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February 25, 2014


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Tipping point

Atlantic cod
Atlantic cod. Photo by Hans-Petter Fjeld/Creative Commons.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the academy’s official journal, looks at overfishing or, should I say “species depletion” to be politically correct, in a series of examples from around the world. One of these examples was right here in New England. The examples point out how over exploitation of specific resources have impacts on other resources and in some cases trigger a tipping point that essentially creates an irreversible change in the food web and species interaction.

Some may think that I am simply pointing a finger at the commercial fishing industry and blaming it for causing the over exploitation. Not exactly, but let’s face it: We would be having a different discussion if there had never been any commercial fishing in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. Don’t get me wrong – there should be commercial utilization of our marine resources, but we should have historically done a better job of managing that commercial utilization. I also think that all user groups need to recognize that they have impacts and, yes, that includes recreational users. Once we all take that big step of recognition, the management process can become a lot better.

Atlantic cod collapse graph
Image by Lamiot/Wikimedia Commons.

The New England case study (although actually the PNAS report discusses the northwest Atlantic) looks at the decline of cod and its inability to recover. Essentially, overfishing that persisted after passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Act or may have actually been promoted by the implementation of the act caused a severe decline in the cod population. The void created by the decline allowed other species that had been held in check by the abundant cod to proliferate. They in turn feed on the juvenile cod and keep the cod from rebuilding. This is demonstrated by the Canadian Maritimes closure of approximately 20 years that still has not produced an upturn in cod populations.

While not in the finfish realm, the lack of cod in the 1980s led to a strong increase in the sea urchin population. At one point Maine’s urchin fishery produced $30 million in revenue. The lack of regulation allowed urchins to be overharvested in about 10 years. The lack of urchins that consume a variety of seaweed allowed the proliferation of seaweed. Crab populations benefited from the seaweed as it sheltered them from predation, and they in turn fed on the remaining urchins, making it almost impossible for them to rebound to their former numbers.

The PNAS study formalized what a number of marine scientists have said for years. Basically, if human or any other interaction with ocean resources creates a void by taking away a dominant species, that void will not remain empty for very long. Something else will fill it. They have contended that the total biomass of the oceans has varied very little over recorded history. It has changed, however, from desirable species to less desirable species. That is a trend that does not bode well for the future.

It is likely that we have reached the tipping point with New England’s iconic fish, the sacred cod. Certainly, changing water temperature has not helped and may well be the final nail in the coffin, but water temperature cannot be solely responsible for the dramatic decline in the cod’s population. Having gone past the tipping point, it is very possible that nothing can be done to recover this once robust population.


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February 24, 2014

Bringing Bristol Bay home

Alaska anglers. Photo by Pat Ford.
Successful Alaska anglers. Photo by Pat Ford.

We’re writing this from our recently purchased house on the rain-hammered winter coast of Oregon. Sheets of water are lashing against our windows, and the wind threatens to rip off the storm door.

It’s a far cry from the GTs we were catching on Christmas Island a few weeks back in the warm sun. Now we’re here for the steelhead. Each season we guide winter-run steelhead in the heart of Oregon’s north coast. As a part of our dream, we created Frigate Travel, an outfitting company servicing and expanding a host of fishing destinations around the world. When steelhead season ends, the Sea of Cortez will lure us back for another season chasing and guiding roosterfish.

After Mexico, we’ll head back up to Alaska, specifically the Naknek River in Bristol Bay. For six seasons we have guided these waters. Like countless other fishing guides around the Northwest, it is how we’ve made our living and gained experience, spending day after day with clients, fickle boat motors, huge tidal pushes, crazy weather and fish – so many fish. Bristol Bay has all five species of Pacific salmon, giant rainbow trout, fat char, grayling, lake trout and northern pike. This is just the game fish; Bristol Bay’s waterfowl and upland hunting is off the hook. And big game hunters travel from around the world to this region for brown bear, caribou and moose. This place offers so many “experiences of a lifetime.” The region has helped us afford to build a small outfitting company with a solid client base who will fish with us around the Pacific.

