Sunday, February 4, 2018


I’m starting to think that managing the black sea bass fishery has become a lot harder than it has to be, at least in the Mid-Atlantic and up in New England.

Federal fishery managers are in a good position.  They’ve successfully rebuilt the stock which, although down a bit from recent highs, is still hovering somewhere near 200% of target abundance.  A recent benchmark stock assessment has made some real breakthroughs in black sea bass science, too, so managers have a solid foundation on which to base any management decisions.

And yet, they’re having some problems getting effective regulations on line.

Black sea bass abundance, particularly when compared to a declining stock of summer flounder, has caused a lot of effort to shift into the fishery, resulting in anglers regularly exceeding their annual catch limit, at least in the northern states where there seems to be a lot more black sea bass available to fishermen than there were a decade ago. 

So far, it appears that recreational fishermen did finally keep harvest below their catch limit in 2017, although landings data for the last two months of that year aren’t available yet, and an unexpected spike in those figures could still push angler harvest above the recreational harvest limit. 

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that lower landings in some states, particularly in New York, appear to be driven by substantially reduced fishing effort.  Effort is often the most difficult factor to predict from year to year, as it can shift in response to weather, to the availability to other species and, it often appears, to the error inherent in past effort estimates.  Thus, it is difficult to say whether the 2017 landings estimate is providing accurate guidance as to angler behavior in the upcoming season.

More bad news comes in the form of widespread noncompliance in the black sea bass fishery, particularly in the New York and New Jersey party boat fisheries.  A lot of anglers were shocked back in 2012, when a well-known New Jersey party boat returned to port with over 800 illegal black sea bass on board.  But anglers reactions to that bit of poaching were muted compared to their reactions late last summer, when many patrons aboard two Montauk, New York vessels were busted for very significant black sea bass violations that occurred just a week or two apart—and the enforcement folks acknowledged that even more poachers were probably on board, but couldn’t be cited because they left their fish-filled coolers on the boats and hurried off with no contraband fish in their possession.

I spoke with folks who keep their boats in Montauk and/or are otherwise familiar with the fishery, and none of them believe that the anglers who were cited for poaching black sea bass were atypical; their opinion is that such illegal harvest goes occurs on an everyday basis.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to disagree.  Although the quality of Montauk’s fishery makes it far easier to poach large quantities of black sea bass out there, the comments of anglers from other areas make it appear that a lot of poaching happens in my local waters, too.

Such reports have, unfortunately, led many private-boat anglers to turn their backs on ethical angling and become poachers themselves.  There are quite a few who fish out of Fire Island Inlet, NY—the same inlet that I normally use—who start fishing for black sea bass on the Fire Island [Artificial] Reef a week or so before the season opens, feeling that if they don’t take home a few fish before opening day, the fish will be stripped off the reef by the party boat fleet—which begins sea bass fishing at midnight on the opener to give its customers the best shot at the fish—soon after the season starts.

Now, the party boat fleet is urging the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to allow it to prosecute a deep-water fishery in January and February, when private-boat anglers have no realistic shot at the fish, and even most party and charter boats remain tied up at the dock.  It is a time when the National Marine Fisheries Service conducts no recreational catch surveys north of North Carolina, and when enforcement activity is at a seasonal low around the docks.

Couple the fishery’s historical loose compliance with low levels of enforcement and little effective data collection, and you end up with the makings of a very bad idea, particularly when you realize that the fish caught during such typically very productive winter season—at least to the extent that they can be estimated—will be deducted from the fish available to the vast majority of the recreational fishermen and charter and party boats, all of which lack the desire and often the capability to venture 60 or more miles out onto a cold and often hostile winter sea.

The states are already aware of the many issues that a January/February season could cause.  Both the Mid-Atlantic Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to allow a February season this year.  However, only two states, Virginia and North Carolina, decided to take advantage of the opportunity, and neither are big players in the black sea bass fishery.  According to the Council

“The seven states not participating in the February fishery provided a variety of reasons as to why they decided not to participate.  The reasons provided were as follows, in no particular order:
·         Implications of a declining [Recreational Harvest Limit] and unknown coastal payback requirements
·         Limited number of vessels would realize the benefit of the fishery
·         Limited interest from fishermen/vessels in participating in the fishery
·         Concerns about cutting the remaining recreational season to account for harvest
o   Loss of days would impact all fishermen
o   Regulations in rest of fishery are already constraining
·         Inability to accurately and cost-effectively monitor the catch
o   Implications, particularly if high harvest, for both participating and non-participating states in future years
·         General lack of support for fishery and the process to implement the fishery
·         Allocation to wave 1 fishery impacts all states through reduction in [Recreational Harvest Limit]
·         Discard mortality of non-target species
·         Greater inequities and disparities in management measures among the states”
The Council is scheduled to again consider the January/February black sea bass fishery at its meeting on February 14.  Given all of the recognized problems, the Council would do well not to move forward with the matter, and instead to stop and take a holistic look at the black sea bass fishery, to see whether existing paradigms, based on traditional approaches to managing the fishery, should be abandoned in favor of management tools that have be adopted elsewhere on the coast, in response to difficult management issues, might be profitably applied to the more challenging aspects of black sea bass management.

One of the more challenging aspects of black sea bass management, which would be made even more difficult should a January/February season be reopened, is the conflict between private-boat anglers and the for-hire fleet, and in particular, the party boat fishery.

