Sunday, September 21, 2014


September is hardly half-over, but the talk has already started…

Last Tuesday, I got a phone call from an angler at my marina.  His father had been out on a Montauk party boat the day before, and had spotted “a square mile” of big striped bass floating dead off the Point.

On Thursday, as I walked through the door after work, Theresa met me with the comment “You’ve got a bunch of e-mails on trawler bycatch.”  I sat down at the computer to find comments from a Montauk charter boat captain, who complained to the powers that be that

It came to my attention yesterday of dragger discards of dead stripers floating in the vicinity of a spot call Frisbees that is 4-5 miles s/w of Montauk Point.  In the two photos are a good many 25-40-pound striped bass that were floating dead on the surface.  This is a common occurrence each fall off Montauk when the draggers begin to work the same waters stripers are migrating in.  I know the draggers are allowed a 21-fish a day bycatch of striped bass. However, with the declining stock of stripers this wanton disregard for a great game fish must stop.
Another Montauk captain, who I speak with on a regular basis, had telephoned me with similar complaints, and photos of the dead discards were posted on a popular Internet fishing site.  The poster there claimed that the raft of dead bass was three miles long.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation responded to the Montauk captain’s e-mail.  It noted that there were a lot of squid in the area, that the squid were attracting a lot of boats from Rhode Island, and that such Rhode Island boasts, which were not licensed to harvest striped bass from New York waters, may have been responsible for dumping the fish.

That’s a plausible answer, but it doesn’t do much for the problem.

Because, while the number of dead bass is startling, it’s really nothing new.

A newspaper article from 2009, entitled “Dead fish litter beach in Montauk, commercial fishermen blamed,” reported that

