Thursday, October 29, 2015


In the mid-Atlantic region, over the past half-dozen years, few fish have generated as much controversy as black sea bass.

Thanks to the hard work of federal fisheries managers, guided by the stock rebuilding requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, black sea bass, which were badly overfished not too long ago, have made a magnificent recovery.  The population currently stands just a bit above managers’ biomass target.

In addition, the 2011 year class was very large, and sent a big surge of fish into that population.

As a result, anglers are seeing and catching a lot of black sea bass, perhaps more than they have ever seen before.

That sounds like good news, and from a biological standpoint, it is.  However, the species' recent abundance, coupled with the fact that they are a structure-dependent species that congregates in large numbers around wrecks, rockpiles, making them easy to catch, has attracted a lot of angler attention, particularly as other popular targets, such as summer flounder, become harder to find.

That presents a real problem, particularly because the lack of a good stock assessment for the species forces managers to be extra cautious when setting annual catch limits.  

Lacking any reliable information that allows them to confidently calculate the fishing mortality rate or population size that will result in maximum sustainable yield, managers have settled on a “constant catch strategy” that is intended to keep landings steady without putting the health of the population at risk.

Unfortunately, it also caps harvest at far lower levels than the stock could probably stand if better data was available.  Thus, when the annual specifications were established at the August meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the Acceptable Biological Catch was set at just 5.5 million pounds. 

A little more than half of that may be caught by anglers, although when an allowance for dead discards in included, the recreational harvest limit was reduced to just 2.33 million pounds.

That’s a problem, given that landings were higher than that in four of the past five seasons, even though regulations were made more restrictive every time the harvest limit was exceeded.

It looks like the cycle of constantly tightening regulations isn’t going to end at any time soon; 2015 is far from over, and landings data is only available through August 31.  However, with one-third of the season left to run, recreational black sea bass landings were already nearly 2.5 million pounds, already exceeding the angling quota.

There is one bit of hope on the horizon.  A team of biologists has come up with a new approach to set annual catch limits for data-poor species such as black sea bass.  At its October meeting, the Mid-Atlantic Council, following the advice of its Science and Statistics Committee, approved the new approach and increased the Acceptable Biological Catch to 6.67 million pounds, and the recreational harvest limit to 2.82 million.

As of August 31, anglers hadn’t exceeded that new figure—yet.

However, in 2013, about 27% of total recreational sea bass landings occurred in the last four months of the year; last year, the proportion was even higher, at around 32%. 
If we split that down the middle and assume that the 2.5 million pounds landed by August 31 represents about 70% of the landings for 2015, black sea bass landings for this year should come in somewhere around 3.5 million pounds, roughly 25% above the 2016 landings limit.

That means that recreational regulations are going to have to be tightened again.

The question is, should all segments of the angling community suffer equal cuts, or should managers target what the data suggests are some very obvious abuses?

One of the biggest examples deals with compliance.

Here in New York, we have a 14-inch minimum size for black sea bass.  Early in the season, there are plenty of fish of that size—and larger—around, but as the artificial reefs off the inlets, along with the most popular wrecks and rockpiles, experience heavy fishing pressure, a lot of the larger fish are removed and much of what’s left falls far short of the minimum size.

At that point, there’s a real temptation to put undersized fish in the cooler, and a lot of folks apparently succumb.

As part of the catch sampling process, surveyors for the National Marine Fisheries Service measure the size of fish caught by anglers.  So far this season, it turns out that 35% of the black sea bass measured by NMFS surveyors in New York were undersized.

That’s pretty bad.

But the percentage of undersized fish wasn’t consistent across the angling community.  It varied considerably by mode.  About 16% of the black sea bass that were caught by private boat anglers and measured by NMFS surveyors were below legal size.  Charter boat fishermen had a far more criminal bent; the majority of their fish—over 57%--were illegally small.  And party boat fishermen behaved a little bit worse, with over 63% of the fish measured by NMFS surveyors falling below the minimum size.

To be fair, the sample size was small, and the numbers might have been different if more fish were measured, but it is not realistic to believe that some pattern of illegal harvest would not still be there.

And what makes it worse is that there’s pretty good evidence that the party boats’ landings are badly undercounted. 

