Thursday, January 28, 2016
TIME TO TONE DOWN THE RHETORIC ON BLACK SEA BASS
Any way you look at it, 2016’s black sea bass regulations are going to be a lot tougher than last year’s.
That won’t be true everywhere; states between Delaware and North Carolina, which account for a very small proportion of the catch, probably will not see any change, but at the northern part of the species’ range, the cuts will be pretty severe.
That’s because we caught a lot of black sea bass last year.
Sure, there seemed to be a lot around, particularly from eastern Long Island up into New England, where a lot of natural hard bottom held plenty of fish right through the fall. On the South Shore of Long Island, where I spend most of my time, there were plenty of sea bass available when the season opened on July 15, but they got hit pretty hard; with legal fluke hard to come by, a lot of effort shifted over to the reefs and wrecks. It didn’t take long before the most popular pieces got picked over pretty badly, and decent fish became much harder to come by.
People don’t like to hear that, and keep trying to claim that the National Marine Fisheries Services’ estimates of recreational landings are wrong. To an extent, I think that they’re right, but they should be happy that NMFS doesn’t agree; the estimates of party boat landings seem to grossly undercount the actual landings. As an example of that, I point to the last season’s Wave 4 (July-August) party boat estimate for New York. NMFS says that all of the party boats in the state landed fewer than 10,000 black sea bass during that period, yet the web page of just two party boats operating out of Captree State Park claim landings of 12,580 during the same period.
I fish the same waters that those party boats do, and from what I’ve seen, their numbers are probably right.
If NMFS had more accurate numbers, the cutbacks would probably be a lot worse.
Still, the proposed 23% reduction in harvest will hit pretty hard. For example, in 2015, New York had a 14-inch minimum size, 8 fish bag limit (10 in November-December) and a season that ran from July 15 through the end of the year. 2016 regulations haven’t yet been adopted, but some of the preliminary possibilities include the same 14-inch size limit, but either a) a 4-fish bag limit and a season that runs from July 15-October 21, b) a 5-fish bag limit and a season that runs from July 30 through December 31 or c) a 5-fish bag limit and a season that runs from July 15 through September 21, closes for a month, then runs from October 22 through the end of the year.
The odds are pretty good that the final regulations will look somewhat different from any of those, and if the unusually clement weather in November and December resulted in anglers landing too many fish, it’s possible that the cutbacks will be even greater than 23%.
But you get the idea…
It’s only human to be unhappy when regulations become more restrictive, but the rhetoric surrounding black sea bass regulation has become so overblown that rational discussion is becoming increasingly difficult.
For example, a January 15 article in the Asbury Park Press is entitled
“Harvest reductions proposed for sea bass based on what recreational fishing industry members said is questionable science to back it up have some calling for a mutiny of regulatory measures.”
That’s not an opening that promises the reader a balanced account of the issues plaguing black sea bass managers, and the rest of the article continues in the same vein. It is rich with quotes from people criticizing the management system and disputing the need for reductions. However, comments from biologists explaining just why the reductions are needed, or why black sea bass present management problems, are notably absent.
Instead of presenting solid scientific facts, it only offers inane comments from fishing club representatives who say things such as
“there are more sea bass on the coast than what science has found.”
And that’s one of the less outrageous statements.
Down in New Jersey, members of the angling industry are openly calling for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to go out of compliance with the federally-mandated catch reduction. The Fisherman magazine says
“In response, [some of those] in attendance at the January 7th hearing in Manahawkin have encouraged New Jersey decision-makers to defy the National Marine Fisheries Service cutback options by going out of compliance.
“’Anglers have to decide if it’s time to take a stand and say that they’re not taking it anymore.’ [Adam] Nowalsky [a charter boat captain] added, saying that he’s not sure how other states plan to react but feels that biologically speaking, the defiant approach won’t hurt the health of the fishery. ‘It’s a paper exercise at this point, I don’t think anything we’re talking about with sea bass right now is a danger to the stock itself.”
It should probably be pointed out that Nowalsky is a charter boat captain, not a biologist, and thus might not be the best person to be making biological assessments of the health of the stock.
He also doesn’t seem to be a student of practical fisheries management, as he is apparently unaware of the problems that states going out of compliance with federal rules have created in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery. There, in order to compensate for excess harvest in state waters, the federal red snapper season has been carved down to almost nothing; thus, going out of compliance with federal rules would probably be a foolish route for New Jersey to take, given that most of their prime black sea bass grounds, including most of the state’s artificial reefs, lie in federal waters.
As the time when states must draft their black sea bass regulations draws closer, it’s time to tone down the overblown rhetoric and admit some basic facts.
Yes, there are a lot of black sea bass out there, but as noted in a report produced by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Monitoring Committee,
“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 at this time. The Committee noted that this year class is currently being fished down quickly, with no indication of similarly large year classes coming in behind it.”
Which means that we shouldn’t expect black sea bass to always be as abundant as they are today; leaving a few more in the water is probably a prudent option.
Comments such as those made by a board member of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association, who said that
“Sea Bass are now considered by many to be the new nuisance fish,”
“The sea bass population is increasing so fast and their range has been expanding so far that our ‘best science’ cannot keep up with it,”
“Sea Bass are now causing problems in southern New England where they are eating the baby lobsters and may be contributing to their decline”
are unsupported by data and thus clearly out of line. All that they do is drive wedges of suspicion between anglers and the fisheries scientists who, in the end, we must look to as the guardians of America’s marine resources.
The fact is that black sea bass have an unusual life history and stock structure that makes them very difficult to manage, so difficult that the last benchmark stock assessment was found unsuitable for management purposes.
A new stock assessment will be completed late this year, which hopefully will survive the peer review process and give regulators a better idea of how to manage the fishery.
In the meantime, it is wise to err on the side of caution, to better assure that the healthy stock that we enjoy today will remain healthy, so that we may continue to enjoy it well into the future.