Sunday, October 28, 2018


Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a renewed drive by the angling and boatbuilding industries, who are urging the Senate to pass S. 1520, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (Modern Fish Act), before the 115th Congress comes to an end.

S. 1520, as its proponents continually remind us, would amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act(Magnuson-Stevens), although such amendments are relatively narrow in scope and would not materially affect the conservation provisions of federal fisheries law.

There is no active counterpart to S. 1520 in the House of Representatives. Instead, the House chose to pass H.R. 200, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act which, unlike S. 1520, would change key provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, and represents a full reauthorization of that law. When H.R. 200 was marked up by the House Natural Resources Committee, it was amended to include many Modern Fish act provisions, although they make up only a small percentage of the overall bill.

As a result, S. 1520’s supporters have embraced the much broader, and potentially much more harmful, H.R. 200, as a vehicle that might allow their long-desired changes to Magnuson-Stevens to be signed into law. They are willing to ignore all of the House bill’s destructive provisions, which could permit continued overfishing of certain fish stocks and indefinitely delay the rebuilding of depleted fish populations, in order to achieve their own, much more limited, goals.

Thus, there is a real possibility that Magnuson-Stevens could undergo a “stealth” reauthorization, with S. 1520 being referred to a conference committee along with H.R. 200, and a small handful of legislators putting together a composite bill without a full and public Senate debate. While the Senate would ultimately have to approve whatever legislation emerged from such conference, its involvement in the process would be far less extensive, and far less detailed, than it would otherwise be. And that sort of institutional detachment makes it far more likely that bad provisions from H.R. 200 would, in the end, become law.

Despite that danger, S. 1520’s proponents are aggressively seeking to have the Modern Fish Act passed before the end of this year.

Observing all of their breathless haste, it’s hard not to ask, “What’s the rush?”
Magnuson-Stevens still works very well.
Under its auspices, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has fully rebuilt 44 once-overfished stocks of fish. At the same time, the number of stocks that remain overfished or are still experiencing overfishing have hit new lows. Its provisions have allowed the Pacific and Mid-Atlantic fishery management councils to create new protections for the forage fish that cement the ocean’s food web. And in the Gulf of Mexico, NMFS has employed provisions of Magnuson-Stevens to issue exempted fishing permits that allow recreational fishermen to enjoy a longer red snapper season, and so largely eliminated one of the issues that gave rise to S. 1520 in the first place.

That doesn’t mean that Magnuson-Stevens is perfect. It can still benefit from a few tweaks that would improve both the law and the management process.
Some of those tweaks are already suggested by S. 1520. While that bill still contains problematic provisions, it also includes some valuable proposals that would improve the current law.
The best of those was included during the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s mark-up process, when legislators addressed the problem of failed management plans.

Ever since the matter of Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley was decided by a federal appellate court in 2000, the law has required every federal fisheries management plan, amendment or management measure to have at least a 50% chance of preventing overfishing and/or rebuilding an overfished stock within a specified period of time. That’s not a very demanding standard to meet, as it still means that half of the management measures will probably fail. Under current law, upon such failure, managers are free to adopt new measures that have no greater a chance of success.

Under a provision added to S. 1520 during markup, should a fishery management plan fail to rebuild an overfished stock within the allotted time period, any follow-up rebuilding plan would have to be more conservative than the plan that failed, and have at least a 75% chance of success. Insisting on such higher probability of success makes sense after a rebuilding failure, yet a similar provision, proposed for H.R. 200, was voted down by the House Natural Resources Committee. Thus, if S. 1520 was passed, there is no guarantee that such provision would survive the conference process.
Fisheries managers also need more and better data on which to base their decisions. Both S. 1520 and H.R. 200 include provisions intended to increase the quantity of data that could be included in stock assessments and other technical analyses, but neither guarantees that the quality of such data will meet scientific standards. There is little reason to push through a bill that could result in a flood of low-quality data when, by taking a little more time, both the quantity and the quality of fisheries information could be improved.
There are also a host of issues that S.1520 never addressed.
The need to consider the ecosystem impacts of fishing, and particularly forage fish harvest, may be foremost among them. While some regional fishery management councils have already given forage fish stocks some additional protections, most forage fish species, in most U.S. waters, are still vulnerable to high-volume, low-value fisheries such as those targeting menhaden and Atlantic herring.

