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posted in: General

November 14, 2013

ON RIVER HERRING AND SHAD, IT’S TIME TO MOVE ON

Fighting a shad — Photo courtesy of fishwithmj.com

Past votes won’t assure the river herring’s future

Yes, in my last blog, I said that this week I’d address some of the misconceptions on slot limits and gamefish for striped bass.  That’s not gonna happen, for a few of reasons.  One is that, well, I’ve already done it in a prior blog, although apparently not thoroughly enough.  So, I will indeed address this in the future… when it’s more appropriate.  As I mentioned in my last blog ASMFC Moves on Striped Bass, in February the board will consider an addendum that would simply seek to reduce fishing mortality (adoption of the new, more conservative fishing mortality reference points).  In May, a second addendum that would cover what regulations would get us to such a reduction will be considered.  Given the latter is when the slot-limit discussion will likely take place, it’s probably more appropriate to wait until then to cover it here.   Lastly, I’m not sure how I can justify writing for four consecutive weeks on striped bass without this becoming the John McMurray striped bass blog.  There are indeed other issues out there.  And this week I’m gonna cover a big one:  uhm, striper forage.  Okay, so this is related to striped bass, but there’s a much broader picture here. 

Before moving forward, in case you didn’t read it, here is my blog on the last Mid Atlantic Council meeting (River Herring and Shad Lose at the Mid ) where we considered adding river herring and shad to our federally managed stocks.  Perhaps more importantly here’s a darn good response to a post on Talkingfish.org written by a colleague and “recreational” council member. (note: scroll down to the end of the article to see the comment:  To My Fellow Recreational Fishermen).  I can’t say I disagree with some of what’s said there.  It’s true that “Recreational fishermen are appointed to bring the perspective and experience of a recreational fisherman to the council and to insure that the interests of recreational fishermen are addressed,” that fishery resources “belong to every American” and that “Council members are sworn to protect the resource first with the interests of all of those that benefit from the resource being the very next priority.”  It is also true that “We are to weigh all of the information and base our actions on what we believe to be the most reliable of that information” and that “a member has to respect each group’s concerns and try to formulate plans that work for everyone.”  And I agree with the statements about moving on and holding the council’s feet to the fire.   

Those are all good points.  Yet, the response missed the most important point of all:  As council members we have an overarching obligation to uphold the law – in this case the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act – which clearly stipulates that we make decisions that provide for the greatest good of the nation. 

It is pretty darn clear at this point that large numbers of river herring and shad are being caught in federal waters, and that such fish are badly in need of conservation and management, and if that’s the case, it looks like the law requires that we manage them under a federal Fishery Management Plan (FMP).  Given all the data on the species, it’s difficult for anyone to credibly argue river herring and shad aren’t in a bad place.  Sure, there may be some isolated recovering runs in northern New England, but they are the exception to the coast-wide trend.  These species are unquestionably depleted and are caught and actually sold in large numbers so they are most certainly “in the fishery.”  And while they are already being managed in state waters by ASMFC, these fish do spend most of their lives at sea, they are being taken incidentally at sea and they need to be managed at sea; in fact, Magnuson-Stevens seems to require that they be managed at sea.  Yes, both New England and the Mid Atlantic Councils have implemented “catch caps” which would shut down the sea herring and mackerel fisheries if river herring or shad catch met or exceeded certain poundage limits, but without 100% observer coverage (or something close to it), and real measures to prevent net slippage/dumping of catch before it comes on board to actually be counted against those limits, the cap is simply unenforceable.  Yes, there are some voluntary bycatch avoidance efforts being made by the sea herring and mackerel fisheries, but they are just that–“voluntary”– they have yet to be proven effective, and are no substitute for legally mandated, enforceable conservation measures. 