Alaska salmon stream and angler
Angler on Alaskan salmon stream. Photo courtesy of Kate Taylor and Justin Crump.

The effort to protect Bristol Bay is so important to the economics of the outdoor industry. More than $100 million are spent annually in Bristol Bay on hunting and fishing. This industry employs more than 1,000 people within the region to include float plane pilots, chefs, fishing guides and lodge support staff. Travel companies, tackle manufacturers, boat builders, food suppliers, restaurant workers, even taxi services reap the benefits from the economic engine of Bristol Bay’s outdoor industry. This place consistently draws writers, photographers and filmmakers to tell the story of an untouched wilderness with amazing fishing.

Bristol Bay creates in all of us a deep sense of nostalgia for how our home waters used to be. The effort to stop the Pebble Mine threatening the Bristol Bay fishery with massive metallic sulfide settling ponds at the headwaters is finally coming to a head.

The EPA has a chance to protect this fishery hailed as the largest sockeye salmon run left in the world. The EPA can stop the proposal to construct the largest open pit copper mine ever proposed in Alaska (and potentially North America), at the headwaters of one of the world’s largest king salmon runs on the Nushagak River and the largest sockeye salmon run on the Kvichak River. The EPA can protect a fishery that provides a living for thousands of families as well as a thousand-year-old culture of subsistence.

Alaska angler with king salmon
Alaska angler with king salmon. Photo courtesy of Kate Taylor and Justin Crump.

We just bought our first home on the Oregon Coast because of our ability to fish so many steelhead streams and introduce our guests to this part of our world. Like most Alaska fishermen, our time in Bristol Bay provides us with a chance to start new businesses, buy homes, purchase new boats, and give back to the economy where we live. That is what working ecosystems are supposed to do.

Please take a minute and tell EPA to use its power under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay.

Kate Taylor and Justin Crump own Frigate Travel and guide for Alaska Sportsman’s Bear Trail Lodge in King Salmon, Alaska. When not in Alaska, they live a block from a very cold beach on the north coast of Oregon or in a camper on the back of a Chevy somewhere on the Baja.


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February 20, 2014

What’s in a name

Photo courtesy of NERO/NOAA.gov.

Ever hear of a GARFO? I bet most folks have never heard of a NERO, and that was GARFO’s predecessor. These are both government acronyms for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries regional office. NERO stands for North East Regional Office and has been the name for a while. GARFO is the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. This name change was done to satisfy Congress, as the regional office does cover fisheries in New England and the Mid Atlantic.

I am reminded of Shakespeare’s line in Romeo and Juliet, “A rose by any other name ….” but let’s not go there. I doubt there will be a sea of change with a new “gummint” name, although GARFO will have an opportunity right out of the starting gate to show that the name change has helped to change the fisheries management philosophy.

It appears that $75 million of taxpayers’ money will go toward mitigating the impacts of the “groundfish disaster” declared a while back by the Secretary of Commerce. How much comes to the New England – or, should I say, “Greater Atlantic” – area is yet to be determined, as the funds are meant for Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and the Northeast. There is also the question of whether NOAA Fisheries will take a cut of the funds to cover “administrative expenses.” Some members of Congress have warned against NOAA siphoning off any of the funds, but that is what government does so well. For every taxpayer dollar in, you’re lucky to get 50 cents out.

But I digress. In previous blogs, I have commented that I do not believe simply handing out the money is a good idea. Thoughtful programs that will have longer-term benefits are better in my mind, but I’m likely in the minority.

Atlantic cod
Photo courtesy of NERO/NOAA.gov.