“The carcasses of hundreds of striped bass washed onto the beach at Napeague Sunday afternoon, and there is speculation that commercial fishermen were to blame.
“The fish began washing up shortly after noon on Sunday, according to several recreational fishermen who were in the area at the time. The dead fish were scattered in the ocean and on the sand along a stretch of beach east of Atlantic Drive, an area referred to as White Sands, for the resort of the same name on the beach there.
“’It ran for a good mile,” said Dan Loos, who was driving along the beach Sunday afternoon. “There were three or four here and there in the surf and on the beach. It had to be a couple hundred at least.’
“,,,the smell of rotting flesh was detectable by the drivers of cars traveling on Montauk Highway, a witness said.
“’We could smell them before we saw them,” said Jane Lahr, who was walking on the beach near Atlantic Drive on Monday morning. The birds were “picking at them.’”
And, of course, it’s not limited to Montauk or even to New York.
When the squid are plentiful off the South Shore of Long Island, the dead bass tend to follow, as this 2001 thread—as I said, this is nothing new—from another Internet site describes a kill in my local waters off Fire Island.
And the big trawler kills off North Carolina, where the great majority of east coast fish spend the winter, are infamous.  Or course, down there, the trawlers get to keep 50 of the bass that they kill on every trip until the quota is filled, so a lot of the Carolina kill is not accidental.  Videos of the North Carolina discards are pretty disheartening, but what they show is pretty typical of what goes on here in New York and elsewhere along the coast.
What is also disheartening up here in New York is that some of our trawlers, like those in North Carolina, don’t kill bass by accident, but instead by design.  The recent bass kills may well have been caused by squid trawlers, but other bass are undoubtedly killed when New York trawlers wrongly target schools of stripers.
And I say “wrongly” in the ethical sense—and the legal one, too—because trawlers may not target striped bass in New York waters.  The relevant regulation clearly states that
“Striped bass may be taken for commercial purposes by using any of the following permitted gear types only: hook and line, pound net, trap net, gill net as specified in subdivision 40.5(e) of this Part, or as bycatch in otter trawls. Permit holders may use any of the legal gears to catch their individual allocation of striped bass. Otter trawl bycatch is limited to 21 striped bass per vessel per trip and shall be separately boxed. All other types of gear are prohibited for use in taking striped bass, including but not limited to: haul seines and spears.  [emphasis assed]”
Unfortunately, intent is difficult thing to prove in court, and the “bycatch” proviso is routinely ignored.
The issue comes up every now and then at New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council.  The last time it arose, the trawlers sought to increase their “bycatch” limit from 21 to 100 fish per trip, but not because they thought that it would decrease dead discards and kill fewer striped bass.  Instead,
“…Councilor Paul Farnham [a Montauk commercial fisherman] has stated that trawl fishermen would like to do away with the limit entirely and let trawlers be allowed to catch as many striped bass as they could to use up their commercial tag allocation.  Mr. Farnham submitted letters to the Council from by trawl fishermen Vincent Carillo, Jr. of the Tenacious Fishing Corporation and Chuck Weimar of the F/V Rianda, who also endorse this change.  In their view, the conservation of striped bass is achieved through issuing a limited number of tags.  How the fish are caught really doesn't matter.  Mr. Farnham stated that the current by-catch allowance forced a trawl fishermen with a full-share allocation of striped bass tags to make a lot of trips to catch tag allocation.  This was economically wasteful and unnecessary.  [emphasis added]”
It seems that the trawlers completely disregard the letter and spirit of the regulation, and direct effort on striped bass, even though the regulation clearly states that they may only land bass as bycatch.  And they have no problem admitting it in a public forum.
It’s pretty certain that when those trawlers set on a school of striped bass, they don’t catch just their 21 fish, all neatly falling within New York’s 24- to 36-inch commercial slot.  We can bet that there will be shorts and oversized fish netted and killed, and plenty of over-limit fish, too.
It’s impossible to say how many fish such directed activity kills, but maybe we can get some idea from the law enforcement report that described what happened when one trawler decided to land fish illegally, rather than discard them dead.  In that report, we can read that
“…Region 1 Officers…inspected a trawler off-loading at Gosman’s fish dock [in Montauk].  There they observed striped bass thrown onto the dock.  The fish covered a large area and most of them were untagged.  The fisherman, Dave Aripotch, was only entitled to catch 21 fish as bycatch.  The officers had the remaining 93 striped bass tagged with the fisherman’s tags and sold them to a fish market and received $2,037.50 for the 815 pounds of striped bass seized.  The fisherman was charged with over-the-limit striped bass and failure to tag striped bass.  [emphasis added]”
I don’t know what you took away from that story, but it seems to me that 93 striped bass above the legal bycatch quota is a lot of bass to be killed—whether illegally kept or thrown back dead—in a single trip.  But what really strikes me is the casualness with which the “striped bass [had been] thrown onto the dock,” so that they “covered a large area.”  There was no effort to land the illegal fish covertly, or hide the fact that they were there.
That sort of open defiance of the law suggests that such landings are routine enough that no one—except the enforcement officers—thought much about displaying the poached striped bass in public, and that there was nothing particularly unusual about doing so—it must happen all of the time.
It also suggests to me that the 21-fish bycatch allowance, although put in place with the laudable intention of preventing the waste of fish, may be doing more harm than good by encouraging trawlers to direct effort on striped bass.
For if we believe what we hear from the trawlers themselves, while some bycatch is unavoidable, most striped bass just don’t have to die.  At the same Marine Resources Advisory Council meeting that saw the Montauk boats try to raise the trawl trip limit to 100 fish,
One audience member said that you at times can’t help but run through a group of striped bass when towing a trawl inshore.  It was also pointed out that striped bass are usually found very near shore and can be largely avoided by fishing offshore.  Thus, it would be possible to allow trawlers to catch their allocation of tags quickly and then avoid significant further striped bass catches by staying offshore.  [emphasis added]”
That was confirmed by a member of the MRAC panel itself when
Councilor Risi [said] that most fishermen have a sense of what they will be picking up.  If they have the ability to catch 21 fish, they will make a swing for it and, unfortunately, sometimes they might pick up 100 striped bass or more; therefore a lot more fish are going to die unnecessarily.  He believes that once a trawler reaches their limit, they will be able to fish differently and not target striped bass.
So if New York state really wants to minimize striped bass bycatch and discard mortality, perhaps the best answer is a seasonal closure of state waters, that would prevent the trawlers from coming too close to the shore and thus threatening the stripers.  It might require the boats to burn a little more fuel, but they’ll be able to find plenty of squid—the fishery that causes most of the problems—three miles off the beach, and if striped bass “can largely be avoided by fishing offshore,” substantially reduce dead discards by dragging in deeper water.
Other states have already addressed the issue.  Massachusetts may be the friendlier to commercial fishermen than any other state in the northeast, yet
Yet, so far as I can determine, there is no indication that trawlers are discarding more dead bass off Massachusetts than we’re seeing killed off of New York.
Perhaps that’s because
Once again, there seems to be no serious discard problems.
So viewed in that context, things look pretty clear.
Bycatch is a bad thing, even if the fish being discarded are plentiful.  When they are a valued species such as striped bass, which is either already overfished or will be overfished soon, such waste is inexcusable, and managers should be trying to reduce the number of dead discards as close to zero as possible.
The “bycatch” allowances permitted in states such as New York and North Carolina are ineffective, and merely encourage trawlers to destroy more fish when they direct effort on their “bycatch quota.”
More effective measures, such as pushing trawlers farther off the beach, prohibiting trawling at night and preventing trawlers from profiting from their bycatch, have been put in place in some states and seem to be working.
Which means that they should be put in place everywhere else.
For allowing—even promoting—the waste of the striped bass resource is a foolish thing to do at the best of times. 

With the stock in decline, it is the sort of self-indulgence that none of us can afford.

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