While these are all points I’ve made before, the overarching point here is that this was not a case where a small interest group was petitioning for special protection.   Managing river herring and shad under a federal FMP seemed to be clearly in the wide public interest, and arguably a legal requirement.  So it’s a little bit irritating that the above referenced response seems to paint this as an environmentalist push to do something outrageous.  Moving forward with a stocks-in-a-fishery Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) had broad and diverse backing, and lost by only one vote at the Council.  The public comment/letters in the briefing book (over 37,000) showed overwhelming support and came not just from the environmental community, but from representatives of well-respected recreational groups, scientists, and even commercial fishing organizations.  The only organization that provided written comment in opposition was a commercial fishing organization representing corporations with a direct financial interest in avoiding restrictions on the fleet. (And by-the-way, no environmental group truly involved in council deliberations, as far as I know, ever wanted to shut down the fluke fishery… and while there’s some truth to the dogfish comment, it’s another red herring as the best available science at the time suggested that a population collapse was imminent). 

Protecting forage fish is unquestionably a priority for fishermen, because such fish are near the base of the food web and support the most important recreational as well as commercially valuable species.  A vote in favor of managing river herring and shad under a federal FMP in October, to me, would have represented a real effort to control at-sea catch.  It would have honored the conservation tradition of generations of anglers and the ongoing work and sacrifices of current anglers up and down the Atlantic Coast to conserve river herring and shad.  I do understand the justification for those who voted against it, but I couldn’t help but see a vote to manage them under a federal FMP as recreational priority, and somewhat of a litmus test.  And I’ve gotta say here that while of course we have to all work together to develop solutions that work best for everyone, a recreational seat does, indeed, exist to present and highlight, to a large extent, the interests of the recreational community, within the law of course, just as an industry seats frequently highlight commercial fishing interests.  Regardless, by taking real tangible steps to conserve and protect forage fish, you support conservation of other managed stocks important to anglers and commercial fishermen in an exponential way. 

At this particular meeting, we weren’t even voting to make river herring and shad federally managed stocks, just to move forward with a DEIS that would have simply given us a full analysis of what it would take to do this, enabling the council to make an informed decision.  As the response noted, a council member is obligated to decide issues based on “all of the information” and to give the greatest weight to “the most reliable of that information.”  I’m still having a hard time understanding why anyone would vote against a process designed to provide the council with more and better information about available management alternatives.  Sure it would have taken resources to develop such a document, but the public made it clear (with over 37,000 comments) that this was a priority worthy of resources. Instead, we now have an obligation to develop a “working group”, which, if it is to accomplish anything, would likely require resources as well—except with no commitment to them.  Moving forward with the DEIS was the next logical (and likely legally required) step in weighing all the information, and I thought we had formed a consensus to do just that when we voted to move forward with Amendment 15 in June of 2012.

At any rate, enough rehashing all this stuff.  I think at this point, we all understand each other, and to some extent it doesn’t really matter any longer.  Now that the council’s decision has been made (unless it is legally invalidated in court, where it is currently being challenged) we need to move forward.  It’s now imperative that we focus on the observer coverage issue (getting people on the boats to gage what the incidental river herring and shad catch really is).  We already voted such 100% coverage last year, but it’s pretty much a given at this point that NOAA Fisheries will say that even with industry sharing the costs,  it’s impossible given funding constraints.  We will almost certainly have to move forward with a provision that would require that the small mesh net industry pay 100% of observer costs if we are to hope for significant coverage.  In my opinion this is not unreasonable given that these fish are a public resource and we are allowing the large scale harvest of them for profit.  The people gaining from such a public resource should pay whatever price is required to make sure they are doing it sustainably while minimizing incidental catch.  I hope industry will step up and support such a proposal, and the initial indication is that they will.  The council also needs to pass a strong “framework” to address unobserved dumping or “slippage,” (releasing the net so that the catch cannot be accounted for). Allowing the net to be “slipped” before it can be sampled by observers undermines the potential for the cap to be meaningful; slippage allowances should really be limited to only true emergencies.