The party/charter sector has put forward a request or plan to the regional administrator based on the number of trips taken for groundfish species averaged over a few years. In discussing this with recreational industry folks, I feel that a plan or request for funds should be based on demonstrated losses to party/charter participants due to the known decline of groundfish. This should be easily determined by the changes or declines in the number of trips taken to catch groundfish species. All the necessary information should have been submitted by the active party/charter vessels in the required vessel trip reports. On the commercial side, there has been discussion of distributing funding to those businesses impacted by the groundfish decline. Again, I think that should be the same with those in the recreational fishing industry. I suspect that determining what those losses are will be more complicated for both the commercial and recreational industries. I also suspect that widening the distribution will begin to make any mitigating support meaningless. At least here in the heart of the Greater Atlantic, John Bullard, the regional administrator of GARFO, has convened the Groundfish Economic Coordinating Committee, composed of members of both the recreational and commercial sectors, to give input on how the funds should be distributed. So at first blush, the recreational industry has a seat at the table. Whether they get a reasonable share, just scraps or nothing at all is yet to be determined. I am not a betting man, but I’d guess at the middle or end of that list.

NERO or GARFO – I don’t think it will make any difference. If it makes Congress happy, wonderful. I would just like to see any mitigating funds made available on an equitable basis to both sectors of the fishing industry.


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February 19, 2014

More striped bass catch-and-release a good idea?

Striped bass close-up.
Striped bass. Photo Courtesy of John McMurray.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will remember that two weeks ago, I wrote about a recent suggestion by some that we open up the exclusive economic zone, or “EEZ” to striped bass fishing so that anglers in Virginia and North Carolina could have access to the large bodies of big fish that have been found to winter offshore there. It may be a good idea to read that blog before continuing:  OF STRIPED BASS, THE EEZ AND THE SAME OLD (EXPLETIVE)

In short, the EEZ is that area of the ocean outside of 3 miles, or what our government considers federal waters. Everything outside of that, up to 200 miles, is off limits to striper fishing. It has been for 25 years. Such a closure was put in place to protect the spawning stock back when things got really bad for striped bass. Since then, it has served as a critical buffer for the species and really the only place the fish don’t get absolutely hammered – at least, not legally.

To understand how critical the EEZ closure is, consider that just last week, on a joint NCDMF/USFWS tagging survey, five people with hook and line gear tagged a total of 274 stripers fishing 24 miles off the North Carolina coast. Included was one 74-pound striper, reportedly 10 or so fish exceeding 50 pounds, and too many 30s and 40s to count. Such large concentrations of big adult fish do indeed occur offshore and currently are not accessible to fishermen. Given the striped bass’ decline, these are exactly the fish we should be protecting, and while there are some enforcement hiccups, we are indeed protecting them. That is unquestionably a good thing.

The EEZ should remain closed. There is absolutely no reason to open it. Certainly, I got some feedback from those who disagree, and while I understand the rationale I think it’s based on a false premise. Their argument is that so much illegal fishing occurs in the EEZ that reducing the bag limit from two to one fish and allowing folks to fish in the EEZ would actually reduce fishing mortality. In other words, instead of killing two fish illegally, they’d be killing one legally. I think that’s bullshit, though. For one, the Coast Guard has actually been really good on the enforcement stuff in the last couple of years. Sure, some illegal targeting of striped bass probably takes place, but from what I’m hearing, it’s not near as significant as it was a few years ago. Like I said in my last EEZ piece, an increasingly sophisticated Coast Guard and serious fines have made most realize that it just isn’t worth it. Frankly, I kinda think the guys using the reduced fishing mortality argument are really just throwing it out there, because they are simply interested in getting on those large concentrations of wintering fish.

So, now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, the point of this week’s blog is to take a look at what opening up the EEZ to just catch-and-release fishing would mean. And I bring this up now, because at the last Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) meeting the Striped Bass Board discussed the potential of such an opening, which confused me a little bit, because… well, because catch-and-release fishing already exists in the EEZ.

Technically, it’s not legal to fish for them. The language in the regulation is pretty clear on that point. But it really appears to be an unenforceable regulation, as the angler isn’t retaining the evidence. So, one could just claim he/she was targeting another species. That said, the scuttlebutt is that some perhaps overly ambitious boarding officers have been boarding vessels and writing tickets for people fishing in areas of the EEZ where there doesn’t appear to be anything but striped bass. Or maybe it was that they were just writing warnings. I don’t know. Either way, this is the first I’ve heard of any such enforcement action for catch-and-release fishing in the EEZ.

