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March 12, 2014

Rules clarified for Florida snapper and tilefish take

Vermillion snapper
Vermillion snapper. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.

You gotta love it when fishery managers admit they messed up and go back to doing the right thing.

That’s why, as of March 13, charter captains and crews in Florida will be allowed to keep their recreational bag limits of vermilion snapper, groupers and golden tilefish in state waters of the Atlantic, including all of the Florida Keys.

Here’s the back story: In 2009, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council wanted to reduce the number of gag groupers and vermilion snappers kept by recreational anglers in federal and state waters of the Atlantic Ocean to help increase those fish populations. In addition to closed seasons, the council prohibited captains and crews of charter boats from keeping their recreational limits of vermilions. They also weren’t allowed to keep any groupers and tilefish, in the hopes of preventing bycatch of gag groupers. But captains and crew could keep their recreational limits of fish such as dolphin and other snappers, which led to confusion.

A year ago, the council voted to get rid of the rule. As of this past Jan. 27, captains and crew could keep their limits of vermilion snappers, groupers and tilefish in Atlantic federal waters. At its meeting last month in Tampa, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to eliminate the rule in Atlantic state waters, which means captains and crew can keep the recreational bag limit of all species of reef fish caught in those waters.

The reason for the change? The council said the decrease in the harvest of those species because of the rule was minimal. Plus, doing away with the rule eliminates confusion and will have a negligible effect on the populations of those species. More helpful was a five-month closed season for vermilion snapper. And there continues to be a four-month closed season for shallow water groupers, including gags, reds and blacks, the three most popular grouper species in Florida.

The vermilion snapper closure in Atlantic state and federal waters was Nov. 1-March 31. That closed season was eliminated because the closure worked and vermilion snapper populations had significantly increased. Lately, fishing for vermilion snappers and tilefish has been the best bet for South Florida anglers seeking to bring home fish for dinner. Fishing for sought-after species such as kingfish, cobia, wahoo, dolphin and tuna has been inconsistent at best.

Golden tilefish. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.
Golden tilefish. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.

Being deepwater fish, golden tilefish are quite tasty, and they are fairly easy to catch. They are typically targeted in 600-700 feet of water by dropping bait to the bottom using an electric fishing reel. When you get a bite, you flip the reel’s switch, and up comes the tilefish. Captains I know regretted not being able to provide their customers with more golden tilefish than their allotted one per person. Now they can make additional drops and provide one or two more fish to take home.

The vermilion snapper change definitely won’t make much of a difference, as the fish are almost exclusively caught by drift boats in 160-300 feet of water. The limit on vermilions is five per person, and allowing the captain and the mate to keep their 10 fish on a drift boat with 15 or more anglers would not be significant except, perhaps, to those anglers who didn’t catch anything and would like to go home with a couple of snapper fillets.

 

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Chris Macaluso

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March 10, 2014

A Louisiana duck hunt: How sportsmen and conservation have restored a tradition

Louisiana duck hunters
The author and his father duck hunting in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

I love to duck hunt. If I was forced to pick the things I enjoy most about being a sportsman in Sportsman’s Paradise, they would be catching speckled trout on topwater baits, battling big mangrove snapper on the reefs and rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, pitching jigs and soft plastics against the cypress trees in the Atchafalaya Basin for largemouths – and hunting ducks in the marshes and swamps across South Louisiana.

This past season, my dad and I were invited to join a group of longtime, passionate, Bayou State outdoorsmen in Pecan Island. The community, which is not really an island, consists of a handful  of mostly elevated homes, hunting camps and a few businesses stuck smack-dab between the seemingly endless expanse of rice and crawfish farms of Southwest Louisiana’s “Cajun Prairie” and the fresh and brackish marshes to the south that eventually give way to the Gulf.

Hunters venturing to Pecan Island enjoy the best of the habitat provided both by agriculture and Mother Nature, with ducks and geese by the hundreds of thousands piling into fields and marshes to feed on a variety of flora and fauna. While I had hunted many times in flooded fields to the north and west, it was my first venture to Pecan Island, one of North America’s true “duck meccas.”

My dad and I were assigned a marsh hunt for the morning. After a short and chilly pre-dawn boat ride, we arrived at the pit blind, camouflaged with native Roseau cane and wax myrtle on the northern edge of a shallow pond loaded with submerged aquatic vegetation and teeming with bird activity.

The sunrise was spectacular. The decoys soon were buzzing with bluewing and greenwing teal. Our guide’s dog worked without a hiccup, and we shot just badly enough to allow us to hunt past 7:30 when the mallards and gadwalls started to work. It’s a day that my dad and I will long remember. However, without the aggressive work to restore that marsh over the last decade-plus, that day never would have happened.