NMFS estimates that fewer than 10,000 black sea bass were landed by New York party boats during July and August of 2015.  I found that hard to believe, for just where I fish off Fire Island Inlet, I see party boats constantly hovering over the reefs and wrecks where black sea bass are found.  So I did a little research, looking at the fishing reports published by the two party boats belonging to the Laura Lee fleet out of Captree, New York.  

Those boats report on their web page that, by themselves, they harvested 12,580 black sea bass between July 15 and August 31 of this year, about 26% more fish than NMFS reported landed by the entire New York party boat fleet during that time

So based on the information available, the party boat sector chronically harvests undersized fish, while its landings appear substantially underreported; its harvest of illegal black sea bass is probably much higher than the NMFS figures suggest.  Yet the same sector that, when each year’s regulations are set, always calls out for special consideration.  This year, New York agreed to increase the bag limit by 25% in November and December, when most private boats are laid up for the winter and for-hire boats are the primary participants in the fishery.

In an environment of increased regulation, it would be appropriate to first end such preferential treatment, and then craft regulations that place a greater burden on those who fail to follow the rules.

But even following the regulations can lead to excessive harvest, if the rules themselves don't make sense.

NMFS data shows that over 95% of the black sea bass harvested by anglers in 2014 were landed between Massachusetts and New Jersey; a similar percentage will probably be landed in the same region this year.  So when harvest reductions were put in place for 2015, it was those states that had to tighten their regulations.

All of the states between Massachusetts and New York adopted a 14-inch minimum size limit in order to constrain landings.  While it didn’t work all that well at reducing harvest, at least landings didn’t go up.

That was not the case in New Jersey, which maintained a 12 ½-inch size limit and tried to achieve the mandated reduction with a complicated combination of season closures and changing bag limits.  It didn't work.  Instead of reducing recreational landings by 33%, New Jersey actually saw them increase by nearly 21% during through August 31—even though the season closed on July 31, and didn’t open up again until the end of October.

More than 40% of those landings were composed of fish between 12 and 14 inches long, so it’s easy to argue that if New Jersey had adopted the same 14-inch minimum size as its northern neighbors, it would not have exceeded last year’s harvest, and might actually have come somewhat close to achieving the required reduction.

Thus, if more restrictive regulations are required next year, it would clearly be inequitable for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is responsible for approving state plans, to require the states between Massachusetts and New York, which at least tried to meaningfully reduce their harvest, to make the same sort of reduction required of New Jersey, which insisted on keeping the smallest minimum size and highest bag limit (for most of the year) of any northeastern state.

New regulations should have the greatest impact on the folks creating the problems. 

Fisheries managers should tailor any new rules to rein in the states and the sectors that abuse the system, and make things hard for us all.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


I read a recent piece in Field & Stream that that didn’t deal with fisheries management.  But it included one line that said

“Conservation isn’t an occasional fight—it’s an everyday battle.”
That line is worth reading, because it is true.

On any given day, at every given hour, someone is threatening the natural resources that anglers (and hunters, hikers and birders as well) rely on for their enjoyment. 

To give you an idea just how severe the threat is, just consider this blog.  I’ve written nearly 200 separate posts just describing threats to marine fish.  Twice a week, since the early days of 2014, I’ve discussed threats to species as diverse as tarpon and tautog, red drum and black sea bass, Gulf of Mexico red snapper and Gulf of Maine cod.

And I never have problems coming up with new topics,
because there’s a lot going on, and too little of it is good.

Here in the northeast, the collapse of cod stocks in both the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Banks gets most of the news. 

But cod represent just two of the twenty stocks in the groundfish complex. 

Of the entire complex, only seven stocks are neither overfished nor subject to overfishing.  Out of the remaining thirteen, eleven are overfished, meaning that current abundance is less than half of the biomass needed to produce maximum sustainable yield; in some cases, abundance is less than 10% of such threshold biomass.  The remaining two aren’t necessarily at healthier population levels; instead, there is so little data that their status is unknown.

Five groundfish stocks are still subject to overfishing, which is inexcusable since, mechanically, it’s a lot easier to stop fishermen from killing too many fish than it is to rebuild the stocks after the damage is done.  However, doing so takes a certain amount of moral courage and the will to do the right thing; both characteristics have been lacking on the New England Fishery Management Council for the past four decades or so.  