Such fisheries remove many millions of pounds of forage fish from the ocean, merely to turn them into industrial oils and fish meals, or bait for use in other fisheries. While they may be “sustainable” by current single-species standards, with landings well below maximum sustainable yield, they are a long-term detriment to the ecosystem, causing localized, if not general, depletion of vital forage fish populations and a weakening of the marine food web.

That’s the sort of issue that a thoughtful, deliberate Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization could address. And it wouldn’t be hard to think of quite a few more, such as habitat loss, federal/state interactions, and the impacts of warming oceans.
That being the case, why rush the legislative process? Why compete with the mid-term elections, outstanding budget issues and the other hot-button issues that dominate the current news cycle? There is no good argument to support a slap-dash effort to amend Magnuson-Stevens, whether through S. 1520’s piecemeal approach or through the more comprehensive, and much more damaging, H.R. 200.
Instead, by leaving Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization up to the next Congress, we can better assure that the resulting bill will be thoughtful, comprehensive, and a true reflection of the needs and desires of not just a few special interests, but of everyone who cares about the long-term health of the nation’s fish stocks.
This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at

Thursday, October 25, 2018


The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board met in New York City last Tuesday, and the top item on its agenda was to provide some sort of comment to the National Marine Fisheries Service on its Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to open the so-called Block Island Transit Zone, to striped bass fishing.

“NOAA, in conjunction with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is directed to consider lifting the ban on striped bass fishing in the Federal Block Island Transit Zone.  [emphasis added]”
hile NMFS ultimately has the final say on whether the EEZ will be opened, the use of the phrase “in conjunction with” makes it clear that Congress intended NMFS to give substantial weight to ASMFC’s advice.

Thus, striped bass fishermen had good reason to be concerned with ASMFC’s actions last Tuesday.  If its Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board recommended that the Transit Zone be opened, NMFS would almost certainly point to such recommendation as justification if it eventually allowed striped bass fishing in that part of the Exclusive Economic Zone.

There was a lot of speculation about what would happen.  

The news that Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-New York), who has been relentless in his efforts to open the Transit Zone to striped bass harvest, had sent letters to every member of the Management Board caused more than a little unease.  So when Management Board Chairman Mike Armstrong (State fisheries manager—MA) opened the meeting, anglers in the audience were sitting a little closer to the edges of their seats, waiting to see what went on.

Derek Orner, representing NMFS, provided the Management Board with background information on the proposed federal action.  And then it was the Management Board’s turn.

G. Ritchie White (Governor’s Appointee—NH) was the first commissioner to speak.  He reminded everyone that a benchmark assessment was being prepared, and voiced his opinion that it would be unwise to take any action that might impact the striped bass population before the results of such assessment were known.  David Borden (Governor’s Appointee—RI) and Tom Fote (Governor’s Appointee—NJ) spoke next, and both of them essentially echoed Commissioner White’s words.

There was no dissent at all.

Commissioner Fote noted that opening one small section of federal waters to striped bass fishing would “open Pandora’s Box,” and inspire other people to seek to open other parts of the EEZ.  He reminded everyone that

“we’ve used the EEZ as a sanctuary for big fish,”
and that opening the EEZ would put those large females, so important to the future of the striped bass resource, at risk.

Another member of the Management Board (I couldn’t tell who it was from where I was sitting) expressed his view that delaying any action on opening the Transit Zone was justified merely by the fact that some unethical for-hire and private boat anglers are currently poaching big striped bass there; he argued that opening the Transit Zone to striped bass fishing would merely be “legitimizing bad behavior.”

Michael Luisi (State fishery manager—MD) expressed his belief that NMFS’ “timing is terrible,” because it issued the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking while the new benchmark stock assessment was being prepared.  Dennis Abbott (Proxy for the Legislative Appointee—NH) asked NMFS’ representative Orner why the Transit Zone opening was being proposed now, even though NMFS is going to be looking at the broader issue of allowing striped bass fishing in the entire EEZ once the stock assessment is completed.

Orner’s answer, that there’s

“a push to look at it now,”
clearly implies that Rep. Zeldin is recklessly rushing forward with his attempt to open up the Transit Zone, without giving due regard for such action’s effect on the resource.

In the end, ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board was unanimous in its decision to recommend that NMFS suspend any action on opening the Transit Zone to striped bass fishing until the benchmark assessment was completed and reviewed by the Management Board members, and they had an opportunity to formally respond to its findings at ASMFC’s Winter Meeting next February.

