“Secretary Ross made the right move in standing with recreational fishermen,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Reduction fishing for menhaden threatens the livelihoods of thousands of hard-working fishing guides and tackle shop owners and impacts everything from striped bass to whales. Today’s decision holds Omega accountable and sets the stage for improved management of this important forage fish.”
“U.S. Commerce Secretary Ross’ decision to hold Omega Protein accountable for their actions demonstrates clear conservation leadership to the sportfishing and boating industry and anglers along the Atlantic Coast,” said Glenn Hughes, president of the American Sportfishing Association. “This decision comes at a critical time because menhaden’s top predator, Atlantic striped bass, is currently in poor condition and the Chesapeake Bay is the primary spawning and nursery area for the species. We thank Secretary Ross for recognizing the value menhaden brings to the recreational fishing community and America’s outdoor recreational economy.”
“The ASMFC’s Policy Board has some of the finest fishery managers in the country on it and they unanimously found Virginia out of compliance with the Menhaden Fishery Management Plan. Upholding the ASMFC’s non-compliance finding for Virginia was simply the right thing to do,” said David Sikorski, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland. “We applaud Secretary Ross for defending both the management system and the forage base in the Chesapeake Bay.”
Since October, tens of thousands of recreational anglers, dozens of business and organizations, and nine Governors along the east coast, including Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, have all requested that the Secretary take action on this issue.
According to a recent scientific study, menhaden reduction fishing contributes to a nearly 30 percent decline in striped bass numbers. The striped bass fishing industry contributes $7.8 billion in GDP to the economy along the Atlantic coast.
When the Mississippi Hits its High Water Mark, Anglers Shouldn’t Give Up
Annual flooding on the Mississippi River is part of life in South Louisiana
Each year, the Mississippi swells with late winter and spring rain and snowmelt, carrying sediments from the Midwest and the Great Plains down to the Gulf of Mexico. Before levees the length of the river were built to tame floods and help navigation, the swollen river would spill over into the swamps and marshes of Louisiana’s coast, building an intricate web of coastal rivers, bayous, ponds, lakes, bays, and thick, lush marshes.
The land underneath my house in Baton Rouge was built in the last 15,000 years by that annual flooding. The towns of Dulac, Dularge and Grand Isle, where I will launch from to fish in the coming days and weeks are built on land created by the great river in the last 5,000 years.
If the average annual flood is a garden hose, the floods of 2018 and 2019 are a fire hydrant that nobody can figure out how to turn off.
The Mississippi has been above the highwater mark (8 feet on the New Orleans gauge) for going on 230 days and there is no sign it will go below that mark in the coming month. While high water makes shipping more treacherous and dirties adjacent bays, the Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t act to protect New Orleans from flooding until the river gets to between 16 and 17 feet, prompting the opening of the Bonnet Carre’ Spillway, a floodgate located about 25 miles upstream that can direct about a quarter of the river’s flow into Lake Pontchartrain and take pressure off levees that protect the city.
This year, Bonnet Carre’ has been open for a record number of days–86 and counting. And it appears that number will grow to at least 95 days before its gates are shut for good. The old-timers talk about 1973 being the year the Mighty Mississippi almost broke free of its shackles. And the real old timers talk about 1927 when the river experienced unprecedented flooding. Now we have 2019 to add to the annals.
Generally, June is when the river begins to drop below flood stage and settle into its summer and fall channel, and when conditions downriver begin to change as the Gulf of Mexico’s green, saltier waters take over coastal bays southeast of New Orleans.
But this year the flood keeps pushing past and as a result silt-heavy freshwater from the Mississippi, Pearl, Atchafalaya, and Sabine Rivers has inundated coastal lakes and bays across Louisiana’s coast well into the summer. Sure, we understand summer doesn’t start until June 21 on the calendar, but once the thermometer touches 90, it’s summer. And that happened about a month and a half ago.
The muddy waters have some Louisiana anglers discouraged, assuming it’s just not worth the effort to put the boat in the water. But many have persevered, adapting to the freshwater influxes and finding speckled trout and redfish concentrated in areas adjacent to the freshwater, where there is enough salinity for them to feed on the shrimp, mullet,menhaden, and even freshwater shad, bluegill and crawfish that come with the floods. It’s far from an ideal summertime situation, but in some cases the fishing has been outstanding even in areas inundated by river water.