But if groundfish get all of the news, they’re not the only fish needing some help.

Inshore, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission delayed for years before finally taking action to protect the striped bass stock from overfishing.  This season, anglers throughout the striper coast are reporting some of the slowest fishing in years; hopefully, strong spawns in 2011 and 2015 will bolster the population a bit, if managers can keep those year classes alive long enough to become a significant part of the spawning stock.

Yet striped bass are doing well compared to some other once-popular recreational species.  The weakfish population is near historic lows, while tautog, once a mainstay of the fall recreational fishery, has been overfished for more than two decades, and the population is low. 

The press has already done a pretty good job of reporting the decline of fish such as dusky sharks, white and blue marlin and bluefin tuna, all victims of the pelagic longline fleet.

Similar problems exist on every coast.

In the southeast, a recreational fishing industry trying to increase its red snapper kill is threatening to overthrow a successful rebuilding effort, and is willing to do serious harm to the entire federal fisheries management system if that’s what it takes to get the job done.

On the Pacific coast, salmon and steelhead, already denied access to many of their historic spawning grounds by dams built in their way, are further threatened by farmers and ranchers who covet the little water flowing through drought-stricken rivers.  They are completely willing to usurp that water for their own uses and let the salmon runs die.

Even in Alaska, salmon are threatened, this time by politicians in the United States Congress who would override the Environmental Protection Agency’s actions to prevent a mine from dumping toxic water and tailings into the pristine waters of the rivers that feed Bristol Bay.

So those who rail against empty oceans, and want generations yet to be born to know an abundance of life, can never afford to take a break and step away from the fight.  

Because, every day, the battle goes on.

At times, it seems overwhelming.  The folks doing harm have most of the money, which they use to buy political support and sway public opinion.  In what is probably the most important fight going on at the moment, the recreational fishing industry is trying to weaken the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in the federal waters of the United States.  Both the American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, and the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association, which represents boat builders and allied trades, have taken leading roles in the effort to undercut the fisheries management process.

How are mere anglers supposed to stand up to such folks?

Well, the same way that we'd eat an elephant—we do it one bite at a time.

Striped bass aren’t doing too well at the moment, but they’d be doing far worse if anglers throughout their range hadn’t banded together and sent a clear message that something was wrong.  

Even after ASMFC reduced bass landings, there was a strong effort made by the party and charter boat crowd, which wanted to increase their kill, and sought to take two fish per person instead of just one.  It was hard to defeat their efforts, but thanks to hard-working anglers and responsible fisheries managers in several states (including my own), the striped bass eventually won.

Here in New York, industry efforts to increase landings of badly depleted winter flounder were also turned back.

Elsewhere along the coast, similar victories have also occurred, so yes, it can be done, so long as we never let our vigilance waiver, and never let our  efforts flag.

The only other option is to give up and lose, and that’s not a viable option.

For while some stocks may recover on some latter day, in other cases, populations are so low that stocks are at risk of extirpation.

And that’s just not acceptable, for as noted by naturalist William Beebe, who explored the ocean through the windows of his bathysphere in the first half of the 20th Century,

“The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression is destroyed; a vanished harmony  may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”
And that's why the battle is worth it, even if it means fighting it day after day.

For without our efforts, some of the things that we value may be forever lost to the world. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015