NMFS could still ignore such advice, and move ahead to open the Transit Zone to striped bass fishing.  However, if it did so, it would clearly not be complying with the federal injunction to consider any such action “in conjunction with” ASMFC.

That’s the extent of the good news.

The bad news is that even if ASMFC wins the point, and NMFS suspends any action to open the Transit Zone until February, there is a much bigger battle looming on the horizon.  The same ominibus budget bill that included the language about opening up the Transit Zone contained another, much broader instruction that read

“The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is completing a new stock assessment of Atlantic Striped Bass in 2018.  After this assessment is complete, the Secretary of Commerce is directed to use this assessment to review the Federal moratorium on Atlantic Striped Bass.”
At that point, the entire range of the coastal migratory stock of striped bass, and not merely the Transit Zone, will be in play.  Should the entire EEZ be opened, striped bass will have no sanctuary from New York and New England fishermen as they spend their summer on northern feeding grounds.  And if the EEZ is opened, all of the big, fecund female bass that spend the winter in federal waters off Virginia and North Carolina before ascending their spawning rivers in the spring will be vulnerable to harvest.

Although those striped bass would be caught in federal waters, such harvest would be governed solely by the states through ASMFC, so there would be no annual catch limit to restrict the number of big females landed.  Yes, there is a “soft” fishing mortality target in the fishery management plan, but unless a new stock assessment, or perhaps a stock assessment update, is conducted to determine just what the actual fishing mortality was, overfishing could continue for years before it was detected.

It’s not hard to imagine the number of big female bass that could be killed in the EEZ over the course of two years.

Which brings us to the last bit of bad news.

The effort to open the EEZ to striped bass fishing has real momentum.  About the only thing that is likely to stop it is a stock assessment showing problems with the health of the stock. Unfortunately, there have been some suggestions that such problems may be out there.

I haven’t heard anything definite yet.

But when Commissioner White first suggested that any action on the Transit Zone proposal be suspended until after the benchmark assessment was released, he made a comment, in passing, that from what he had heard, the assessment might reveal some problems with the stock.  A few other commissioners made similar comments; none were definitive, none speculated on the nature or extent of the problems, and none stated with any certainty that the problems existed at all.

But as I listened to comments made by various people, I got the impression that such problems were probably there.

Thus, the message from Tuesday’s meeting was mixed.

The Management Board did all that responsible anglers could reasonably expect—it asked NMFS to suspend action on the Transit Zone issue until the stock assessment was done, and everyone had enough data to guide the decision. 

Such delay would effectively lump the Transit Zone opening in with the larger question of opening the entire EEZ, an opening that might only be stopped if the stock assessment is bad enough to make it clearly imprudent.  It is possible, but far from certain, that the new assessment will convey that level of pessimism.

Thus, it might appear that the striped bass will lose no matter what happens, but I’d argue that isn’t quite true.

If the EEZ is opened, not just off Block Island, but everywhere, it’s likely—I’m tempted to say 100% likely, although that may be an overstatement—that the stock will be overfished and that far too many of the largest, most fecund females will be removed from the spawning stock.

If that happens, the bass will certainly lose.

On the other hand, if the stock assessment is pessimistic enough to halt the opening, at least we’ll know what has to be done.  The only question is whether the Management Board will have the collective will to restore the bass stock to health.

From what I saw last Tuesday, not just at the striped bass meeting, but earlier in the day, I hope and believe that they will.

Sunday, October 21, 2018


This Columbus Day weekend, I was supposed to take a group of outdoor writers shark fishing south of Shinnecock (Long Island, New York) Inlet.

A howling northeast wind didn’t let that happen, and we didn’t have many other options.  There were a lot of false albacore around, but most of those were also outside.  And there were a bunch of porgies (a/k/a “scup”) in Peconic Bay, but with the northeast wind blowing right between the forks and piling up a rough sea, that wasn’t really an option either. 

So we turned around and spent two days fishing in Shinnecock Bay, where the results weren’t much to—in this case literally—write home about. 

One of the other boats did get a single false albacore inside the bay, and the smallest boat of the group managed to nose up onto a shallow flat and find a few short stripers.  But the writers on board all of our boats spent most of their time catching sea robins, interspersed with a few small, out-of-season fluke, a bluefish and one foul-hooked blowfish.

