Thursday, December 4, 2014


Managing fish is a tough thing to do.

They live in an alien world that makes them hard to count with any sort of accuracy.  Countless factors, many still unknown, affect their survival, their movements and their spawning success.

Then there are the people who catch those fish, legally and illegally.  Some of their catch is easy to count, particularly that portion attributable to the relatively small number of commercial fishermen, who are generally required to report their harvest in near real time.  But the rest of the catch, the part that’s caught by hundreds of thousands, and often millions, of individual anglers who land only a few fish each, in countless ports scattered along hundreds of miles of coast, can only be estimated.

And once you have some idea who those people are, you have to design regulations  that will keep them from killing too many fish, without knowing exactly how many of them will actually go fishing, how many times they will go or what they will fish for each time they set out.

Add a species of fish with an unusual life history and without a valid stock assessment, and what do you get?

If you manage fish in along the mid-Atlantic coast, you get the black sea bass.

Next week, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will meet in a joint session, to propose regulations governing recreational black sea bass fishing in 2015.

It is likely to be a tense and difficult meeting.

In many ways, black sea bass represent a fisheries management success story.  The stock has been fully recovered, and fishermen have been catching more and larger sea bass than they have caught in a very long time.

That’s good.

But it’s also bad, because it leads to what Dick Brame, a long-time fisheries advocate who works for the Coastal Conservation Association, calls the “Bubba Effect.”

That is, a guy goes out and catches a bunch of fish, and when he comes back from the trip, he tells his buddy Bubba all about it.  So Bubba goes out and catches his own bunch of fish, comes home and calls his friends, and…

In the end, there are a lot more people chasing that kind of fish, just because there are a lot of them around and word of good fishing got out.  Managers didn’t expect such an increase in effort, catches soar far beyond what was expected and overfishing occurs.

So the next year, the managers tighten up the regulations to prevent overfishing from occurring again, and the anglers complain that there are so many fish around that they can’t keep them off their hooks, yet the managers are telling them to throw most of them back.

That’s pretty much what’s been happening with black sea bass for the past couple of years, and it looks like it’s going to happen, perhaps on an even larger scale, once again.  

Black sea bass have become so abundant that party boats that once fished only for fluke all summer long are now regularly scheduling sea bass trips in June, July and August, and private boats are doing much the same thing.

I’ve fished for black sea bass for quite a few years, and often had wrecks all to myself.  Now, I’m just about guaranteed to have company every time I go out, even when I fish on wrecks that lie a long way from the inlet.

The effort shift from fluke to black sea bass is striking and 
real; it probably doesn’t help that a lot of anglers have learned that they can have the best of both worlds if they drift their fluke baits close to the wrecks that the sea bass call home.

The upshot is that, as a result of the black sea bass’ newfound popularity, the National Marine Fisheries Service has estimated that anglers exceeded their Annual Catch Limit by nearly 30 percent in 2014.  All of the overage can be attributed to high landings levels in the states between Massachusetts and New Jersey.

So when the Council and ASMFC meet next week, they’re going to be looking at some pretty restrictive regulations in order to get rid of that overage.  Right now, it appears that regulations won’t change in federal waters or in state waters between Delaware and North Carolina. 

But in the states that contributed to the overage, the 2015 rules are going to hit pretty hard.  Right now, it’s not completely clear what those rules might be, but if the states fail to put in needed reductions, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Monitoring Committee is recommending coastwide rules that include a 3-fish bag limit, 14-inch minimum size and a season that runs only from July 15 to September 15.

That’s harsh, but if it’s any solace, think how much worse things would have been if the party boats had gotten their way last August, and the Council had allowed them to fish for black sea bass in January and February.  Since the catch for that special winter for-hire season was going to be deducted from what we could land during the regular black sea bass season, the rest of us might not have had any black sea bass season at all…

Even so, we can expect the party boats to howl when the new regulations are proposed.

We can already imagine what the complaints will be as the for-hires, their lawyers and the organizations that shill for the recreational fishing industry attack the science, the scientists and federal fisheries laws, claim that catch data is “fatally flawed” and, most particularly, ask why regulations need to be so restrictive when, out on the water, black sea bass seem to be everywhere.

The truth is, there really are a lot of black sea bass out there.

More particularly, there are a lot of black sea bass from the dominant 2011 year class out there, and those fish are going to be fully recruited into the fishery in 2015.

Not too long ago, I spoke with a biologist who was a member of the Monitoring Committee.  We were talking about black sea bass, and he told me that, in any year, the biggest factor that determines whether a big year class will be produced isn’t the initial spawning success, but rather whether water conditions out on the edge of the continental shelf, where the young-of-the-year fish spend their first winter, are conducive to the young fish’s survival.

In the warm winter of 2011-2012, conditions must have been pretty good, because 2011 produced a dominant year class.  

However, the Monitoring Committee report includes the following language

“The Committee notes that the 2011 year class of black sea bass is much larger than any other recent year class, and is contributing significantly to high availability in the northern states.  There has been no indication of high recruitment after 2011, and the Committee expects the 2011 year class to be fully recruited to the fishery by the spring of 2015.  The Committee noted that this year class is currently being fished down quickly, with no similarly large year classes coming in behind it.  [emphasis added]”
That leaves fishery managers impaled on the horns of a very large dilemma once the complaints start coming in.

Managers could yield to the folks who seek to increase short-term landings.  They can approach the Council’s Science and Statistics Committee, which sets the upper limit on harvest, and ask the SSC to consider replacing its current “constant harvest” management approach with something that will permit more of the 2011 year class to be killed. 

If the SSC agrees, 2015 regulations need not be as severe.

However, since the stock hasn’t produced a large year class since 2011, killing more fish now will merely be putting off the pain for a few years; if the 2011 year class is fished down, and no new year class comes in from behind to replace it, harsh regulations are going to be imposed anyway.  

And, by that time, the 2011 year class may be reduced so far that, even with strict regulation, the stock may struggle a while before it can recover.

On the other hand, managers can opt to protect the future of the fishery, and impose tough regulations today in the hope that there will still be enough fish remaining to produce a strong new year class a few years from now.  

However, if managers take that route, there’s no doubt that they will be subject to considerable vitriol by those people and organizations that consider large current harvests more important than the long-term health of fish populations.

It’s a no-win situation for fishery managers. 

Someone will criticize them no matter what they decide.

But I suspect that criticism will be a lot easier to take if they know in their hearts that they did the right thing, and guaranteed the black sea bass’ future.

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