If you’re not an angler who fishes the coast somewhere between Virginia and Massachusetts, you may never have heard of a tautog.
Where I live on Long Island, we usually call them “blackfish,” which pretty well describes their appearance, although it doesn’t say anything about their white chin and dirty-white belly, or the thick, sturdy buck teeth that they use to scrape mussels and barnacles off the sides of rocks and the hulls of sunken wrecks.
Back in the ‘60s, when I was a boy, we caught plenty of tautog in the rock-studded waters of Long Island Sound. Twenty years later, after I moved to Long Island’s South Shore, rocks were scarce, but I could still take plenty of blackfish, up to 5 pounds or more, by fishing around the pilings of a local bridge.
I can’t do that anymore, as the tautog population has declined sharply in the past thirty years. Part of that decline can be attributed to the insatiable demand for small tautog coming out of the live fish market that thrives in many urban centers along the East Coast, which has given rise to a substantial illegal harvest of undersized fish.
Legal commercial harvest also spiked. Between 1950 and 1974, reported commercial tautog landings averaged well under 200,000 pounds per year. However, beginning in 1975, such landings began ramping up quickly, peaking at 1,157,200 pounds in 1987 and exceeding the million-pound mark in five of the six years between 1987 and 1992.
Recreational landings also increased during the 1980s. However, it is difficult to compare that increase to the increase in commercial landings, as there was no regular estimate of recreational harvest prior to 1981. It is also impossible to say how many fish caught by “recreational” fishermen were illicitly sold; considering some arrests made by conservation officers, that number may be very large.
At any rate, the most recent benchmark stock assessment stated that “harvest levels were unsustainable” during that time, so the tautog’s decline is not surprising.
Managers’ efforts to rebuild the stock, however, have been surprisingly ineffective.
Primary responsibility for managing tautog belongs to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which released itsFishery Management Plan for Tautog in March 1996. With respect to overfishing,
“The plan defines overfishing as a rate of fishing exceeding the natural mortality rate (M=0.15). This overfishing definition is consistent with the slow growth and long lifespan of this species. In addition, this conservative reference point is warranted given the uncertainty in stock structure and in the spawning biomass required to maintain at least average recruitment.”
However, having once defined “overfishing,” ASMFC’s Tautog Management Board did little to end it.
ASMFC is not bound by the National Standards included in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act(Magnuson-Stevens), which require federal regulators to adopt “Conservation measures [which] shall prevent overfishing…” There is no requirement that ASMFC ever end overfishing at all.
And, in the case of tautog, it didn’t. Instead of requiring the fishing mortality rate to be reduced to 0.15 right away, it decided to let overfishing continue for a couple of years, until it would finally be ended three years later. [NOTE: The fishing mortality rate is a variable used in population models, which does not intuitively correspond to data such as number of fish, percentage of fish harvested, etc. For purposes of this discussion, it is sufficient to know that the higher the mortality rate, the more fish removed from the population.]
As things turned out, it didn’t happen three years later either.
A recent Public Information Document, issued by ASMFC as it considers new management measures, tells the tale.
In 1998, the mandate to reduce fishing mortality to 0.15 was put off for a year, to 2000. In 1999, it was deferred to 2002.
The transcript of the February 2002 Tautog Management Board meeting reveals that, at the close of 2001, fishing mortality was still estimated to be 0.41, not even close to the 0.15 target. So the Management Board began looking at new management options. They included continued attempts to reduce fishing mortality to 0.15, replacing the fishing mortality rate target with a spawning stock biomass (SSB) target equal to 40% of an unfished stock, and maintaining the status quo.
Biologists advising the Management Board analyzed the likely impacts of each of the options, and noted that such analysis showed “the status quo and the F-40 percent SSB underperforming the other options.”
However, many Management Board members were more concerned with short-term economic impacts rather than the long-term health of the stock. The comments of John Connell of New Jersey, although longer than most, were typical.
“…New Jersey has taken a 60 percent reduction based upon our historical fishery. We’ve already taken a 60 percent reduction.
“To add an additional 63 percent we feel would be untenable…
“There is a great deal of concern about the flawed [recreational landings] data that is going to definitely lead us into a non-directed fishery. If we have to take the reductions, we’ll be lucky if we have a one-fish bag…
“The anecdotal information we have is that [the stock assessment] doesn’t reflect what is going on in the fishery. There’s a lot of fish out there.
“In addition, we have grave concern here in New Jersey that we have already eliminated subsistence fishermen from docks and piers because of our size limits. Now, because of bag limits that are going to be implemented on the water, we’re even going to eliminate them from that fishery.
“People who depend on bringing fish home are certainly not going to pay to go out fishing, whether it’s on their own boat or somebody else’s boat if they can only bring one fish back…
“An additional concern that we now have, when we look at these further reductions, is the socioeconomic issues that will be impacted upon our bait people, our party/charter boat people, because we know darned well…that there’s going to be reductions in the scup fishery which we substituted for the tautog fishery last year…”
The Management Board eventually decided, by a wide margin, to adopt the “underperforming” SSB-based reference point, which would maintain the fishing mortality rate at 0.29 and so perpetuate overfishing.
Predictably, tautog remained scarce. Finally, in the spring of 2011, ASMFC adopted a new Addendum VI to the Tautog Management Plan, which—fully fifteen years later—reiterated the need for the same 0.15 fishing mortality rate that was proposed in the 1996 Fishery Management Plan for Tautog.
What Addendum VI did not include was any sort of annual catch limit for either the commercial or recreational sectors. It only imposed a “soft” cap based on the fishing mortality rate, and contained no provision to hold either the commercial or recreational sector accountable should that fishing mortality rate be exceeded.
Thus, ASMFC’s Public Information Document revealed that at the end of 2013, seventeen years after ASMFC recognized the need to reduce fishing mortality to 0.15, fishing mortality still stood at 0.30, exactly twice the permissible rate.
No catch limits, no accountability, no end to overfishing. Over the years, ASMFC has managed tautog very badly.
The Public Information Document lays it all out, and it seems even worse when you see it on paper.
This post first appeared in From the Waterfront, the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.  From the Waterfront regularly publishes the thoughts and observations of fishermen on every coast of the United States, and may be found at