The wind also forced us to cancel a planned light-tackle excursion to Montauk.  Fortunately, the guide out there is also a very experienced surfcaster, who was willing to take a couple of writers out on the beach.  After spending the day running about 20 miles of sand, and stopping to fish at any point where there was reason to hope, their total catch amounted to just one six or seven pound bluefish.

“…If I could pick ONE weekend a year in January where I would be 99.9% sure fishing is going to be at least decent in Montauk through the course of the entire year I would pick Columbus Day weekend.
“Not for the size or the numbers, just because it’s always been productive for me.  Yeah, I’ve gotten skunk here or there but others found plenty of fish somewhere else.
“…So which club won, what was the biggest fish and biggest combined score.
“No one won.
“There was not a SINGLE fish caught or entered into contest.
“I’ll repeat that one more time.
“Not a Single Eligible Striped Bass was caught during the entire weekend by any of the participating clubs…”
That’s just not how October is supposed to be.

It’s not that the bass are entirely missing.  There has been a decent sand eel bite off some of the Hamptons beaches over the last few weeks.  But a decent bite, along one section of beach, does not make a season.  I stopped by a Bay Shore tackle shop a few days ago, and the pained look on the owner’s face as he shook his head and told a customer that there were only a few small bluefish and a handful of stripers around spoke volumes about what is going on. 

And it’s not only stripers that are scarce.  Along most of the coast, bluefish have been missing in action this season, with only a few pockets of big fish, and spurts of “cocktails” weighing less than three pounds. 

Earlier this month, some of the local party boats had even resorted to targeting blowfish and triggerfish inside the bay, because with the summer flounder (“fluke”) season closed, few legal black sea bass on the inshore wrecks and not may stripers or blues around, they didn’t have any other options.  

At one time, they could have filled their fares buckets with winter flounder, but they disappeared a long time ago.

I got an invitation to go fishing for tautog (“blackfish”) in Long Island Sound a couple of days ago, and things weren’t too much better up there.  Once again, a combination of a stiff wind and relatively small boat kept us from fishing the more productive pieces on the Connecticut side, but there were still a number of small rockpiles that should have produced some action.  They didn’t. 

Despite the fact that I was fishing with a knowledgeable local angler, we only found one undersized tautog after hours of fishing; fortunately, we did run into some oversized porgies that assured a fish dinner that night. 

There’s no question that, on a less-windy day, we would have put a few tautog in the box, but even so, it’s tough to argue that there were enough of them around to justify the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's decision to allow Long Island Sound tautog to endure overfishing for at least another ten years.

The bottom line is that, here on Long Island, fall fishing is not very good, and that the current slow fall is coming after a summer that wasn’t, on the whole, very good either, particularly for the smaller, slower party boats that couldn’t venture out to the offshore wrecks, for the surfcasters, and for the smaller private boats that need to remain in or close to the bay.

Yes, there were some very large fluke caught, but thanks to at least six years of poor reproduction, the overall numbers of fish weren’t very good, and the number of barely-legal-size fish that usually make up most of the recreational harvest was discouragingly low. 

And a lot of those legal black sea bass weren’t caught close to home. 

I do some wreck fishing each season, and spend a lot of time offshore chasing sharks, and I don’t recall ever seeing so many of the local party boats regularly traveling 10 or 15 miles from the inlet during the summer, just to find fish for their fares.  That kind of traveling burns a lot of fuel over the course of the season, and no one likes to do it if they can put fish in their customers’ coolers much closer to the dock. 

And for the first time this summer, I saw some of the boats advertising wreck trips targeting not black sea bass, but ling (more properly, red hake), a species which has traditionally been a last-resort fish for the winter fleet when the cod disappeared, and doesn't normally support a directed summer fishery.

When one looks at the overall picture, Long Island’s inshore anglers experienced a touch of drought this season.   The Fisherman magazine even added the humble sea robin, once shunned as a “trash fish,” as an eligible species in its “Dream Boat Contest,” which, as a sign of the times, is more than a little discouraging.

Yes, there were plenty of porgies, and some places and times when fishing for other species was good.  But those intervals of good action were like summer showers that bring a little temporary relief, but don’t signal any real change in the weather.

So as this season winds down and we look to the next, we have to ask ourselves what the future will be.

Will we get relief from the drought, or will our waters slowly become a desert?