Yes, I was bummed that instead of going with the stocks in a fishery model, the council voted in favor of a motion to move forward with a “working group” to address river herring and shad incidental catch.  Because any recommendations coming out of such a working group will not have the force of law.  And really, history has shown that councils avoid making hard decisions unless the law requires them to.  With the obvious limitations in funding these days, I can’t help but see such an unfunded mandate in a rather dim light.  But perhaps I’m being too cynical here.  Indeed, this is a good step in the right direction.  Given the fact that the council will regularly review the process, and the fact that this working group has three years to show results before we consider the stocks-in-a-fisheries model again, I think there’s some real motivation for this working group to come up with something tangible.  In particular, I hope it can further develop the catch cap to serve as an enforceable science-based annual catch limit, in the way it would under law.  As the above referenced response notes, the public has to hold the council’s feet to the fire on this one though.  And I suspect they will.  

Do you have any thoughts on this post?

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posted in: General

November 12, 2013

Looking Back

Rip Cunningham, Spider Andresen and Barry Gibson accept IGFA Hall of Fame membership on behalf of Frank Woolner. Photo courtesy of IGFA.

Recently, I had the opportunity and privilege to attend the annual induction ceremony for the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame. I am ashamed to say that I have not attended many of these and somewhat selfishly attend only those where I personally know one or more of the inductees. All of those considered and ultimately inducted have contributed to the sport that we are so enthusiastic about. Almost all of them have a very strong conservation ethic.

While I did personally know several of those being inducted, I was there to celebrate the induction of Frank Woolner. Frank was the editor of Salt Water Sportsman when I first went to work there in the early 1970’s. As someone who has read the magazine since I was able to read, I saw Frank as a god-like figure. While I remained in awe for quite a while, I soon learned that like the rest of us, he put his pants on one leg at a time. Simply meaning, he was mortal. Frank and Hal Lyman, the publisher, were both well-respected names in the sport fishing world. Hal was inducted into the IGFA Hall of Fame a number of years ago.

Much about those early days at the magazine are a blurr, but my first day will remain etched in my brain forever. Frank, with his beret at a jaunty angle and pipe clenched in his teeth, sauntered into the office with cheerful hellos to the office staff. He often brought them chocolates from a local shop. While genuinely generous, he also wanted to keep the people who wrote the paychecks happy. He rounded the corner, looked at me and tossed a large manila envelope on my desk. “Take a look at these rejection letters and you’ll get an idea of how to write them!” he said as he disappeared into Hal Lyman’s office.

The very first rejection letter was to a writer that I happened to know, but whose name I’ll keep to myself. It read, “Dear XXX, This is the worst blankingmanuscript I have ever read. P.S. Sorry to see that your camera got dunked in salt water.” (The photos were horribly blurry and I can assure you that Frank did not say “freaking”.) I just about fell out of my seat laughing.

Frank mentored more up-and-coming outdoor writers than anyone else. He had a great knack for stringing together just the right words and an ability to quietly teach. This was surprising for someone who did not have a high school education. Frank did have a photographic memory. He read constantly and could recite almost any poetry asked of him. I tried it a couple of times by starting poems that he would finish without blinking an eye, while I knew only the first few lines.

Both Frank and Hal were way ahead of the times in the efforts to get anglers to be conscious of the impact they had as users of the resource. They came up with such slogans as “Limit your catch, don’t catch your limit” and “Release today for fishing tomorrow.”  That was back in the 1960’s. Frank also came up with the term for the standard grip and grin photo of the day. It was a “Dead fish, dumb fisherman” photo.

In the Hall of Fame, when you see Frank’s Royal typewriter, his Calcutta surf rod and Penn Squidder reel filled with early braided line, you see how far we have come since those pioneer days. Tackle and techniques have advanced to a point that would be unrecognizable to many of those pioneers, but the one thing that has not changed is the love of the sport. We always need to follow in their footsteps, be cognizant that we do have an impact, and conserve our resources for those who will follow.

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posted in: General

November 8, 2013

Hackles Raised Over Gill Netting in Florida

After an all-out gill net assault on Florida’s mullet population, order has been restored.

My blog last week told how a circuit court judge in Florida’s Panhandle ruled that the state’s constitutional net ban amendment, which has been in effect for more than 18 years, was not, in her opinion, being correctly interpreted and enforced by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and therefore netters could once again use gill nets.

