After spending over 50 years on and around the water, I have realized that without strong fisheries laws and effective conservation measures, the future of salt water fishing, and America's living marine resources, is dim. Yet conservation is given short shrift by national angling organizations and the angling press. I hope that this blog will incite, inform and inspire salt water fishermen to reclaim their traditional role as the leading advocates for the conservation of America's fisheries.
Thursday, March 30, 2017
GOOD FISHERY MANAGEMENT IS GOOD FOR BUSINESS
the end of March, and my boat should be in the water.
At one time, it would have been.
Despite cold and wind, I’d have been waiting for the weekend,
because March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—was the unofficial start of the winter
flounder season. I, and a horde of other anglers all across New York’s Long
Island, would have been buying sandworms, bloodworms, mussels and clam chum,
and gassing up our boats for our first trips of the season.
Down atCaptree State Park,
on the shores of Great South Bay, some of the party boats would have been
sailing since the first weekend in March, carrying a few eager anglers willing
to probe the still-cold bay waters for the first few flounder of the year. But
on St. Patrick’s Day, all of the boats would have sailed; even if it was a
weekday, they would have been crowded with fishermen who knew, without doubt,
that at the end of the trip they’d be taking fish home.
Today, my boat sits on the asphalt, still shrouded in its
shrink-wrapped winter cocoon. There’s no rush to slice through that cover, no
need to put up with March winds while painting the bottom and waxing the hull.
I probably couldn’t launch it now, even if I wanted to, as it sits amid other
vessels, all of them covered and none of them likely to go into the water at
any time soon.
We used to bring them home by the pailful, and sometimes a
bushel basket or big burlap sack was too small to hold a day’s catch.
And that, of course, was the start of the problem. Too many
flounder were taken, leaving too few in the water to maintain a sustainable
Anglers weren’t the only
cause of the flounder’s decline; New York’s commercial fleet netted them up by
the untold thousands each year,landing 3.26 million pounds of flounder in 1966, its highest
landings on record. But anglers killed more, accounting for6.8 million pounds in
1984. The average weight of the angler-caught fish was less than a
pound, so we were killing them when they were still fairly small and had few
chances to spawn.
And when fishery managers first tried, in the mid-1980s, to put
in regulations to halt the flounder’s decline, they ran into stiff opposition
from the recreational fishing industry, which argued that anglers wouldn’t go
fishing if they didn’t have the “perception” that they could still bring a lot
of fish home, if they happened to catch them.
Even after a 2008 stock
assessment found that the Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic flounder stock
(which is the stock we fish on in New York) hadshrunk to just 9% of sustainable levels, and fishing in
federal waters was closed in response, the angling industry opposed a similar
closure in state waters.
One industry attorney,
speaking at theFebruary 2009 meetingof the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries
Commission’s Winter Flounder Management Board (Management Board), acknowledged
that winter flounder were in trouble, saying “we have an extreme situation
here; there is no doubt about it.”
But then he opposed emergency action to close the fishery in
state waters, arguing that “the partyboat industry in particular is a fishery
giving an opportunity more so than guaranteeing bringing fish home…There are
several partyboats that still make a living at this. Even though they don’t
catch a lot of fish, they’re providing an opportunity for people to come out in
the spring and wet a line. There is an economic impact here.”
In the end, such arguments carried the day. Today, some New York
party boats still sail for winter flounder. However, as the flounder disappeared
from our bays, the flounder fishermen disappeared as well, so many other boats
stay tied to their docks and the ones that do sail often carry only five or six
fares when they once carried dozens.
So yes, there was “an
economic impact” in the Management Board’s decision, and it was bad. By
refusing to take the steps needed to stop the flounder’s decline, the
Management Board condemned the party boats and the tackle shops, the gas docks
and the rowboat rentals, to a continuing decline in business at the same time
that theycondemned New York’s winter flounder to possible extirpation.
And the saddest part of that story is that winter flounder are
It wasn’t very long ago that New York’s anglers didn’t have a
closed season. After the last striped bass of the fall left for their wintering
grounds, whiting and ling (more properly called silver and red hake,
respectively) moved in close to shore. Party boats docked in western New York
and Northern New Jersey sailed twice, sometimes three times per day, filled
with anglers willing and able to load up on the good-tasting fish.
Even shore anglers got in
on the action. TheConey Island Pier in Brooklynwas
a well-known night-fishing hotspot. Folks with a taste for whiting didn’t even
need a rod and reel; they merely had to walk along a barrier island at night
and gather up “frostfish” that had beached themselves while chasing bait in the
curl of a retreating wave.
But that is all history
now; the inshore whiting are gone, and ling numbers are down. No one can say
why for sure, although many strongly suspect that the samesmall-mesh squid nets that devastated populations of immature scup,
and led to the creation of “gear-restricted areas” intended to stop the scup’s
decline, devastated the whiting as well. But unlike the scup, the whiting did
not return once managers finally got the squid nets under control.
The once-vibrant fishery died.
In response, New York Bight
anglers shifted to the winter tautog (locally known as “blackfish”) fishery.
Fishermen had long known that tautog abounded in areas such as “17 Fathoms” off
the northern New Jersey coast, but that fishery was eclipsed by the abundant
whiting and ling. Once those disappeared, most of the angling effort shifted to
tautog, and for a while, fishing was good. Buttautog don’t grow or
mature very quickly, and the increased recreational effort, coupled
with a new commercial fishery spawned by a demand for live fish in urban
markets, quickly depleted the population.
In 1996, biologists“recommended an immediate
reduction of fishing mortality to avoid a collapse of the fishery resource,”and the Atlantic States Marine
Fisheries Commission (ASMFC)adopted a planto reduce fishing mortality to
sustainable levels. ASMFC stated, “The management measures of [the] plan will
preserve a recreational fishing opportunity and all of the associated economic
benefits that would be lost if stocks were allowed to collapse,” and also made
a nearly identical comment with respect to the commercial fishery. It
acknowledged that “any economic losses that may result from proposed fishing
effort reductions will be recovered by allowing a valuable fishery to continue
for future generations.”
Not too many people fish
for tautog anymore. Tackle shops and fishing stations haven’t been selling manyfiddlersorgreen crabs—both
popular tautog baits—in recent years, and the party boats are looking for
something to fish for in both late spring and fall.
I could tell other stories about summer cod at Coxes Ledge or
spring pollock at Block Island, but they would sound much the same, tales of
formerly abundant fish stocks that, for want of timely and adequate management
measures, have been fished down to crumbs too scant to nourish an industry, or
even most anglers’ efforts.
They are stories of loss, not only of angling opportunities, but
economic opportunities as well, in which the healthy and sustainable fisheries
that should be our birthright were exchanged for greater short-term gains that
led, inexorably, to long-term depletion.
They are stories that we still haven’t learned from.
With winter flounder,
tautog, and whiting all diminished or gone, legislators have introduced a bill
that, if passed,would place summer flounder at risk, while representatives of
the angling industry arefighting to weakenthe Magnuson-Stevens Fishery
Conservation and Magnuson Act, which protects fish stocks on all of America’s
They say that less restrictive rules will be better for
Winter flounder, tautog and whiting say that they’re wrong. ----- This post first appeared in "From the Waterfront", the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/