Sunday, May 7, 2017


It’s an idea that has surfaced before. 

For many years, a handful of Mid-Atlantic party and charter boats did venture out in January and February, to pull black sea bass off deep-water wrecks.  Weather often kept the boats locked in port, but when they ventured out, anglers often returned to the docks with coolers filled with good-sized sea bass.

However, the fishery had problems.

The National Marine Fisheries Service doesn’t survey Mid-Atlantic anglers’ landings during the first two months of the year.  Thus, no one knows how many black sea bass the fishery killed, something that became more important as recreational black sea bass landings began to approach, and then exceed, the annual catch limit.  Vessel trip reports were filed by the boats participating in the fishery, but the accuracy of such reports were never confirmed.

In addition, fishing mortality during Wave 1 was probably much higher than the actual landings for such period.  That’s because black sea bass brought up from the 30- and 40-fathom wrecks typically fished during the winter suffered from barotrauma.  As described by New Jersey Sea Grant,

“Barotrauma, otherwise known as the bends, affects animals that ascend from high pressure environments like the ocean floor, to low pressure environments like the ocean surface too fast.  Gas builds up inside the animals, their eyes become bloodshot and bulge among other symptoms.
“The end result is that a fish with barotraumas ends up floating on the surface like a beachball.  The fish becomes easy prey for sea gulls and other creatures.
“…The technique for catching black sea bass is to reel them up as fast as possible in a constant motion.  The fish are given no rest on the way up…
“The technique impacts the smaller, younger fish that need to be thrown back.  But the gas build-up inside the fish makes it difficult for the fish to swim to depth and many die on the surface.”
Now, the Mid-Atlantic Council is considering opening the winter fishery again.  To that end, Brandon Muffley, a Council biologist, has prepared a so-called “white paper” addressing some of the issues that need to be considered if an “experimental” winter fishery was to be permitted in 2018.

Although the issues are presented in a very neutral, fact-based manner, it’s hard to read the white paper and not be convinced that opening the winter black sea bass fishery remains a very bad idea. 

To understand why, it might be best to start with the health of the stock and the state of the fishery.

Right now, the black sea bass stock is in extremely good condition.  A benchmark stock assessment concluded late last year found that

“The stock of black sea bass north of Cape Hatteras, NC is not overfished, nor is it experiencing over fishing.  The retrospective adjusted estimates of [fishing mortality], [spawning stock biomass] and [biomass] from each area were combined for comparison to biological reference points.  The retro-adjusted 2015 biomass (32,010 [metric tons]) is currently 86% above [the biomass at maximum sustainable yield] proxy and retro-adjusted 2015 [spawning stock biomass] (22,176 mt) is 129% above the [spawning stock biomass at maximum sustainable yield] proxy (9.667 mt).  Retro-adjusted fishing mortality in 2015…is 25% below the [fishing mortality at maximum sustainable yield] proxy=0.36.”
It was that good news that helped to convince the Mid-Atlantic Council to consider opening the winter season in 2018.  However, it only tells part of the story.

When the benchmark stock assessment was released, anglers—and probably a lot of fishery managers—thought that the abundance of black sea bass meant that regulations would be eased a bit.  That would have been welcomed, for during the summer, when most anglers are fishing, states found it necessary to ratchet black sea bass limits down as low as just three fish in Rhode Island and in New York, and just two fish in New Jersey.

However, abundant fish stocks attract anglers, and the low bag limits weren’t enough to constrain recreational landings.  

According to information provided to the Mid-Atlantic Council and ASMFC’s Management Board last December, anglers have exceeded the recreational harvest limit in every year since 2012. The recreational catch limit for the most recent fishing year, 2016, was 2.82 million pounds; at the December joint meeting of the Council and Management Board, recreational harvest had already exceeded that limit by 22%.  Landings for the entire year were projected to be around 5.06 million pounds, about 80% above the applicable catch limit.

Such overage would have required fishery managers to impose additional, and very severe, restrictions on the fishery.  However, because the new stock assessment would probably allow more black sea bass to be caught, managers deferred action until February 2017, when the results of the stock assessment would be available.

Materials provided to Council and Management Board members prior to the February meeting seemed to hold relatively good news.  Recreational harvest was, by then, projected to be a somewhat lower 4.67 million pounds (only November and December landings remained to be determined) while, thanks to the new stock assessment, the 2017 recreational catch limit was raised from 2.82 to 4.29 million pounds.  Because that still left a small overage of 380,000 pounds, managers would not be able to ease regulations; however, they also decided that rather than tighten regulations to address the overage, no change at all was required.

Unfortunately, right after that decision was made, the actual estimates of recreational black sea bass landing in November and December became available.  They indicated that landings in those two months were much higher than originally believed, and that recreational landings for all of 2016 were 5.62 million pounds, about one million pounds higher than previously believed, and 1.33 million pounds above the 2017 recreational catch limit.

An  overage of that magnitude is too large to ignore.  

That’s the worst case.  The best case is that the November/December data is successfully challenged, and the regulations will remain at status quo.  Yet even if that best case is ultimately realized, the black sea bass stock will remain fully utilized by the current fishery, and the majority of anglers, who fish during the traditional summer fishing/vacation season, will still be subject to historically low bag limits and high minimum sizes.

Given that situation, it is difficult to justify a new fishery that will put added stress on the black sea bass resource and further burden existing black sea bass anglers. 

“an experimental January/February (wave one), recreational, federally permitted for hire fishery for black sea bass with a 15 fish per person possession limit, a suspended minimum size limit, and a zero discard policy to allow for barotraumas, and a mandatory trip reporting requirement,”
is problematic on a number of levels.

