Sunday, August 10, 2014


There’s a lot going on in the fisheries management world these days.

Some things, such as the collapse of Gulf of Maine cod or the reauthorization of the Magnuson Act, are truly important events which will resonate well into the future.

But lost between them and some slightly lesser 
proceedings, such as the fight to rebuild the flagging striped bass stock or the ongoing red snapper debate in the Gulf of Mexico, lies a largely overlooked effort to change the black sea bass season in the Mid-Atlantic.

Although the matter has largely flown beneath the radar, going unnoticed by those not personally involved in the fishery, it has implications that could affect us all.

The Mid-Atlantic black sea bass fishery isn’t very large.  
Anglers were allotted 2.26 million pounds of fish this year, to be shared by fishermen in every state between Massachusetts and North Carolina.  That’s not really a lot of fish, less than one-third of the 7 million pounds of both scup and summer flounder that is doled out to anglers in the same group of states.

The stock, once badly overfished, now sits right at its biomass target, and anglers generally land about all of the fish they are given.  Landings were around 71% of the recreational harvest limit in 2011, more than double—250% of the limit—in 2012 and 108% of the limit in 2013.

So it’s pretty clear that any new angling effort is going to have an impact on those already harvesting the stock.

Federal managers have imposed seemingly reasonable harvest restrictions, with a 15-fish bag limit, 12 ½-inch minimum size and a split season that runs from May 15 to September 18, closes for a month, and then runs from October 18 through the end of the year.  However, fishing effort and landings are not distributed evenly along the coast; black sea bass are a more important fish toward the northern end of their range, so the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has imposed state-specific restrictions that keep one region from dominating the fishery.

Here in New York, our season doesn’t begin until July 15, and runs for the rest of the year.  Our bag limit is only 8 fish and they must meet a larger-than-federal 13-inch minimum size.  And at that, we’re sort of fortunate; neighboring Connecticut’s season get’s off to an earlier start, on June 21, and also lasts ‘til the end of the year, but in exchange, Connecticut anglers may only take 3 13-inch fish home on any one trip between June 21 and August 31.

On the other hand, New York’s regulations aren’t as good as they seem.  Although the regular season doesn’t begin until July 15, party boats participating in the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Research Set-Aside Program can begin fishing whenever they want to, which as a practical matter seems to be the beginning of May, and they hit Long Island’s artificial reefs pretty hard.  By the time that the taxpayers who shelled out the cash for those reefs get a shot at the fish in July, the party boats have already been fishing for more than two months and have cleaned off most of the large fish—and most of the merely legal ones—forcing anglers who want to seriously target sea bass out into federal waters, where some of the wrecks and patches of natural hard bottom still hold good concentrations of fish.

Of course, fishing in federal waters mean that federal rules apply, so the same anglers who had to wait until July 15 to start fishing also lose another month in September and October.  Yes, they could fish on the state reefs but…the same party boats that looted them in the spring are still there, gathering up whatever remains.

Now, the same party boats, cooperating with their counterparts elsewhere on the coast, are trying to convince the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to open the black sea bass season in “Wave 1”—that’s January and February—and it appears that they’re going to get their way.

That’s not a good thing.

To begin with, nobody knows what people catch at that time of year.  Neither the old Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey, nor its modern replacement, the Marine Recreational Information Program, samples landings in the mid-Atlantic states at that time of year. 

So we have no idea what was landed in the past, when the winter fishery was open before, and we will have no idea what will be landed in the future, if the fishery is opened again.

The Mid-Atlantic Council is trying to get around that problem by requiring all participants in the fishery to electronically report their catch, but there’s a nasty rumor out there—you may have even heard it—that fishermen sometimes lie. 

And given that the only boats allowed to participate in the fishery will be for-hire vessels, who have a clear economic interest in keeping the winter fishery open while not seeing their traditional summer/fall fishery affected at all—well, the incentive to underreport the size and number of their catch is certainly there.

Penalties for improper reporting may not prove effective.  

Here in New York, we recently saw participants in the Mid-Atlantic Council’s Research Set-Aside Program—another program that grants special harvest privileges, not available to the general public, to a handful of participating boats—plead guilty to using RSA as a cover while illegally landing hundreds of pounds of summer flounder, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, to equally larcenous dealers.  They did so for years, even though electronic reporting was required for fishermen and dealers alike.

And just a couple of years ago, on February 18. 2012, we saw 38 passengers on the Jamaica, a party boat operating out of Brielle, New Jersey, given summonses for harvesting a total of 819 out-of-season black sea bass.  The Jamaica’s captain said that he knew that passengers were keeping a few illegal fish, but also said that

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.
If captains have that sort of attitude, how can we believe that their trip reports will be reliable?

And that’s just one of the issues.