With the loss of New York’s winter flounder, much of that has changed.  In 2017, anglers landed just under 16,000,000 fish (not counting over 2,000,000 unclassified herring, just about all of which were probably menhaden).  More than 40% of that was made up of just one fish, scup or “porgies.”  Another 19% was comprised of bluefish, 15% was black sea bass and 7% was summer flounder.  About 3% was striped bass.

New York anglers are already bringing home less than half as many fish as they did 36 years ago.  The loss of the winter flounder fishery, in itself, accounts for about 57% of the difference; a decline in the landings of just two other species, scup and bluefish (mostly the latter), accounts for almost all of the rest.

So the question anglers, and angling-related businesses need to ask is, “Can we afford to lose anything else?”

There’s no question that the loss of the winter flounder fishery badly hurt Long Island’s recreational fishing industry.  A season that used to begin at the beginning of March, when the first few party boats began fishing for flounder, now doesn’t begin until early May, when the first fluke and striped bass fishing kicks into gear.  And inshore bottom fishermen who once fished for flounder into December now see their season end when fluke closes down in late September, unless they want to try to winkle out a handful of tautog from inshore structure.

Does it make sense to take as many scup, black sea bass, stripers and blues as we can today, while we can?  Or should we be willing to accept a somewhat lower catch, and perhaps lower incomes in the short term, in order to keep our fisheries, and our fishing-related businesses, viable well into the future?

Opinions differ.

Did they enjoy this year’s small taste of drought enough to want to have it for their every meal?

Thursday, October 18, 2018


Striped bass fishing, and even the possession of striped bass, has been prohibited in the EEZ since 1990, a prohibition originally put in place to help rebuild what was then a striped bass stock that was trying to recover from a catastrophic collapse a decade before.  Although the stock has long since recovered, the closure has remained as a bulwark against overfishing.  

When that closure was first put in place, some fishermen complained that it effectively put the often very productive waters surrounding Block Island off-limits to striped bass angling, as fishermen couldn’t possess the fish in the federal waters between that island and the mainland, and thus couldn’t bring their catch home.

In order to allow fishermen to retain bass legally caught in the state waters surrounding Block Island, the National Marine Fisheries Service created the Block Island Transit Zone, which allowed anglers to possess, but not fish for, striped bass while transiting that particular section of the EEZ.

It was another of those examples of no good deed going unpunished, for instead of being grateful that NMFS created a way to legally bring Block Island-caught stripers back to mainland ports, some individuals, primarily those who constitute the Montauk, NY party and charter boat community, complained that they were only allowed to possess fish in the Transit Zone, but were still prohibited for fishing for striped bass in federal waters.

Thus began a long effort to open the Transit Zone to striped bass fishing.

Republican Lee Zeldin defeated Rep. Bishop a few years ago, and continued the effort to open the Transit Zone to striped bass fishing.  In a press release supporting one of his own striped bass bills, Zeldin wrote

“The unique geography of the region creates this small patch of EEZ between two areas of state-controlled water.  Striped bass fishing has been banned in the EEZ since 1990.  Meanwhile, commercial and recreational fishing for dozens of species are permitted in the EEZ…”
In making that claim, Zeldin clearly suggests that the reason that the Transit Zone should be open to striped bass fishing is because anglers on the East End of Long Island are adversely impacted by the “unique geography of the region” that somehow prevents them from striped bass fishing in waters that would otherwise be open to them.

The notion that there is something special about the waters north and west of Block Island made its way into the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking as well, which stated that

“The Transit Zone area is unique because it is a small area of Federal waters (Block Island Sound) substantially bounded by state waters (Long Island, New York on one side, Block Island, Rhode Island on another, and the mainland of Connecticut and Rhode Island on a third side.)”

“said this anomaly (15 miles from New York’s Montauk Point to Block Island and from Block Island to Point Judith, Rhode Island) only exists in this geographic area.  Not only does it take away from the Montauk fisherman, it takes away from the State of New York—150 square miles of geographic areas that we’ve had historicallyMost of the rips from midway to all the way north to what is know as the Alaskan rips are practically legal anyway…  [emphasis added]”
The MRAC bulletin noted that Capt. McBride later said

“The fish are a public resource for the State of NY and it doesn’t make sense to have 60% of the geographic area in this state denied to the citizens of the State.  This anomaly needs to be corrected.”
With those words, Capt. McBride both contradicted himself badly and made it abundantly clear that the effort to open the Transit Zone to striped bass fishing has nothing to do with Block Island or “unique” geography, and everything to do with just being able to catch striped bass in the EEZ.