Often, Louisiana anglers lose sight of how adaptive the fish and animals can be. Speckled trout and redfish didn’t show up in Louisiana after levees were built along the Mississippi River. They were here long before that and live here because of the habitat, nutrients and food supplied by the river, not in spite of it. The speckled trout that have left coastal marshes and lakes close to the river to find saltier water this spring and summer will return this fall when the Gulf pushes back against the river,and the Gulf will most certainly push back. Then those fish will find areas full of vegetation, food, and new habitat.
Hopefully this year’s flood will be the catalyst for a serious examination of the way the Mississippi River is managed top-to-bottom. The strategy of narrowing the river, forcing it higher and higher through levees seems to be a failing approach in many parts of the country. Sediment is building up in areas throughout the basin, leading to reduced storage capacity during floods while areas downriver need more sediment to keep up with subsidence.
Those who make policy and folks who live and fish along the great river will have to adapt to what the present and future will bring, just like the fish residing in our favorite coastal lakes and bays have had to change over time.
The differences between recreational and commercial fishing are finally recognized by law
The recreational fishing and boating community is celebrating the enactment of the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2018, or the Modern Fish Act, which was signed into law by President Trump on December 31, 2018. The Modern Fish Act finally recognizes, in federal law, the differences between recreational and commercial fishing and adds more appropriate management tools for policymakers to use in managing federal recreational fisheries.
“Millions of American families take part in saltwater recreational fishing and boating activities and support multi-billion dollar industries that generate hundreds of thousands of jobs in our country,” said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy. “Today, we are thankful for this important milestone for federal fisheries management and marine conservation, and we look forward to continuing to improve public access to our nation’s healthy fisheries.”
“This is historic for the recreational boating and fishing community, capping years of hard work to responsibly modernize recreational saltwater fisheries management,” said Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “The Modern Fish Act is a critical first-step solution towards establishing a framework for expanding access to recreational saltwater fishing, while ensuring conservation and sustainability remain top priorities in fisheries management. We thank President Trump and Congress for making the Modern Fish Act the law of the land and look forward to working with them in the coming years to advance polices that protect and promote recreational saltwater fishing.”
“The recreational fishing industry is grateful to see this legislation enacted,” said Glenn Hughes, president of the American Sportfishing Association. “We look forward to continuing to work with Congress, as well as NOAA Fisheries and the regional fishery management councils, to improve the management and conservation of our marine fisheries.”
“The Modern Fish Act signed by the President provides an opportunity for significant, positive change on behalf of millions of recreational anglers who enjoy fishing in federal waters,” said Jeff Crane, president of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “We look forward to working with NOAA Fisheries, the regional fishery management councils and the states to fully implement the provisions of the bill and improve federal fisheries management for America’s saltwater anglers.”
“CCA is proud to be a part of this important coalition, and we are grateful to our champions in Congress who stood by us during the intense, sometimes contentious negotiations on this legislation,” said Patrick Murray, president of Coastal Conservation Association. “There is still work to be done, but this is a valuable first step. We are hopeful this opens the door to an ongoing discussion of tools and processes that can be developed to better manage recreational fisheries in federal waters in all regions of the United States.”
“This bill becoming law is the most significant step forward in federal recreational saltwater fishing management in the forty-plus years of the Magnuson-Stevens Act,” said Whit Fosburgh, president of Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Recreational fishermen, conservationists and businesses united around a set of principles and worked together to get this bill passed and we will continue to work together on priorities like forage fish management and improving data collection in the future.”
The recreational fishing and boating community would like to thank the sponsors of the Modern Fish Act, Senator Wicker and Congressman Graves, who led this bipartisan effort in the 115th Congress to improve federal fisheries management for America’s 11 million saltwater anglers. We also appreciate the support of Senators Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.), and Congressmen Steve Scalise (R-La.), Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Marc Veasey (D-Texas), Rob Wittman (R-Va.), Gene Green (D-Texas), Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), and Austin Scott (R-Ga.).
The Modern Fish Act will provide more stability and better access for anglers by:
Providing authority and direction to NOAA Fisheries to apply additional management tools more appropriate for recreational fishing, many of which are successfully implemented by state fisheries agencies (e.g., extraction rates, fishing mortality targets, harvest control rules, or traditional or cultural practices of native communities);
Improving recreational harvest data collection by requiring federal managers to explore other data sources that have tremendous potential to improve the accuracy and timeliness of harvest estimates, such as state-driven programs and electronic reporting (e.g., through smartphone apps);
Requiring the Comptroller General of the United States to conduct a study on the process of mixed-use fishery allocation review by the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Regional Fishery Management Councils and report findings to Congress within one year of enactment of the Modern Fish Act, and
Requiring the National Academies of Sciences to complete a study and provide recommendations within two years of the enactment of the Modern Fish Act on limited access privilege programs (catch shares) including an assessment of the social, economic, and ecological effects of the program, considering each sector of a mixed-use fishery and related businesses, coastal communities, and the environment and an assessment of any impacts to stakeholders in a mixed-use fishery caused by a limited access privilege program. This study excludes the Pacific and North Pacific Regional Fishery Management Councils.