As is the case with most hunts or fishing trips, half the enjoyment comes from the story swapping and talk of the good ol’ days with fellow sportsmen, though my “good ol’ days” don’t stretch near as deep into the past as many. The night before our hunt, Pecan Island hunter-historians recounted the 1980s and ’90s when they wondered if they were going to lose their precious marsh forever.

Habitat changes precipitated by efforts to drain nearby wetlands for agriculture, construction of canals to facilitate oil and gas exploration, and saltwater intrusion were limiting sediment distribution, killing grasses and making marshes more vulnerable to subsidence and hurricane storm surges.

Open water led to increased wave action, causing more open water. Without grass to filter sediment and break up waves, the water became increasingly turbid, further inhibiting grass growth and creating an environment far less fecund and hospitable for both the migrating waterfowl and the fish and crustaceans seeking nursery grounds and protection.

The salvation for the marsh, the reason ducks descended into that shallow grassy pond all morning, came from a state and federal effort paid for by the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act to build coastal habitat projects across Louisiana’s coast over the last 25 years. Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as part of that larger effort, to build a series of marsh terraces and introduce more freshwater to keep the salt at bay, or more specifically, in the bay. The terraces, best described as a series of low, linear sediment piles, quickly reduced insidious wave action, helped sediments fall out of the water column and encouraged the return of native grasses. The project was a bargain as well, with more than 3,500 acres of terraces built with less than $3 million.

Marsh terraces certainly aren’t a wide-spread, long-term answer to the ever-present and drastic coastal land loss in Louisiana. A variety of projects and initiatives have been prescribed and must be utilized simply to sustain what remains of Louisiana’s coast, much less reverse the habitat loss and actually see new wetlands. But, in the case of Pecan Island, one project helped extend the life of a productive habitat for several decades in an area where few other options existed.

Last year, as I worked with the Coastal Conservation Association, Center for Coastal Conservation and American Sportfishing Association to host workshops with fellow anglers, charter captains, scientists and researchers and other conservation groups across the five Gulf States to identify habitat restoration projects to restore, enhance and sustain Gulf fisheries, I quietly celebrated that many of the habitat projects discussed for fish, especially the effort to comprehensively restore the Mississippi River Delta, also benefit a host of other wildlife like ducks. After all, how could I go on a “cast and blast” trip to hunt ducks in the morning and fish for redfish and speckled trout in the afternoon in Buras if there isn’t quality habitat to do both?

The projects identified in the workshops are the basis for a report released by the TRCP last fall titled: “Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery and Sustainability.” Proudly, I can say that my fellow sportsmen used the workshops and the report to champion a host of efforts that should lead to better science, management and habitat for saltwater fish using oil spill recovery penalties. We are taking their recommendations back to federal and state decision makers who are determining how to spend the money.

Quality habitat is the tie that binds all sportsmen to each other and to the land, no matter where they fish or hunt. Without a concerted effort to conserve, protect, enhance and expand that habitat, like many of the projects recommended by Gulf anglers aim to do, the bind is certain to break.

Learn more about sportsmen’s recommendations for rehabilitating recreational fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.

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March 7, 2014

President’s budget good for sportsmen’s water priorities

President Obama’s budget request to Congress released on March 4 contains a number of spending priorities sportsmen should like. The budget proposes full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as strong funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and an increase in the price of the federal Duck Stamp. Important reforms to funding wildfire suppression also are proposed.

Of particular note for hunters and anglers who want to make sure we conserve water for access to quality aquatic habitat, the budget includes the strongest request to date for the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program. Among other things, WaterSMART supports cost-shared grants to develop local water solutions, and it funds, in partnership with the states, studies of how to reconcile the long-term water supply and demand needs in several river basins.

At a total of $52.1 million, the request maintains the strong investment Congress made in WaterSMART in its fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriations bill and adds two new programs focused on drought response and building resilient infrastructure. (The details of those two new programs are to be announced.)

Perhaps more importantly, I’m told the budget also includes a request for Congress to raise the legal spending cap on WaterSMART by $200 million. Without such a move by Congress, many of the most important WaterSMART services will come to an end this year. (Documentation for this request should be available around March 10. I’ll update this post when more information becomes available.)  * Update: The Bureau of Reclamation’s FY15 Budget Justification is available here. The request for authority to spend another $200 million on WaterSMART is on p. 5 of the Appropriations Language section.

This request represents an important commitment to a highly successful program that is conserving 616,000 acre-feet of water annually – enough water for 2.5 million people each year. Much of the water conserved through this program will remain instream to support species recovery, such as salmon or endangered steelhead, or in reservoirs, thereby improving waterfowl habitat.

Legislation from Sen. Brian Schatz and five other Western senators that would extend the WaterSMART program already is working its way through Congress, reflecting support from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, too. Companion legislation in the House is forthcoming.