“With a limited quota however, the higher Wave 1 catch will have to be balanced by less catch later in the year.“
Which, from a management standpoint, is the way it should be, but as anglers, it means that we, in the recreational sector, are going to have to pay—in terms of season, bag limit and size limit—for the fish caught by the charter sector during Wave 1.  The Monitoring Committee addressed that by saying

“While the recreational specifications package will analyze the question in greater detail, the approximate range of impacts can be estimated.  The 2013 annual average weight for black sea bass was 1.91 pounds.  Assuming that weight for landings and half that weight for discards, and a 15% discard mortality rate, the mortality rate in pounds was approximately 139,000 pounds.  If the assumed weight was higher for an offshore fishery (50%), then the mortality rate in pounds was approximately 208,000 pounds.  Given the current recreational harvest limit (2,259,715 pounds), this would mean that a 6%-9% reduction would be needed later in the year to offset this additional catch.  Using the catch reduction tables used for recent specifications, this could translate into reducing the season during Wave 5 for example by approximately 10-15 days.“
Here in New York, if the Monitoring Committee is right, that could tear another half-month out of the heart of our season.  In reality, it could be much worse, because the boats fishing in Wave 1 often limit out—15 fish per person—and catch a lot of the really big males, fish that might weigh anywhere between 3 and over 7 pounds (compared to the average fish we catch, that weigh less than two).

That’s not fair.  And, according to the Magnuson Act, fairness matters.

It says so in National Standard Four, which states

(4) Conservation and management measures shall not discriminate between residents of different States. If it becomes necessary to allocate or assign fishing privileges among various United States fishermen, such allocation shall be (A) fair and equitable to all such fishermen; (B) reasonably calculated to promote conservation; and (C) carried out in such manner that no particular individual, corporation, or other entity acquires an excessive share of such privileges.  [emphasis added]”
I’d hate to be the one to explain to a judge how granting special harvest privileges to the charter fishing sector, and making the recreational fishing sector shoulder the lion’s share of the conservation burden—in terms of shorter seasons and, perhaps, smaller and less abundant black sea bass during the regular season is “fair and equitable,” but let’s be honest here—no one is going to sue.  There’s not a single organization in the northeast—defined as anything  north of Delaware Bay—that will place the interests of the individual angler above those of the for-hire fleet.

Which means that we’re going to get screwed…

That’s not good, but the bigger and more important question is whether the black sea bass are going to take it on the chin, and what the implications might be for other stocks.

The Monitoring Committee report isn’t very reassuring in that regard, as it seems that it came to the conclusion that a Wave 1 opening wouldn’t hurt the stock based on very little hard data and a lot of best case assumptions.

For example, it noted that

“…anecdotal reports (there is no Wave 1 size information since only numbers of fish are recorded on recreational for-hire VTRs) suggest that black sea bass caught offshore during Wave 1 are relatively large fish that might be the primary spawning males once they come inshore. “
What if the concerns about killing the big males are valid?  

Given the lack of reliable data with respect to Wave 1 landings, and the fact that black sea bass are a data-poor species without a valid stock assessment, isn’t at least a little precaution a good idea?

If you’re the Monitoring Committee, the answer is “probably not,” as they brushed off this concern by saying

“ While it is theoretically possible that this could have an impact on spawning behavior, there is no available information to suggest that previous Wave 1 fisheries had a detrimental impact on spawning…“
Of course, “there is no available information to suggest that” the Wave 1 fishery is benign, either…

The Monitoring Committee also brushed off concerns about high levels of dead discards occurring in the winter fishery, which is prosecuted in deep water where barotrauma is—or at least should be—a real concern

“If the anecdotal reports of the fish being larger offshore are correct, then discarding may be lower during offshore fishing.  While most recreational discard information is self-reported  and therefore data quality concerns exist, in 2013 the overall black sea bass discard rate was 87% (MRIP query), while Table 8 (VTR data) suggests that Wave 1 discard rates in the for-hire fishery are much lower when Wave 1 is open to black sea bass fishing…”
You’ll note that they’re depending on VTRs—Vessel Trip Reports—for estimates of Wave 1 discards.  When you read that, never forget that discards aren’t closely counted on a busy black sea bass trip, and that the numbers in the VTRs are supplied by the party boat captains, including captains like the one on  the Jamaica, who wasn’t aware that his passengers had killed 819 illegal black sea bass on a single trip.

I’m not a trained biologist, but that doesn’t sound like reliable data to me…

Anyway, on this coming Tuesday, the Mid-Atlantic Council will decide whether a relative handful of party boat operators, belonging to one sector of the fishery, can be granted special harvest privileges and pass most of the burdens associated with that grant to another sector who will get nothing but heartburn out of the deal.

The Council will decide whether to allow the harvest of a data-poor species, which has not been successfully assessed, at a time of year when there is no objective survey of recreational harvest.

In a meat-oriented fishery where breaking the rules is far from unknown.

I’ve praised the Mid-Atlantic Council more than once in this blog, because they usually do the right thing.

But in this case, they’re maddeningly wrong, and making little effort to question whether opening the winter fishery is the right thing to do.

And that’s a scary thing.

Because doing the wrong thing the first time is hard, but it gets easier as you go along.

I’d hate to see the most successful regional fishery management council in the country develop bad habits.

But with black sea bass, they’re certainly headed in that direction.

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