Dreams of the Fabled Fall Blitz Turn Into an Industrialized Fishing Nightmare
The scene that shocked East Coast anglers who waited all year to cruise up to striped bass blitzing on an embattled forage fish
I look forward to fall fishing all year long. It is a little cooler, the days a little shorter, and the convergence of baitfish and predators feeds the fabled fall blitz and takes over my imagination. A few weeks ago, I headed out ready to fish the fall migration with coolers full, sandwiches made, and strong reports of striped bass, false albacore, and bluefish in the area. A Long Island Grand Slam was on our agenda.
We couldn’t get out there fast enough when we saw what every angler wants to see: birds dive-bombing the water above a huge pod of bunker. These Atlantic menhaden support pretty much every sportfish we care about. And they’re so critical to the ecosystem that anglers up and down the East Coast would like to see them managed with their value as a forage fish in mind.
Through binoculars, we saw an even larger flock of birds indicating some action in the distance, so we got the boat up on plane and gunned it to see what was going on. But we were not prepared to see a 200-foot purse seining boat vacuuming up millions of bunker.
I knew this was happening down in Virginia—where a single company represents the last holdout in the commercial harvest of menhaden—but what the heck were these boats doing up in New York waters? Hearing about it is bad, but seeing the scale of this type of fishing in person is shocking and demoralizing. There was a spotter plane flying above to find the fish and two smaller boats dispatched by the mother ship to surround the school with a huge net.
They were removing millions of pounds of bait that make our best days on the water possible. And, quite simply, if you remove the bait, the predators will leave, too. Imagine a fresh chill in the air and no birds on the horizon.
Standing there with my rod and reel, I felt really insignificant next to this industrial operation. New York doesn’t allow reduction fishing—the practice of “reducing” commercially harvested fish like menhaden into fishmeal or fish oil—in the three miles offshore that constitute state waters. In fact, reduction fishing has been banned off the coastal waters of every Atlantic state, with the exception of Virginia. But we were just beyond that boundary within federal waters, where reduction fishing of this sort is currently permitted in what is known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. (Ironically, all striped bass fishing–both recreational and commercial–is strictly prohibited in the EEZ.)
How can removing that much forage from the marine food web be the best use of the resource for New York fishermen and our economy? These boats, run by Omega Protein, would soon be taking these fish back to Virginia to be processed and then shipped to Canada to feed farmed salmon. But what about our wild stripers, albies, and blues?
Not too long ago, menhaden were in real trouble due to overfishing. Scientists agree that the menhaden’s recovery began when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the government body that manages the species, enacted the first-ever catch limits on bunker in 2013.
But the return of menhaden has now also brought the Omega Protein fleet back to our waters with their spotter planes, and our future fishing opportunities could be left in their wake.
For decades, Omega (now owned by Canadian Cooke Inc.) has opposed a more ecological approach to fisheries management and consistently lobbies for aggressive catch increases that would jeopardize the return of menhaden populations. Why? Because their business depends on churning out more fishmeal and fish oil.
Omega’s return to New York and New Jersey has created outrage and should spark action. If menhaden populations in Virginia are as healthy as Omega says, why did they need to travel 270 miles from their home port in Reedsville to catch their quota?
Removing a critical food source for sportfish in the New York Bight and taking it back to Virginia is an irresponsible use of the resource. We need this bait for our predators and the outdoor recreation economy they support. Our policymakers should not allow local anglers to sacrifice for the benefit of one company.
All but one of the Atlantic Coast states have banned the ecologically damaging practice of menhaden reduction fishing in their territorial waters. Perhaps the time has come for the federal government to do the same.
How Fisheries Managers Respond When Trash Fish Get Trendy
Fisheries management can be influenced by the American appetite for (certain kinds of) seafood, which makes it even more important that the system works better for anglers
My brother Joey and I were weird, I guess. When we were kids, we loved to fish for sheepshead, which, at the time, were generally thought to be a “trash” fish and were despised by most Louisiana anglers.