Sunday, October 18, 2015


The fish, which may also be the largest tarpon ever caught in the United States, eclipsed the previous, 22-year-old state record of 230 pounds.

The successful angler and a friend, who was with him on the water that day, are pictured in a local paper flashing “Number One” signs to the camera as the photo was taken.  They’re standing on either side of the dead fish, which appears to be hanging on a scale, and appear very pleased with what they accomplished that day.

I’d have been very pleased with a fish like that, too—right up to the time that somebody reached out and stuck a gaff in the thing.

After that, the whole day would seem like a waste.

Tarpon just aren’t viewed as a food fish, and so there's absolutely no reason to kill them.   Sure, like a lot of things that swim, walk or fly, they can be eaten, and actually are eaten in a few places where food’s hard to come by, but it’s pretty likely that after the photo session was done, that record fish was hauled down off its rope, trucked off to a landfill and left for the flies to enjoy.

Why not just let it go?

That’s what most tarpon fishermen do these days.  

In Florida, you need an expensive, hard-to-get permit to kill a tarpon.  Even with the permit, you’re allowed to kill just one fish per year, and only if that one is a potential world record.  The state figured out that taking a bunch of big, inedible fish out of the water and killing them just for photos isn't nearly as good for the tourism business as keeping those fish alive in the water where the tourists can catch them again and again.

State regulators in Louisiana haven’t figured that out yet, and let folks kill as many tarpon, regardless of size, as they care to cart to a dumpster, bury in the back yard or dump back out at sea. 

And the fishermen apparently do kill their share.  

The same article that announced the new Louisiana record fish mentioned a “[l]egendary Louisiana tarpon angler” who managed to kill fish of 219.5 and 228.81 pounds (and who knows how many others) over the years.  I followed a link in the article to that “legendary tarpon angler’s” website, and found more than enough photos of tarpon hanging from scales or lying on the decks of various boats, apparently expired.

And that seemed even more pointless.  Even if I don’t like the idea of killing a fish just for a state record, I can understand it; being top-of-the-heap in any endeavor is a source of pride.  But killing a fish for nothing more than a photo and a few minutes of bragging back at the bar goes beyond the extremes of excusable conduct.

Maybe it was more understandable back in the day, when fish seemed abundant and anglers were few.  Today, according to the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory at The University of Southern Mississippi, which refers to information provided by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature,

“There has been no formal stock assessment of tarpon in any portion of the species’ range; however, multiple lines of evidence suggest that populations of Atlantic tarpon appear to have declined from historic levels throughout their range.  This species is currently listed as Vulnerable…”

Thus, there is reason to manage tarpon conservatively, with the hope of ending any decline and perhaps rebuilding the population to something closer to the historical norm.  In the Gulf, Florida, Texas and Alabama have already adopted moderately to extremely restrictive restrictions on landings to help achieve such goals. 

That’s a good thing, since tarpon are slow to mature and live a long time.  The Gulf Coast Research Laboratory says that

“At seven to thirteen years of age, and a length of about 30 to 49 inches, tarpon become sexually mature and their growth rate slows…Tarpon may live as long as 55 years.”

Fish with that sort of life history are particularly vulnerable to excessive fishing effort, and when the population declines, are particularly difficult to restore.  One can only wonder how old the big fish killed off Louisiana might have been, and how killing such big females affects the health of the population.