Black sea bass are a valued food fish.  Just about any angler who goes out fishing for them does so with the expectation, or at least the hope, of bringing some home.  Representatives of the for-hire fleet have argued that they need liberal black sea bass bag limits in order to attract customers.  The Cape Cod Times, for example, reported that

“[One charter boat operator] has seen 50 percent of his business eroded this year as charter boat customers—who would normally spend thousands apiece to travel from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and as far away as South Carolina and Florida to board his boat and catch and freeze dozens of sea bass a day—informed him it wasn’t worth the trip if they could only catch a handful.”
While private boat operators also want a bag limit large enough to make a black sea bass trip worthwhile, their proximity to the coast, and relatively low per-trip cost, leaves them at least somewhat satisfied with bag limits that are far too small for the for-hire fleet.  In their efforts to balance the needs and desires of the two sectors, state managers are coming up with regulatory measures that make no one happy.

New Jersey tried to strike such a balance by setting bag limits of 10 fish between May 26 and June 18, and 15 between October 22 and December 31, in order to provide the for-hire fleet with enough black sea bass to keep customers interested.  However, the tradeoff was to impose a bag limit of just 2 fish during the traditional July 1 through August 31 summer vacation season, when most private boat owners and their families were on the water, and to close the black sea bass fishery completely for twelve days in June and from September 1 through October 21; the latter closure came back to haunt the state when it decided to shorten its summer flounder season to just four days in September, leaving anglers with little to fish for throughout the rest of the month.

New York did something similar, although far less extreme, limiting anglers to a 3-fish bag limit between June 27 and August 31, when large numbers of private-boat fishermen were on the water, then increasing the bag to 8 fish in September and October and, finally, to 10 black sea bass in November and December.

Such compromise regulations make no one happy.  Opening a January/February season, which would result in more black sea bass being landed by a relative handful of for-hire boats, and result in even more restrictive regulations being placed on private-boat anglers and the spring/summer/fall for-hire fishery, would make things even worse, and certainly bring claims of “unfairness” from private-boat anglers, who would not be able to participate in the winter fishery.

The answer to that conundrum might be found in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, which once faced a similar problem (although in that case, the equities were reversed; private boats fishing in state waters caught so many fish when federal waters were closed that the federally-permitted for-hire fishery was in danger of being shut out).  It’s called “sector separation,” and is exactly what it sounds like:  Separate annual catch limits, and perhaps different seasons and bag limits, are established for the private-boat and for-hire fisheries, to best suit each sector’s needs.

Under such an arrangement, black sea bass caught in a January/February fishery, or high bag limits late in the season, when most private boats are already out of the water, wouldn’t impact the private-boat anglers at all.  Instead, the private-boat fishermen might opt for a somewhat larger bag limit—say, five or six black sea bass, instead of two or three—and a shorter season that, for the sake of example, only runs from the end of June through the end of September.  The for hire-fleet, on the other hand, might be willing to trade a January/February season and a ten- or fifteen-fish bag limit for midseason closures, and perhaps a very small bag limit during the warmer months.

Both sectors could seek the management measures most important to them, without having a negative impact on other participants in the fishery.

The ultimate extension of such an approach would be to create individual fishing quotas for the for-hire fleet.  Such an approach has already been successfully tried in many commercial fisheries, including Gulf red snapper.  Under such a system, each vessel would be given a share of the overall for-hire catch limit, which share would be based on the number of black sea bass that such vessel had reported on its vessel trip reports over the past five or so years. 

While the for-hire fleet would still have to abide by established size limits, individual fishing quotas would eliminate the need for bag limits or seasons; instead, each vessel would be able to make its own business decision as to when and how quickly it would harvest its quota.  

If one boat decided that it wanted to run winter trips and let customers fill up their coolers, it could, without affecting the rest of the fleet—although once its customers caught up all of the boat’s quota, it wouldn’t be able to land any more black sea bass for the rest of the year, unless it purchased or leased quota from someone else.  

Similarly, if another boat had a big summer business, but rarely fished far offshore, it could offer its customers all of its quota during the most popular vacation months, and lease any leftover quota to one of the boats that fished during the fall.

Such individual quotas would also do away with the poaching problem that currently plagues some members of the for-hire fleet.  Beginning on March 12, for-hire vessels fishing for black sea bass and some other species will have to report their catch electronically.  By requiring black sea bass landings to be so reported before the boat gets back to shore, and by requiring each vessel to notify management authorities when it will be beginning and returning from each trip—measures already imposed on the commercial sector in many fisheries—enforcement personnel would have a relatively simple way to ground-truth the accuracy of landings reports, and sanction those who filed false information. 

At that point, should a vessel allow a customer to harvest 96 sea bass on a single trip, as a Montauk boat infamously did last August, it would no longer be a criminal matter; the fish would merely be taken off the boat’s quota and, as a result, the boat would have to end its black sea bass season a little bit earlier that year.

Once again, each vessel could make a business decision based on what it felt was best, given its clientele.

Of course, there will always be those who try to beat the system by filleting or otherwise mutilating fish to get around size limits and other regulations.  That could easily be prevented by requiring black sea bass to be landed with the head and all fins (including the tail) still attached to the body.  Such regulations have already been imposed by other regional fishery management councils, and have been found effective; they probably should be adopted in any situation where there are problems with anglers, whether on private or for-hire vessels, filleting undersized fish at sea.

In the end, black sea bass has to be deemed a fishery management success story.  But, in some ways, coping with such a success can be as challenging as rebuilding an overfished stock. 

Yet by thinking outside the box, and using management approaches that have worked in other places and in other fisheries, there is an opportunity to create a sustainable fishery that works for everyone involved.

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