One thing that people need to understand is that many Montauk boats never stopped fishing for striped bass in the EEZ, even when such fishing was outlawed.  The story of one such boat, which was stopped and boarded by the Coast Guard, was told in the Block Island Times, which reported that

“A National Marine Fisheries Service agent told Newsday, a Long Island newspaper, that the agency had a tip that Viking boats were fishing for bass in federal waters.  Two federal agents and two agents of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation signed up for an evening trip November 6, 2006, on the 140-foot Viking Starship.
“Captain [Steven] Forsberg took the vessel out to the Block Island Sound buoy, about eight miles off Montauk, the agents reported.  They watched as fishermen pulled in about 40 bass and verified the location with a global positioning system device…
“Federal and state officers were waiting when the Starship returned to its dock and questioned the crew, who claimed they had taken the fishermen within the state limit…
“NOAA charged Viking and Forsberg with illegally taking patrons to catch bass in federal waters, and charged Forsberg with making false statements to enforcement agents.”

“to open the Block Island Transit Zone to recreational Striped Bass fishing is of huge importance to our business and to the entire fishing fleet of the east end of Long Island.  The benefit to the economy of Long Island cannot be stressed enough.  We would be able to employ more people as we would expect to carry many more passengers and sail on more trips.  The increase in business would affect all the boats on Long Island and the positive effects would be felt by the tackle shops, marinas, hotels, stores, and restaurants.  The area known as the EEZ is a known striped bass fishing zone and people on all boats really want an opportunity to fish there.  [emphasis added]”
So there you have it, plain and simple, spelled out in black and white.

The effort to open the Block Island Transit Zone has nothing to do with “unique geography” or an “anomaly” that “only exists in this geographic area” because of Block Island.  In fact, it has nothing to do with Block Island at all.

The effort to open the Transit Zone is nothing more than a self-serving effort, on the behalf of the Montauk for-hire fleet, to reclaim their historic ability to fish in the “150 square miles of geographic area” that is now off limits to them because it lies in the EEZ.

It represents their effort to again fish in a series of offshore rips that “are practically legal anyway.”

It represents their desire to fatten their wallets by sailing “on more trips” and carrying “many more passengers” to “a known striped bass fishing zone” where they can kill even more striped bass than they already do.

In that desire, they are no different than captains sailing out of a lot of different ports between New Hampshire and North Carolina, who lost traditional fishing grounds, that they’d like to get back, when the EEZ closure was first imposed.

There is no logical reason why the Montauk boats should be treated any differently than boats from any of those other ports.

And therein lies the biggest reason why striped bass harvest should not be allowed in the Transit Zone.

Sunday, October 14, 2018


Those big poaching busts capture most of the headlines.  

They also serve to obscure the smaller, but far more common, incidents of illegal harvest that are going on all of the time, with much of that poaching committed by recreational fishermen.

“Officer Reilly of the DEC Law Enforcement stated that unclaimed coolers are a large part of the problem.  Once Enforcement agents are spotted, coolers are abandoned.  They can contain as many as 130 fish.  Another large problem is that the vessel trip report doesn’t always match up to the number of fish caught.”
But how do you make those problems go away?

One suggestion is to make the boat’s captain legally responsible for all fish caught by his or her passengers.  But that’s not a solution that’s very popular with the party boat fleet, even though it is one that is enforced on other parts of the coast.

The most serious objection to holding the captains responsible is the fact that some party boat patrons—and, perhaps, this is particularly true of the patrons who poach—are unpleasant people, who wouldn’t shy away from violence if told to open their coolers against their will.  Some crewmembers at the Advisory Council meeting related stories of being threatened by anglers who were asked to display their catch.  (Although there is a some irony to such stories, given that the Internet tough guys who threaten to beat someone “within a half-inch of his life” for supporting various conservation measures on a Facebook page apparently turn into meek little church mice when faced with the possibility of a real physical confrontation with a hardcase poacher on the decks of their own boats.)

On the other hand, many of the party boat captains present at the meeting were completely amenable to a regulation requiring each angler’s cooler to be tagged with a name and address, so that law enforcement could identify who owned coolers left behind with too many fish inside.  However, there was no discussion of how anyone could, as a practical matter, verify that the cooler tags contained accurate information, or of who would bear the penalty should law enforcement board a boat and find untagged coolers, filled with illegal fish, abandoned on board.