It’s not hard to guess that the effect isn’t good.

And what’s killed off Louisiana matters to everyone, since the laboratory also states that

“Tarpon are highly migratory…fish from Texas and elsewhere in the Gulf commonly range as far as the Caribbean and the east coast of the U.S. as far north as Virginia.  Tarpon that winter in Florida and Mexico regularly move along the northern Gulf of Mexico coastline…during summer,”

The casual killing of tarpon off Louisiana, where even SCUBA divers are allowed to poke holes in the big fish just for entertainment, isn’t merely distasteful; it can contribute to declining tarpon stocks throughout the United States and Central America. 

However, it is, unfortunately, not the only place in this country, let alone elsewhere, where that sort of waste takes place.

And tarpon aren’t the only victims.

All along the Atlantic seaboard, there are tournaments every season which see fish, particularly sharks and marlin, weighed in at the scales and then unceremoniously hauled off to a dumpster.  Fortunately, such practices aren’t quite as prevalent as they once were. 

On the other hand, like tarpon, neither sharks nor marlin are anywhere near as prevalent as they once were, either.

Maybe there is some connection…

Here on New York’s Long Island, we’ve lost winter flounder and whiting (silver hake), along with most of our cod, tautog and weakfish.  Fishing for tuna is not what it once was, and our inshore white marlin are gone.  Atlantic mackerel no longer swarm up the coast in the spring.

But after we saw striped bass collapse, and then saw fisheries managers strive to rebuild them, anglers stood up and said “Not again!” when abundance began to decline once again.

We’ve learned how easily fish stocks can decline, and how hard it is to rebuild them.  Anglers on other shores can tell the same tales; only the names of the fish will be different.

Thus, it is difficult to understand why fishermen will still kill a tarpon, a marlin or anything else, just for a photo and some fleeting fame.

After all of the problems we’ve seen with our fish stocks, and after how hard we’ve struggled to rebuild just a few, you’d think that folks would know better by now.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


There’s encouraging news coming out of Maryland.

The state’s Department of Natural Resources recently announced that this year’s striped bass spawn was very successful.   The young-of-the-year index for 2015, which will become part of a data set that extends back, unbroken, nearly 60 years, was 24.2, twice the long-term average of 11.9 and the eighth-highest estimate in the entire time series.

For many of us, who have followed the striper’s trials and tribulations over decades of time, the news was less of a surprise than a relief.  Last winter was cold, only slowly transitioning into a cool and wet spring.  Those are precisely the conditions that normally result in better-than-average spawning success.

However, the previous winter was also cold, if just a little drier, and the index came in at just 11.02, which Maryland managers called a “nearly” average figure that still represented “a healthy level of reproduction.”

Thus, when this year’s above-average spawn was announced, it reassured us all that the world was, in fact, still working as it should.

Yet to properly understand the 2015 young-of-the-year figure, it must be put into context.  It was twice the long-term average, but exactly what does that mean?

If one looks at the entire time series, it quickly becomes obvious that most striped bass spawns are below average; of the 59 years covered by the Maryland survey, only 19—roughly one-third—produced young-of-the-year figures above the long-term average, although a few more came pretty close.

Thus, it’s pretty clear that striped bass abundance, as opposed to mere striped bass survival, is driven by the above-average year classes.  With that in mind, where does the 2015 year class fit in?

While it was a very good year class, it is nowhere near as large as some of the dominant year classes that were produced in the recent past.  It is far smaller than the 1996 year class which, at 59.39, was the largest ever recorded.  It is also only half the size of the 2001 year class, which returned an index of 50.75.

The 2015 year class was the second-largest year class of the past decade; over the course of those ten years, only three year classes could be called above-average, 2011 (34.58), 2015 (24.20) and 2007 (13.39).  The other seven were all below the long-term average, and included the lowest young-of-the-year index ever recorded, a dismal 0.89 in 2012.

The 2015s should improve the prospects for striped bass anglers, beginning in 2021 or 2022 (except in Chesapeake Bay, where both recreational and commercial fishermen primarily target young males and immature females; there, the impact of the 2015 year class will start to be felt around 2018).

