million pounds.
One would think ASMFC would have shut the fishery down, but of course they didn’t. Instead they gave anglers 1 fish per person and a 100 pound trip limit for commercial fishermen. The argument was that this would allow for some data collection and some dead discards to be converted to catch. Of course, this was one of the usual ASMFC excuses to allow people to continue to kill a badly depleted species. Once you have such a “bycatch allowance” inevitably it results in a directed fishery, especially on the commercial side.
Moving on… According to ASMFC biologists, the decline wasn’t due to fishing pressure. Natural mortality had increased to a level between two to four times that of fishing mortality in recent years. Surveys showed that juvenile weakfish populations continued to be strong (remember I mentioned all the spike weakfish we were catching in the fall) but that they were not making it to maturity.
Why? There were all kinds of theories. Perhaps the most irritating of which was that stripers were eating them all, or that stripers were eating all the forage. Of course the people who wanted to be able to kill more stripers were pushing that argument. But remember that I mentioned how abundant both striped bass and weakfish were from 2000 to 2004. So in my mind the two species could most certainly coexist together in large numbers. Sure, that’s just my anecdotal observation based on a very limited frame of reference, but here’s a hard example, dating farther back. The explosion of weakfish in the early 1970s coincided with what was at the time the largest year class of striped bass ever recorded. And since we’re on the issue of predation, the same sort of thing can be said in regards to bluefish. Anglers harvested 95 million pounds of bluefish in 1981, and just 19 million pounds in 2008. So weakfish were abundant when there were lots of bluefish around, and the stock crashed when bluefish numbers were low. Explain that one to me. The point is, it’s very unlikely that stripers, or bluefish had anything to do with the weakfish crash.
A more palatable theory was that estuaries, which provide not only productive feeding areas, but spawning grounds for adult weakfish and important nursery areas for juveniles, were/are suffering from all sorts of negative influences, such as coastal development, point and nonpoint source pollution, dredging and filling, alteration of natural freshwater flow, treatment plants, power plant intakes… The list goes on. Certainly, some if not all of these things likely contributed to the decline (along with fishing mortality of course) but given the fact that they are coming back now, I don’t believe that such degradation is the sole reason for the crash.
I think the species is just naturally cyclical. When you look at the history, weakfish have experienced extreme highs and lows. They virtually disappeared in the early 50s and showed no sign of recovery until 1972. The early 70s began a period of tremendous growth in the fishery, which peaked in 1980. Then the fishery declined steadily throughout the 1980s, dropping to a low in 1994. Then the stock grew slowly through 2000. Then they began decline again, and by 2008, were reduced to historic lows. And that’s pretty much where we’ve been ever since.
Such highs and lows are precisely why I think weakfish are very vulnerable. During what appears to be a natural ebb, or perhaps more accurately, during a series of years where conditions are not favorable for recruitment (BTW, if you didn’t know already, “recruitment” is just a fancy word for young-fish-growing-up), we shouldn’t be pounding on them, if we want them to come back. But that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Circling back to the gillnets out in Montauk. I can’t imagine they aren’t going through their 100-pounds of weakfish a day. And without a doubt, given the concentration of fish there before the gillnetters I witnessed set their nets, I am pretty damn certain that way more than 100-pounds were caught in said gill net, which were either discarded dead – weakfish are not a resilient species, and are unlikely to survive being entangled in a gillnet – or taken illegally. And since we’re on the subject of gillnets, there were a bunch of gillnets in the water every single day I was out there, which were of course targeting striped bass. Given all the stripers that converge on Montauk this time of the year, I can’t for the life of me understand how such fishermen don’t go through their allotted tags in a matter of days… I could imagine they could burn through all of those tags in only one! Even with tags traded/obtained by/from other commercial fishermen. But I’m gonna resist the urge to get on that tangent.
So getting back to weakfish. Yes, there appear to be a slug of fish around. Good ones too. It would have been great if ASMFC had done the right thing and simply stopped fishing on them when they were at historic lows. Frankly, we still shouldn’t be fishing on them, even with a one fish bag limit. And certainly we shouldn’t allow a 100-pound limit for commercial fishermen. Weakfish are a tight schooling fish, very susceptible to large bycatch events, not just in gillnets but trawlers as well. Instead of a 100-pound trip limit, a total bycatch cap would serve the stock much better. In other words the gillnet fishery should be shut down when it’s been determined that a certain number of weakfish are caught/killed. I mean for Christ’s sake, give this fish a chance to come back. They could be a boon to the fishing industry, both recreational and commercial, if we gave them a chance to fully fill in. Unfortunately, that’s not really how things work at ASMFC.
So… Will we see this big body of weakfish next year, or in the subsequent years? That’s of course anyone’s guess. But given ASMFC management history, and what I’m seeing on the water, I’m not very confident we will. I do hope I’m wrong. These are some of the most beautiful fish in the sea, with so many shades of purple and pink. And they eagerly take both flies and small jigs fished on light tackle. Not to mention, it would be a boon to my business, particularly in light of the striped bass decline. I’m keeping my figures cross, but experience has made me cynical.