At that time, the state attorney general had filed an appeal, which put a stay on the judge’s ruling.  Problems resulted when that judge, Jackie Lee Fulford, rejected the appeal on the basis that she believed the netters who challenged the amendment would win on appeal and would be hurt if the stay on her ruling remained.

Netters wasted no time in pulling their old gill nets out of storage, buying up as many new nets as they could and killing as many mullet as possible, mainly in the Panhandle and Jacksonville area. Several netters posted photos of their nets filled with gilled mullet in their boats on Facebook.

Unfortunately, on Nov. 1, the FWC decided not to enforce the net ban amendment. According to a source with the FWC, the agency was afraid it might get sued if law enforcement officers arrested netters and the judge’s ruling was later upheld.

According to prominent Fort Lauderdale attorney Ali Waldman, the FWC had nothing to worry about.

“They should wait until the ruling has gone through all of the challenges, and all of the appeals, before they stop enforcing the amendment,” she said. “It’s silly.”

The state attorney’s office kept at it, and on the afternoon of Nov. 6, the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee, Fla., reinstated the stay of the judge’s ruling. Col. Calvin Adams Jr. of the FWC quickly sent out a memorandum that said, “Effective immediately, we are resuming enforcement of the net [ban] amendment and all associated statutes and rules.”

Adams went on to say that officers should use discretion in case they come across netters who are not aware of the stay, which will be the defense of every mullet netter they come across from here on out.

In the meantime, the appeals process must play out. Coastal Conservation Association Florida, which played a critical role in getting the net ban amendment passed by 72 percent of Florida’s voters in 1994, has intervened in the appeal.

My belief is that Judge Fulford has been grossly misinformed by the netters who sued the FWC and has no understanding of the issue. In her final judgement, she noted that the net ban prohibits all entangling nets except cast nets, so it is absurd that FWC allows netters to use seine nets, which occasionally entangle fish. She also wrote that it appears FWC is enforcing the net ban only to keep mullet fishermen from fishing.

The thing is, netters caught 12.5 million pounds of mullet in 2011 using seines and cast nets, so it’s not like they can’t catch mullet without a gill net. It’s just harder to catch mullet using those nets compared to gill nets, which catch more mullet with less effort.

Before the net ban, netters were catching upwards of 25 million pounds of mullet a year, which was hurting the mullet population as well as the populations of gamefish that feed on them such as redfish, snook and tarpon.

It certainly would be fitting if, because of the lawsuit and Fulford’s ruling, the FWC decides to outlaw seines. Of course, knowing the lengths to which netters will go to fight the net ban, the FWC might also have to outlaw dip nets because there is a chance that while netting a shrimp or crab, you could entangle a glass minnow.

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November 4, 2013

Everglades National Park Back in Business

Everglades mangrove snapper
With the government shutdown over, fishing guides and their clients have returned to Everglades National Park. Photo by Mac Stone.

The end of the federal government shutdown was especially good news for guides who fish in Everglades National Park.

For the first time in more than two weeks, they were allowed to legally fish in park waters.

“People don’t realize the effects of the shutdown on guides,” said Capt. Jason Sullivan, who lost several trips because of the park closure.

That anglers were not allowed to fish in the park, even though many of them access the waters in Florida Bay and along the Gulf of Mexico coastline by boat, was bureaucratic pettiness at its worst.

It was one thing not to allow anglers to drive their tow vehicles into the park and launch their boats at Flamingo. But what did it matter if guides drove their boats across park boundaries from the Florida Keys?

That was the same spiteful mentality behind the National Park Service putting up barricades at the open-air World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., although federal bureaucrats said they had no choice but to close the park.

At least Everglades National Park’s rangers didn’t hassle boaters who ended up in park waters, some of whom didn’t realize they were not allowed in the park and some of whom didn’t care. The rangers told boaters and anglers they could not stop in park waters and sent them on their way without issuing any citations.

Capt. Brian Sanders was one of the lucky ones. He fishes out of Chokoloskee Island on the northwest side of the park and typically goes after snook and redfish in park waters along Gulf beaches and islands.