However, anglers shouldn’t expect a return to the kind of fishing that we knew in the early years of this 21st Century.  In the ten years between 1992 and 2001, there were five above-average year classes, and the three largest of those, 1996 (59.39), 2001 (50.75) and 1993 (39.76), dwarfed the biggest year classes of the past decade.  In fact, the average of the young-of-the-year indices for those ten years was 23.69, nearly as high as the “robust” 2105 figure (the average for the past ten years is a somewhat sub-par 11.07).

So the 2015 spawn is going to make things better, but it can only improve things so much…

Even so, we shouldn’t be surprised to if some members of the Atlantic States Marine Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board point to the 2015 numbers as proof that the stock is completely healthy and that last year’s harvest reductions weren’t really needed.

In particular, I expect the same Commissioner who argued that

“It seems I’ve been here over the years doing the same thing.  We have been looking at some figures for a period of time and then decided we’re going to do a drastic cut.  Two years later they’re finding out that we didn’t need the drastic cuts and had to change the regulations in New Jersey again”
to begin claiming that he was right and that the entire conservation effort was unjustified.

Of course, nothing can be farther from the truth.

We should never forget the current state of the stock.  

Although no recent assessment update has been performed (a report on the state of the stock as of the close of 2014 will probably be presented at next month’s Striped Bass Management Board meeting), the 2013 Update of the Striped Bass Stock Assessment Using Final 2012 Data predicted that the female spawning stock biomass would probably fall below the "overfished" threshold this year. 

Thus, the large 2015 year class won’t appear as a spike in an already healthy population; instead, it will merely serve to fill some of the hole in the stock that fishermen, with the consent of ASMFC, have dug in recent years.

We should also remember that the 2015 year class, as large as it is, is still substantially smaller than the 1970 year class which, at 30.52, was the last big year class before the stock began its historic collapse just a few years later.

So as good as the news this week was, we can’t let it seduce us.  There was a good spawn in 2015, but that doesn’t mean that we can relax our vigilance and increase the kill.

Instead, we must stay the course, and keep fishing mortality under the target while giving the spawning stock time to produce additional above-average year classes, and eventually climb back to its biomass target.

There will be good news and bad news, progress and setbacks.  But provided that managers keep their eye on the ball and don’t get distracted, we can have better striped bass fishing not just in a few years, but for the foreseeable future as well.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for winter flounder.  They were the fish that my parents and I caught when I was young, the fish that made me an angler even before I entered grade school.

They were the fish that I caught with my friends when we walked down to the docks on days off from school, and then later, when we grew just a little older, from the first boats that we ran by ourselves.

They were the fish that I caught with my wife, before and after we married, and that we used to celebrate the coming of spring over the course of many years.

They were the fish that was always around if you knew where to catch them, that could always be counted on to provide a meal.

We caught them to excess back in the day, when bringing home a pail full of flounder was considered the norm, and a bulging burlap feed sack or a bushel basket loaded right to the rim was nothing abnormal when fishing was good.

Far too many flounder were wasted in those days gone by, fed to tomato plants rather than people when cleaning the fish grew overly onerous, or just tossed in the garbage at some point in time after freezer burn set in.

And as too often happens when folks waste what they have, the population crashed, doomed by overharvest and the fishing industry’s incessant fight against rules that might let it rebuild.

The piece was written in the same rosy tones that are typical for articles of its kind.  It announced that

“Winter flounder, aka blackbacks, have made an amazing comeback in the waters of Boston Harbor, marking a return to the type of fishing that drew busloads of anglers from as far away as New York in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Overfishing and pollution once decimated the fishery, but tighter regulation on inshore gill-netting and improvements to Boston’s sewage management system have spawned a return to the glory days of flounder fishing…”
It all sounds pretty wonderful.  And it would be, if it only were true.

Let me start out by saying that the winter flounder angling around Boston Harbor is probably the best flounder fishing to be found anywhere on the coast.

But let me finish up by saying that, compared to the sort of fishing that we saw back in the 1970s, it’s still not very good.

Yes, I know that statement contradicts a quote in the Sport Fishing article, in which Barry Gibson, a charter boat captain and former magazine editor who grew up in the region, insists that

“flounder fishing today is every bit as productive as it was 35 years ago.”
But I was alive and fishing back in the ‘70s, too.  Grew up in New England, graduated from a Massachusetts college in ’76 and worked in a tackle shop through the summer of ’78, and anyone who says that the fishing today matches Quincy (where you rented a boat to fish Boston Harbor) back in those years probably should get a checkup for Alzheimer’s disease.