Sheepshead are ugly by any objective standard. They have big, goofy buckteeth, gray and black skin, and a row of foreboding spikes along their dorsal fins. They’re also an absolute pain to clean. Some charter guides I knew when I was in my teens refused to even put them in the ice chest, for fear that they would wind up on the cleaning table along with the better speckled trout and redfish.
But I never agreed with sheepshead getting a bad rap. First of all, they fight like caged, rabid raccoons. And on our summer trips to Grand Isle or fall excursions to Cocodrie, the sheepshead aggressively ate a piece of shrimp or hermit crab on a jig head when the speckled trout wouldn’t cooperate, and they guaranteed that we had some fresh fish to go with our suppers of canned beans, and French bread.
Sure, you had to hack through some thick rib bones and tough scales to get a filet. But crabs are hard to clean, and I don’t know too many folks who consider boiled and steamed blue crabs to be “trash,” just because the meat is difficult to pick out.
Then, about 15 years ago, sheepshead started showing up on restaurant menus under the pseudonym “bay snapper.” Suddenly, a bunch of anglers who would never have kept an ugly, stubborn sheepshead were raving about how tasty their fish-of-the-day lunch special was.
Now, pretty much every restaurant in South Louisiana has sheepshead on the menu or as a fresh-fish special. I guess the cliché about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure applies.
Tasty Reputation Prompts Adapted Management
I’m often struck by how frequently recreational and commercial fishermen are pitted against each other over a handful of “popular” fish because they taste good or they fight hard or simply because they are easy to catch. How many fish like sheepshead, once considered less desirable by both recreational and commercial fishermen, are out there? How can fishing for these species lessen the animosity that has been built over fish like red snapper?
I’m also dumbfounded, at times, by the argument that states are not as equipped to manage commercial fisheries as the federal government, especially when states have responded to the increased popularity of sheepshead with adapted management for both recreational and commercial harvest. And still we don’t fight over sheepshead at state commission meetings like we do over red snapper at the federally directed Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council.
State fisheries agencies generally do a good job of conservatively managing commercial and recreational fishing, which is one of the reasons the TRCP and many of its sportfishing partners support the Modern Fish Act—because it would increase the role that states play in federal management and data collection for recreational fishing.
Cats, Carp, and Courtbouillon
Like sheepshead, there are other fish thought of as trash, simply by reputation. On a late-March trip to Grand Isle, my fishing buddies got to tie into a handful of gafftopsail catfish, another much-maligned, yet hard-tugging and good-eating saltwater predator. I kept the fish, despite some dirty looks, and I used the filets to make a catfish courtbouillon, a rich tomato-based stew my family ate on Good Friday.
Everyone said it was delicious. They had no idea they were eating trash, I guess.
Gafftops, unlike their cousins the hardhead catfish, aren’t bottom-dwelling scavengers. They strike lures as aggressively as redfish and speckled trout and fight every bit as hard. On a memorable day in late August a few years ago, several five-pound gafftops exploded on topwater plugs in the Grand Isle surf when I was aiming for specks. The surface boiled and my drag screamed as if a redfish or big trout had busted the bait. But when the fight was over, my friends looked in disgust at what was on the end of the line. Similar to the way sheepshead were looked at 30 years ago, some of my friends won’t even put a gafftop in the ice chest for fear of scorn at the cleaning table.
But the list of reformed trash fish is growing each year. Bonito were once only kept for cut bait and chum, but if the meat is taken care of, they are just as tasty as their blackfin tuna relatives. Even the dreaded invasive Asian carp is pretty tasty after being dredged in seasoned corn meal and dropped in hot grease. There are more than enough of them available for those who want to give them a taste.
Making the Most of Our Time on the Water
I’m not suggesting that I would give up on a good trout bite or a school of hungry redfish to chase down gafftops or throw chunks of hermit crabs at sheepshead. But, like many fishermen who have busy home- and work-lives, I like to catch something while I’m out there—I’m not going to turn down the opportunity to hook aggressive-striking, hard-pulling fish and keep a few of them for the grill or the fryer.
And I’m not suggesting that improving the management of popular species like red snapper or cobia is less important because there are other fish out there to catch. My point is that, too often, anglers fall into the trap of getting hung up on catching one fish or another, and it can lead to a less enjoyable time on the water if a particular season is closed or the target species doesn’t cooperate that day. It might be up to us to “dig in the trash” more often.
But as attitudes towards these fish evolve and change, it will be even more important that our system of federal fisheries management does not ignore recreational fishing—because restaurant trends will come and go, but the importance of predictable seasons to local outdoor recreation businesses will not.