With the park shut down, Sanders headed 30-plus miles into the Gulf so his clients could fish for snapper and grouper. Fortunately, he had good weather that allowed him to make the long run in his 24-foot bay boat. Even better, the fish were biting – so good, in fact, that after park waters reopened, he still made the trek into the Gulf.

Sanders said that some guides still fished in the park during the closure because of economic necessity.

“I talked to a few of them,” he said. “They said, ‘The park’s not going to pay my mortgage for me, and the park’s not going to pay my bills for me,’ so they went fishing. This was not a lot of days, it was a few days. Those days they never saw anybody.”

Sullivan said he, too, was fortunate. He said he lost about four trips. He could have lost more, but he was able to talk his clients into fishing at night for tarpon and snook in Biscayne Bay in Miami.

Guides in the Keys either had to cancel trips for snook, redfish and tarpon in the park or, like Sanders, make a long run into the Gulf of Mexico or fish shallow reefs in the Atlantic Ocean for Spanish mackerel, snapper and grouper.

As soon as they were allowed back in the park, guides out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada reported great fishing for snook and tarpon, according to marina owner Richard Stanczyk.

Stanczyk did note that the timing of the shutdown was good because early October is a slow time of year for business.

“Out of our 24 guides, only six were fishing,” said Stanczyk, who added that all of his marina’s guides obeyed the rules and stayed out of the park. “None of them lost any trips, but there were people who didn’t book trips because of the closure.”

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posted in: General

October 29, 2013

Keys Fishing Has Character

I couldn’t have asked for a better guide. From his well-worn, cut-off sun shirt to the way he used his teeth to nip off the heads of the squirming shrimp we were using as bait to his immaculate 18-foot flats boat – Bob Baker was the quintessential Keys boat captain.

When he opened up the throttle on his Maverick we hauled across the water, quickly making headway on the trip from Islamorada’s World Wide Sportsman toward Everglades National Park. Our conversation settled on fish stories as our ears adjusted to the steady buzz of wind across our faces.

Fishing with us that day as part of the TRCP Saltwater Media Summit was Tom Van Horn, a writer and fishing guide from the Orlando, Fla., area. Between two locals we had enough fodder to keep us in fish tales for the entirety of the journey without any trouble.

We have a great responsibility to ensure that recreational fishing opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico remain. Photo by Christen Duxbury.

It was impossible to persuade my smile to recede as we navigated shallow runnels, cruised past islands dense with mangroves and flocks of seabirds, and wove around wooden channel markers at what felt like a breakneck speed.

Bob and Tom were at home on the water. As my land-locked legs struggled to keep me upright in the slight chop, I asked these captains endless questions about life on the water. Can you really make a living doing this? How many times have you been hooked? How often do you take your boat out of the water? What if I have to go to the bathroom? What are some of your more memorable clients?

They answered my barrage of questions graciously and with a smile.

Bob’s response to one of my questions struck me. As we were cruising back toward the World Wide Sportsman, I asked him if he had a backup plan. Had he thought about what he would do if bad weather or a catastrophic event were ever to take away his ability to fish? He looked at me and said, “No. I’m just a fisherman. I just want to fish.”

As his answer drifted away in the salty spray coming off the bow, it struck me that we have a great responsibility to ensure that recreational fishing opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico remain. Not only is sportfishing essential to the region’s unique culture and quality of life; without it people like Bob and places like the Keys would cease to remain as we know and love them.

To help create a blueprint for healthy Gulf fisheries, the TRCP has released a report outlining recreational anglers’ recommendations for projects and initiatives designed to help the Gulf of Mexico recover from the 2010 oil spill.

“Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery and Sustainability” is the result of a series of workshops the TRCP organized in May with Gulf State anglers, scientists, charter fishermen and guides, state and federal fisheries managers, fishing tackle and boat retailers and representatives of conservation organizations.

Proper management and planning of our Gulf resources is integral if we want to pursue the outdoor pastimes and way of life that make our coastal places, and people like Bob, so unique.

Learn more about the report.

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