Right now, the bag limit for Gulf of Maine winter flounder in Massachusetts is 8 fish, with a 12-inch minimum size.  Back in the ‘70s, there was no bag or size limit for winter flounder in New York or New Jersey, and catching just 8 would be a very bad day.  

In fact, ten years ago, when I quit fishing for winter flounder here on Long Island because the stock was showing signs of collapse, I averaged 10 fish—myself—per trip, so bringing home a mere 8 fish wouldn’t even be close to a good day by traditional New York standards.

For Quincy, back then, it would be pretty awful.

Folks didn't ride buses for four hours, each way, just to bring home 8 flounders for dinner.

Sport Fishing Magazine may say that winter flounder fishing has returned to its former quality up around Boston, but the folks who live there know better.  About two years ago, the Telegram, a local newspaper, addressed the situation, and what it reported is a lot closer to the truth.

“Boston Harbor’s winter flounder are decreasing in number and size…
“As [Director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, Paul] Diodati’s data clearly reveals, the peak of recreational and commercial fishing harvests was back in 1982.  Since then, state water harvests have precipitously declined, in part because of combined overfishing from both commercial and recreational fishermen.
“In fact, recreational fishermen took more flounder than commercial fishermen during two years of the 1980s decline.  Surprisingly, the overwhelmingly beneficial cleanup of Boston Harbor, as well as other environmental changes, may have been even more significant factors in the area’s diminishing flounder fishing.
“The lessening of sewage discharge and cessation of sludge dumping in Boston Harbor began in 1991…The result of these anti-pollution measures was a greater than 90 percent decrease in organic material in the harbor’s bottom sediments.  That drop in pollution counterintuitively coincided with a precipitous drop in winter flounder populations.
“With less organic matter to feed on, tiny organisms like amphipods and polychaetes—species that constitute a critical amount of flounder food—declined significantly.  Sewage, it turns out, is good for benthic infauna, the basis for much inshore fish production and growth.
“Diodati notes that ‘While Boston Harbor appears to be a healthier system for winter flounder to reside in, as evidenced by a greatly decreased prevalence of skin ulcers and liver disease, their prey has been lowered significantly.  This likely means that Boston Harbor can no longer support the level of winter flounder abundance seen from 1960-1990.’ [emphasis added]”
We can argue about the beneficial aspects of sewage in harbor waters, and reasonable people may very well find other reasons for the Boston Harbor flounders’ decline.

However, what local folks, and local fishery managers, seem to agree on is that the decline is fact, and that Boston Harbor’s flounder abundance has “precipitously declined.”  

We shouldn’t be arguing about that.

So while there’s nothing wrong with going up to Boston Harbor and taking home a few flounder, while enjoying the best winter flounder fishing that remains anywhere along the coast, there is something wrong—very wrong—about a magazine heralding what is historically pretty slow fishing as “a return to the glory days.”

It’s wrong because it encourages the “shifting baseline syndrome.”  That was first described, with respect to fisheries, by biologist Daniel Pauley in “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries,” where he wrote

“this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes.  When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline.  The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.”
What is true of fisheries scientists is true of fishermen as well; anglers who didn’t know Quincy in the ‘70s and ‘80s may well think that today’s fishing is, in fact, good.

And that is what makes articles such as the one in Sport Fishing so insidiously dangerous. 

While writers may feel that they need to strike a rah-rah, the-good-times-are-back sort of pose to make readers want to go fishing (and buy their advertisers’ goods), by doing so they create the false impression that today’s fishing is as good as it gets, and that there is no reason to try to make things any better.

By encouraging anglers to let their baselines shift, and believe that poor-to-mediocre fishing is in fact very good, writers and publishers merely help to assure that angling in the future will be far less rewarding, and so less enjoyable, than it was in the past, and help pave the way for the sport’s decline and perhaps its demise.

Instead, publications would do their readers--and in the long run, themselves--a far better service if, while encouraging them to make the most of what they have today, they also remind them of what they have lost, and encourage them to work to recover depleted stocks so that they may enjoy a far more abundant tomorrow.