Thursday, June 9, 2016


It was maybe 10 years ago, back when New York was still considering a recreational salt water fishing license.  I was attending a meeting with a host of other folks, where the issue was, once again, being debated.

During one of the breaks, I ended up talking to an angler from Staten Island, who was not at all convinced that a license would be a good thing.

I made the usual pitch to convince him, explaining how a license would result in New York having more money for managing its fisheries, surveying recreational catch, building artificial reefs and the like.  So far, the guy was willing to listen.

Then I said that we’d also have more money for law enforcement, and at that point our conversation chilled.

He told me

“We don’t need no more enforcement.”
I objected, pointing out the striped bass poaching going on in New York Bight, right in the waters he fished.  And then I mentioned all of the anglers that were ignoring the fluke regulations, and taking summer flounder that were clearly undersized.  At that point, the guy took offense.

“Ya know,” he said, “Da size limit for fluke is too high.  A lotta times, ya don’t catch nothin’ but shorts.  Ya pay all dat money for bait and gas, and ya put in alla dat time, ya wanna bring somet’in home.  Ya do watcha gotta do…”
He apparently felt that, just because he spent a few bucks for bait and fuel, and put in a couple of hours on the water, he was absolutely entitled to bring some fluke home.  And if undersized fish were all that he could find, he’d was entitled to keep some of those, regulations be damned.

It’s an all too common way of thinking. 

Far too many people view recreational fishing not as pure recreation, but rather as something akin to going out to a grocery store, where you put up some money and take something home for the table.  They feel that poaching is fine if it’s the only way to put fish in the box.

Here in New York, that sort of thinking became endemic in the summer flounder fishery, after the size limit soared from 14 inches all the way up to 21, before settling back to its current 18.  The bag limit saw similar swings, dropping from 6 down to 2 before finally increasing to 5.  A lot of folks used to the old days of a 14-inch minimum size and no bag limit at all just haven’t been willing to accept more recent regulations, and flout the laws at will.

Contempt for the law seems to be particularly prevalent on party boats, where many of the passengers pay their fare with full expectation of bringing fish home to eat, and get pretty upset when regulations make them unable to do so.

That sort of thinking probably reached its natural conclusion a few years ago, when a few Long Island party boats started taking their passengers out on “sushi cruises,” where undersized fish were filleted and eaten as soon as they were caught.  Such cruises came to an end after agents from the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Law Enforcement Division put an end to the practice by handing out summonses accompanied by hefty fines.

Captains cited for their misconduct justified their actions by blaming the laws; one reportedly

Summer flounder regulations have since relaxed, and elicit little controversy.  Now, it’s the black sea bass fishery that spawns much of the lawlessness. 

It’s a difficult fishery to manage, due to a lack of accurate data, the species’ stock structure and its unique life history.  The last stock assessment failed to pass peer review, so managers are, in many ways, flying blind.

That causes some problems, because the fish bunch up over wrecks and hard bottom, and appear to be very abundant.  At the same time, the regulations are probably more restrictive than necessary, because of all of the scientific uncertainty surrounding the species.  Here in New York, the season doesn’t start until early summer, the bag limit is low and the size limit is high.

Such restrictive regulations have led to a lot of poaching, particularly among the for-hire fleet.  NMFS data indicates that about 62% of the black sea bass harvested by party boat patrons in July and August of 2015 were undersized; charter boat passengers did little better, with undersized fish comprising 57% of their landings.  Undersized fish also made up a smaller, but still dismal, 16% of private boat landings.

The high rate of illegal harvest seemingly stems from anglers substituting their notions of what is “right,” given their perception that the stock is abundant and regulations too restrictive, for what is legal, and justifying their poaching by saying something to the effect that “there are plenty of fish out there.”

That sort of thing is never excusable, although it’s easy to understand how an unsophisticated angler, unfamiliar with the fishery management process, could be seduced into illegal ways by the frequent attacks on black sea bass management that he reads in the angling press.

However, it is completely unacceptable when a player in the fishery management process condones the same sort of lawlessness.  Yet that’s just what I heard not too long ago.

To be fair, it occurred in a private setting, not in the public media.  I was having a friendly conversation with someone I know, who is neck-deep in the debate over Gulf of Mexico red snapper.  I mentioned that the long state red snapper seasons create problems that go beyond just shortening the season in federal waters, pointing out that a lot of anglers use the state seasons as cover to poach fish in federal waters, when the federal season is closed.

The guy I was speaking with never blinked an eye, and to his credit, never tried to deny that such poaching takes place.  Instead, he casually dismissed it with the simple comment that “The stock is healthy,” as if illegal fishing didn’t matter at all.

And that is just plain wrong.

Once anglers decide that it’s OK to kill a few undersized sea bass or out-of-season red snapper, where do they draw the next line?

Is it OK for striped bass fishermen to take home some undersized fish, because the 2011 year class looks pretty good and anyway, they’ll be legal next year?

Or, if they’re particularly daring, should they kill the next goliath grouper that they manage to winch up off a wreck, because the big fish seem to be everywhere, and besides, it ate the cobia that would have been dinner?

And once they cross those lines, what comes next?  Short summer flounder?  Out-of-season AJs?

The slippery slope beckons…

Leaders of the angling community have a moral obligation to take a stand against illegal conduct, and not give a wink and a nod to poaching when they believe that it’s doing no harm.  For bad behavior will always generate more of the same.

Sportsman are defined by the ethics that they hold.  And those ethics must include one simple rule.

Poaching is never OK.

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