As I referenced in the last EEZ blog, there are lots of businesses in both Virginia and North Carolina that simply don’t have much business anymore, because, for one, there’s real enforcement of the EEZ closure now, but also because the stock has contracted to the point where the inshore/legal striper fishery in the winter is virtually non-existent. So, making it legal to go out and target some of these large wintering fish in the EEZ might indeed help these guys out. I mean, the point is that these guys could advertise such a fishery. Get guys to drive down from Jersey, etc. to get in on it. So from that perspective I do get it. And this is precisely why the subject was brought up at ASMFC.

Close big bass.
Big striped bass. Photo courtesy of John McMurray.

On the surface it sounds pretty harmless, right? What could be wrong with such a policy? And why wouldn’t we all want this? Seems like a win/win. But I think we have to be very careful. If this was 2006 and we were at peak abundance, I’d probably be inclined to think, yeah, this a good idea – and probably harmless. But we aren’t there anymore. In fact we’re in the midst of a pretty precipitous decline, and it’s very possible that we’ll be over the fishing mortality threshold (read overfishing) and the stock will have fallen below the spawning stock biomass threshold (read overfished) by the end of this year.

With that in mind, we have to understand that even with an all-release fishery, there will be some release/discard mortality. I’m pretty sure 8 percent is the number the assessment uses. That may not sound significant, but extrapolated over all those fish that are caught and released (remember the 274 stripers caught in the tagging survey by one boat with only five anglers on board) you’ve definitely got an increase in fishing mortality. And we’ve also got to remember that these are pretty much all old, large fish – the ones where the real release mortality rate is generally much higher than 8 percent.

The other thing that concerns me about making such a catch-and-release fishery “legal” is that I suspect it will invite non-compliance. The big fleets of boats outside of the 3 mile limit used to send up red flags. That won’t be the case if there’s a “legal” fishery out there, which is fine, assuming everyone is in compliance, prosecuting a strictly catch-and-release fishery… I doubt that will be the case. There will likely be a significant number of knuckleheads hiding fish in compartments.

Yeah, I don’t really know where I’m at on this right now. Really, I don’t think this stock needs any increase in fishing mortality right now, even if it’s incremental. On the other hand, I intuitively think, “So what, it’s catch-and-release… there won’t be that much mortality, and people are doing it anyway” (of course it will be on a much larger scale now though). But that’s just a gut feeling, and my gut is often wrong. The logical part of me thinks this is a bad idea, at least right now. I guess for me to really make up my mind, I’d have to see a full analysis by the Striped Bass Technical Committee, but I suspect such an analysis would be less than comprehensive. Often such analyses don’t take into account noncompliance, not to mention all the boneheads who don’t know how to – or simply don’t take the time or expend the energy to – properly release a big fish. In other words, I suspect the Technical Committee would just apply the 8 percent release mortality rate across the board. And I believe, particularly with the large fish we’re talking about here, that it is much higher.

Striped bass with angler.
Photo courtesy of John McMurray.

Where are we now with all of this? As mentioned, the initial, albeit abbreviated discussion has taken place at ASMFC. If I understood that conversation correctly, commissioners need more info/analysis from the Technical Committee, and they also wanted to hear from the Advisory Panel (I look forward to weighing in here!). I should note here though that that ASMFC in itself cannot reopen the EEZ. It can recommend only that the feds (NOAA Fisheries) open the area again. Of course, given the processes for making such public decisions, the feds would have to offer significant justification to reopen the EEZ, there would have to be scoping, public hearings, etc. So I certainly don’t think that this is something that’s right around the corner. That said, I do know that the Coast Guard already has had some preliminary discussions on how they might enforce such an all-release fishery.

Moving forward, I guess we’ll see how this all shakes out. Stay tuned! I’ll be sure to be reporting on this as we get more information.




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