And then there’s the problem of the vessel trip reports.  

“hail weight in pounds (or count of individual fish, if a party or charter vessel), by species, of all species…landed or discarded”

Failing to timely fill out an accurate trip report places a vessel operator in legal jeopardy, and it’s hard to think of a way that such an operator could fill out an accurate trip report without knowing what was in his passengers’ coolers—which is why DEC enforcement folks are running into multiple problems when boarding certain boats.  

Thus, it seems that, one way or another, crews might have to start looking under the lids of everyone’s coolers if they want to stay on the right side of the law.

The vessel owners and operators aren’t going to like that fact, but it seems that, at some point in the future, they might not have much choice, as the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council appears serious about finding effective ways to reduce poaching in the party boat fleet.  On November 13 and 14, the Council will be holding a Law Enforcement/For-Hire Workshop in Philadelphia, where

“Operator versus angler (client) responsibility for fisheries violations that occur on for-hire vessels and law enforcement options for enforcing these”
will be one of two topics on the agenda.  

Any recommendations arising out of the workship will be forwarded on to the Council for discussion at its December meeting, and possible adoption if such is deemed warranted.

But private-boat anglers shouldn’t be breathing easy and thinking that they dodged a bullet this time, because their widespread poaching is on the Workshop’s agenda, too.

And in their case it’s not, for the most part, the small-boat inshore bottom fishermen that are at the core of the problem, but a group of anglers that includes the big-boat, high-roller crowd.  It’s the people who call themselves “recreational fishermen” but sell part or all of their catch, and are thus really a subset of the commercial sector.  However, they generally lack commercial fishing licenses and, even if they have them—particularly in the case of offshore anglers who hold General Category Atlantic Tunas permits—they lack the safety equipment that the Coast Guard requires all commercial boats to carry.

We’ve all seen it.  There’s a good run of bluefin offshore—even bluefin below the legal commercial size—and suddenly there’s a surge of boats running out of the inlet and putting the fish on ice.  Legal limits often go out the window.  Boats bring a dozen large school fish back to the dock, and when somebody raises the bag limit issue, they point to the tuna’s finlets and say “Look!  They’re yellow.  These aren’t bluefin, they’re yellowfin, and we can take three apiece.”  Whether they’re really that dumb, or just playing dumb, is open to question, but they’re breaking the law just the same.

And there’s little question that they know that they can’t sell the fish and still be in accord with the rules. 

Last year, I told the story of my wife and I going into aBay Shore restaurant, and the waiter trying to sell us a “special’ bluefindish.  When I asked how big the tuna was,he quickly said “110 pounds,” a weight that was far to small for any fish thatmade the 73-inch commercial minimum size.  The waiter said that the fish had come straight from Montauk, and maybe it was poached out there, but it was hard to ignore the fact that there were a lot of tuna in the same size range being caught south of Long Island just then, and that quite a few of the boats that caught them were moored only a mile or two from the restaurant in question.

That sort of thing needs to stop, but so does the general lawlessness that we see every time there’s a good tuna bite—whether bluefin, yellowfin or bigeye—when everyone from truck drivers to teachers to wealthy physicians and real estate folks load up on fish, then unload them on the market.  Some of the boats, particularly the large ones, do have commercial permits, but a lot of them don’t, and very few of them have all of the required commercial gear.

And that’s a bad thing, because all of those hobby-caught fish, when they’re brought to market—whether through the front door of a licensed dealer or the back door of a local shop or restaurant—are competing with legitimate commercial fishermen’s landings, driving down prices from folks who are properly licensed and trying to market their fish in the right way.

Which is why the enforcement folks at the Philadelphia Workshop, and later the Mid-Atlantic Council, want to look at the issue.

It’s a big ocean, and a long coastline.  And there’s a long maritime tradition of looking the other way when smugglers, and other miscreants, practice their trade.  There are very few law enforcement agents, and the deck is badly stacked against them.

But illegal harvest steals fish from everyone, and most particularly, it steals from the honest folks that go about their business, and their recreation, without breaking the law.

For that reason, we can only hope that when the Workshop, and then the Council, talk about the recreational poaching problem, they end up talking about some viable solutions, too.