To begin with, it will remove an unknown, but undoubtedly substantial, quantity of fish from a stock that is either fully utilized or already experiencing significant recreational overharvest.  

According to the Council “white paper,”

“Catch per angler during Wave 1 is likely much higher than it is at other times of the year and has a significantly lower discard ratio…with the potential for increased participation, high angler success and high sea bass availability during this time of year, there is a potential for a sizeable black sea bass harvest during a Wave 1 fishery in 2018.”
Since black sea bass management is a zero-sum game, a “sizeable black sea bass harvest during a Wave 1 fishery” means that there will have to be equally sizeable reductions in harvest at some other point during the year.

The white paper admits that, depending on the magnitude of the catch during Wave 1, there would have to be a 3% to 6.8% reduction in the number of black sea bass available later in the year.  If the reduction is taken on a coastwide basis, it would mean that anglers would have to lose somewhere between 5 and 12 days in either May/June or September/October.  If it was applied solely to the southern (from Delaware to North Carolina) states and federal waters, it would require a 4 to 9 day reduction in one of those two-month periods.  And if it was applied on a state-by-state basis—something that I’ll admit causes me particular anxiety, given that I’m a black sea bass fisherman and live in one of the states affected—it would result in New York losing between 2 and 5 days in July/August, plus New Jersey losing the same number of days in either May/June or September/October.

I don’t like to talk about “fairness,” but maybe it’s appropriate here.  There is something inherently unfair to gift one group of anglers with a new two-month fishery, featuring a 15-fish bag and no size limit at all, while taking away fishing days from a far larger group of anglers who are already struggling with a 3-fish bag limit and 15-fish minimum size.

Beyond that, note that the Wave 1 fishery will be a “federally permitted for hire fishery” with no private boat participation allowed (which may be academic, given the few private boats on the water at that part of the year).  Yet here in New York, 84% of the black sea bass landed during July/August, and 66% of all directed black sea bass trips made during that period, are attributable to private boat anglers.

Thus, should the fish caught in the Wave 1 fishery be deducted from state harvests, the New York anglers who receive absolutely no benefit from the winter fishery will be required to shoulder something like three-quarters of the conservation burden that such fishery generates. 

At the same time, the party boats who will receive close to 100% of the benefits of any winter black sea bass fishery (some charter boats may participate, so I have to say “close to” rather than a flat 100%), land a mere 12% of July/August sea bass, and thus would hardly be burdened at all.

As I said, I don’t usually talk about “fair,” but that is just wrong.

If only the for-hire season was closed to balance the winter landings, things would be fairer.  However, the most serious problems would still remain.

Those problems lie in the area of accountability.  Saying that there would be “a zero discard policy” and “a mandatory trip reporting requirement” might sound good on paper.  But without observers on board to enforce the “zero discard policy,” and without some way to confirm the accuracy of any trip reports made, such provisions won’t work in the real world.

Again, the white paper acknowledges the problems.  It clearly states that

“Federal for-hire VTR data provides managers and scientists with a large quantity of information to evaluate a particular fishery; however, this information is self-reported and is not validated to determine its accuracy and therefore limits its potential utility.  The need for accurate, verifiable and validated information is extremely critical for the success, or failure, of an implemented Wave 1 fishery…Therefore, it is critical that an observer and/or dockside monitoring program be implemented to sub-sample a portion of the vessels and/or trips during the Wave 1 fishery…  [emphasis added]”
Who is going to pay for such an observer program, and whether it will be comprehensive enough to effectively prevent misconduct on unobserved trips, is not at all clear.

The white paper also notes that

“catch rates in Wave 1 are extremely high and more than 50% of the trips in 2013 had catch rates higher than 15 fish per angler.  There is also an increased probability of high grading under a no minimum size policy.  If the first fishing location visited results in a large number of small black sea bass being caught and the vessel moves to another location where larger sea bass are prevalent, anglers will likely discard the smaller sea bass they needed to retain from the first location.  The zero discard policy also creates enforceability concerns and difficulties, particularly in the absence of any observer coverage, to ensure no discarding is occurring.”
It’s pretty clear that the author of the white paper understands the sort of harm that a Wave 1 fishery could do.  However, those who have any doubt can look at a real world incident that occurred a few years ago.  It was originally reported in the Asbury Park Press, and although it has since been removed from its website, the story can still be found, quoted verbatim, in the archives of the website Stripers On Line.

A well-regarded party boat had ventured out on a February trip from Brielle, New Jersey, ostensibly seeking fish such as cod, pollock and ling, since the black sea bass fishery was closed.  However, despite the closed season, 819 illegal black sea bass somehow made their way into fishermen’s coolers aboard the boat.

When asked how so many illegal black sea bass managed to find their way aboard his boat, the captain gave a very honest answer.  He said that he knew that a few illegal fish were being taken, but

“I didn’t think it was that many.  And I’m not getting paid by the state of New Jersey to take fish out of people’s buckets.”
Those two short sentences tells us all that we need to know about why a Wave 1 black sea bass season is a bad idea.  

We just need to ask ourselves three simple questions:

Can we trust a captain, who had passengers keep 819 illegal black sea bass but “didn’t think it was that many” file accurate reports of what was actually caught on each of his trips?
Can we trust a captain who says “I’m not getting paid by the state of New Jersey to take fish out of people’s buckets” to enforce a no-discard policy, and prevent wasteful highgrading?
Do we believe that the captain in question is the only for-hire captain who thinks and behaves that way?
I think that you know the answers to those questions as well as I do. 

Which means that you also know why it’s well past time to drive a stake through the heart of this very bad proposal.

The Council should kill the Wave 1 black sea bass fishery for once and for all.

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