The president’s proposal may not play a significant role in the final spending decisions made by Congress, because Congress already has passed a budget for fiscal year 2015, and most Republicans have already panned it as a Democratic “wish list” in an election year. This is unfortunate, in part because we have just begun to see a return to normalcy in the annual budget and spending battles.

Nevertheless, sportsmen should be pleased by the priority federal decision makers are placing on a program that will help us make the most out of every drop of water we have. If Congress acts to maintain WaterSMART, we will continue to see improvements in water management, leading to more high-quality aquatic habitat and better access to hunting and fishing opportunities.

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March 6, 2014

A busy fishing February in the Gulf

Garret Graves
Garret Graves. Photo courtesy of Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Wow! It’s difficult to believe that so much fishing news could be crammed into the year’s shortest month.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Louisiana was dealt a blow when Garret Graves, the top man in the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, tendered his resignation to make a run for Congress.

Graves’ experience in D.C. gave him a good start into such a volatile position in Louisiana government, and his energy in jump-starting several long-delayed coastal restoration projects was a welcome change from past administrations.

His six-year tenure was highlighted by the state’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan, a course for prioritizing work estimated to run as high as $50 billion. The problem in past years was that the mountain was too high to climb, especially considering Louisiana has lost a couple-thousand square miles of coastal marshlands during the last 70 years.

Louisiana' s Sustainable Coast Master Plan
Louisiana’ s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. Image Courtesy of Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Somebody had to take the first giant step on that climb, and Graves did that.

As if anyone with that much to tackle needed more on his plate, 2010’s BP-Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was akin to adding an elephant’s weight on top of the monkey already on his back.

While Graves’ second-in-command, Jerome Zeringue, has taken this lead role, it’s sure that Graves’ command of Louisiana’s coastal problems, its solutions, the battles over freshwater diversions contained in the Coastal Master Plan and his stature gained in the BP multi-layered settlement plan will be missed.

So what does that have to do with fishing?

It’s acknowledged that Louisiana coastal marshes mean more than terrific redfish, speckled trout and flounder among other near-coast species as well as crabs and shrimp. They are also a vital nursery ground for a host of offshore species, including several snapper species.

Back in the late 1980s, when Louisiana was battling low redfish recruitment and the first inkling of the state’s gill-net war that would come years later, just a handful of marine biologists talked about the decline of the coastal marshes.

They mentioned the decline of the marsh habitat was productive in the short term because the decay and erosion added nutrients to the system, but they added that there was a point of no return when the habitat reached a critical point where its productivity would rapidly decline. The word “collapse” was used often when it comes to the marshes’ ability to provide and sustain so many coastal and offshore species.

From what’s happened on the west side of the Mississippi River, from Buras south and west through Yellow Cotton Bay and to the Gulf of Mexico, it appears the decline in speckled trout catches in the last three years is proving the biologists’ prediction made nearly 30 years ago. Yellow Cotton Bay, once a place unrivaled in the Gulf for its fall speckled trout run, isn’t even on the map anymore after being totally wiped away by Hurricane Katrina.

So, restoring the marshes and the Louisiana coastline has more plusses than saving homes, communities, the oil and gas production and supply chain for the country that starts along the state’s coast, and vital overwintering waterfowl habitat. These projects can go a long way to providing food for U.S. tables.

Need more about February?

GMFMC logo
Image courtesy of GMFMC.

When the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council talked about reallocation of the red snapper resources, who could’ve figured Amendment 28 would give recreational fishermen across the Gulf a chance to take an increased share of red snapper from a stock that’s recovered more quickly than anyone, even marine scientists, could have imagined?

A series of public hearings throughout the five Gulf States in March will be held to get comments about a change that would grant recreational anglers a 75-percent share (commercials would get 25 percent) of any annual quota approved by the GMFMC more than 9.12 million pounds. At 9.12 million pounds or less, the allocation continues to be split 51-49 percent respectively between commercials and recreationals.

A list of the hearings can be found on the GMFMC website: http://gulfcouncil.org.

If you can’t attend one of the hearings, comments will be accepted at: http://bit.ly/MS14U0.

What’s grand about February and leading into March is that redfish are biting darned near everywhere on the coast. It’s a transition time for speckled trout, but we’re closing in on the time when giant trout will begin blasting artificial baits in Calcasieu Lake, and the trout will move to the bridges in Lake Pontchartrain.

The bonus is that all the frigid conditions up north have lowered the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River (all the while knowing that the melt-off will run our rivers high in April, May and even June) and bass fishing is terrific in the cane-lined runs off the Mississippi and in the lakes, bayous and canals in the Atchafalaya Basin, the country’s largest overflow swamp.

 

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February 28, 2014

SFRED winner Rebecca Brown: I love my home

A group of young outdoor enthusiasts traveled to Washington, D.C. from across the country after winning an essay contest sponsored by Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, a coalition of sportsmen and conservation groups led by the National Wildlife Federation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited. The contest’s theme was “The Importance of Public Lands to Me,” and the essays highlight the forests, mountains, sagebrush steppe and backcountry waters of our public lands.

Hailing from both the East and West, the winners are Jarred Kay, 17, Flagstaff, Ariz.; Haley Powell, 17, Rock Springs, Wyo.; Matthew Reilly, 18, Palmyra, Va.; Rebecca Brown, 17, Conrad, Mont.; and Noah Davis, 18, Greensburg, Pa.

Read the student’s essays below, and let us know what you think about their passion for public lands in the comments section:

I love my home – By Rebecca Brown

Rebecca Brown and friends at Glacier NP.
Rebecca Brown and friends at Glacier NP. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brown.

I love my home. I always have, and always will. I’m not talking about the house I live in, the street it’s located on, or even the town. I’m talking about the state of Montana. It’s such a magnificent place, with its diverse terrain and variety of weather. In a relatively short drive, you can go from flat plains to towering peaks; from grassland to forest; over rolling hills, across rushing rivers, alongside rocky mountain walls; it’s an ever-changing, dynamic landscape, begging to be traveled.

I’ve lived here all my life, and will cherish this, my home, in my heart always.

If it weren’t for the protection of public lands, my Montana might be a very different place. The vast majority of my memories and experiences have happened on public lands. I learned to hunt deer, migratory and upland birds on the grassy plains and foothills. I learned to fish in public reservoirs and lakes. I’ve spent my summers swimming and boating in public waters. My love for aquatic recreation inspired me to build my own cedar-strip canoe. I find tremendous enjoyment in hiking mountain trails, encountering the different foliage, watching animal life, listening to the trickle of small creeks running alongside, and finding beautiful waterfalls.

When I take time to slow down from my busy life and stop to look at the land around me, I’m filled with wonder, admiration, and peace. I feel a gratitude for all the experiences I’ve had, very few of which would’ve been possible without the abundance of public lands in Montana.

I know I am not the only person to have stories and memories like these. Many people from all over the United States use and enjoy public lands each day.

It is important to keep an abundance of public lands in this country. They provide places to learn, to explore, and to admire. People learn to truly appreciate nature and the many resources it offers.

The national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, monuments, and wilderness areas that make up the protected public lands of America must continue to be protected for future generations. They make up about 28 percent of United States land, and exemplify the true beauty of our nation.

Rebecca Brown with public lands buck
Rebecca Brown with public lands buck. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brown.

Even though most people may think of public lands as recreational locations, they also offer valuable natural resources. These include fresh water, fish and game, and other wildlife. Many sportsmen view these lands as simply that – sporting venues. People like my family, however, rely on these lands as a source of food – they are home to the fish and game we hunt for meat. We depend on the hunting season to provide us with meat for the rest of the year. If it weren’t for the ability to harvest game on public lands, we would have to pay outrageous fees to access private lands, and we couldn’t afford to hunt.

Public lands are key in helping with the conservation of our environment. In these areas, fresh water and clean air are abundant, and the plant life that thrives in them refreshes the earth’s biosphere.

It is critical for these lands to be protected and conserved for generations to come. The future inhabitants of this nation deserve to have the same positive experiences I’ve had, to drink the fresh water, breathe the clean air, and take full advantage of the opportunities to use public lands without the huge personal investment into private ownership that so many of us cannot afford.

Packing back into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Packing back into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brown.

As I said before, I love my home. I love the fresh air and the wide open spaces. I’ve enjoyed learning tohunt, to fish, to swim, to canoe, to snowboard and waterski. I’ve had so very many amazing experiences and lessons, and they’ve all combined to give me a strong foundation for the rest of my life. I’ve learned skills and behaviors that will assist me in nearly anything I choose to do. The public lands of the United States need to be protected so other members of future generations can learn the same things I have, can have similar experiences and cherished memories. If these lands go unprotected, they could be bought up, locked up, and held ransom by corporations and the elite few that can afford private landholdings, and soon, citizens will have nowhere to go to hunt or to camp without having to spend large sums to do it.

If we don’t take action to protect the public use and conservation of our lands and the natural resources they contain, the future will be a very different place from the home that has made me who I am.

Rebecca Brown, 17, of Conrad, Mont., is a high school senior and the oldest of three sisters. Her father is a schoolteacher and her mother drives the school bus. She is working to obtain her pilot’s license. Rebecca enjoys hunting, fishing, boating, all types of water sports, snowboarding and hiking. She plans to study mechanical engineering at college in the fall. 

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