Sunday, August 2, 2015
RETHINKING BLUEFISH MANAGEMENT
A new benchmark stock assessment for bluefish has just been completed. The assessment is so new that the entire document is not yet available, although a summary has been posted onthe Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s website.
However, even the summary confirms something that anglers and fisheries managers have both known for years.
“Bluefish are predominantly a recreationally caught species, with recreational harvest making up approximately 80% of total removals in recent years. [emphasis added]”
It also describes a trend that anglers are certainly aware of, saying
“Recreational data are available from 1981 onward. Recreational harvest has…declined over this time period, from a peak in 1983 at 24.8 million fish to a low of 3.7 million fish in 1999. Recreational harvest has increased slightly since then, with the most recent 5-year average equal to 5.6 million fish. Both total numbers and the proportion of fish released alive by anglers have increased over this time period: 18% were released alive from 1981-1985 (an average of 5.0 million fish) while 62% were released alive from 2010-2014 (an average of 9.2 million fish)… [emphasis added]”
A primarily recreational fishery, in which anglers choose to release rather than retain most of their catch, should be managed very differently than a commercial fishery, in which the goal is efficiently landing something close to maximum sustainable yield every year. It should also be managed differently than the recreational fishery for scup or summer flounder, where putting fish in the cooler is a primary goal.
Such a predominantly recreational, primarily catch-and-release fishery should be managed for fish in the water, to provide anglers with the maximum number of hookups—and probably releases—rather than merely yield.
Unfortunately, fishery managers haven’t gotten that message, and are still trying maximize the number of dead bluefish hauled back to the dock.
According to the new assessment, the bluefish stock is not overfished and overfishing isn’t occurring. The current spawning stock biomass is estimated at 86,534 metric tons, below the target of 111,229 mt, but still comfortably above the biomass threshold. There is good news, in that last year’s recruitment was slightly above average, and in that the stock has shown
“an increasing trend in recent years.”
Still, the new assessment includes some changes.
The previous assessment recommended reference points based on fishing mortality; such reference points depend on biologists having a good idea of how recruitment—young fish coming into the population—impacts the size of the overall stock. With bluefish, some of the stock-recruitment data is pretty shaky, because there is little information on recruitment during periods when the stock size is small.
Because of such information gaps, the biologists who produced the latest stock assessment decided that it would be better to manage bluefish based on “spawning potential ratio,” which is basically the spawning potential of the current stock compared to the spawning potential of an unfished population. Having made that decision, they went on to conclude that the bluefish population would be sustainable if its spawning potential was at least 40% of that of an unfished stock.
Such decision had a minor impact on the fishing mortality threshold, dropping Fmsy from 0.190 to 0.170. It had a bigger impact on the spawning stock biomass target, reducing it from 147,052 metric tons to the previously mentioned 111,229. That’s a little more significant number, for under the previous biomass reference points, the bluefish stock was a lot closer to being overfished.
The stock assessment cited relatively few grounds for uncertainty, and thus recommended an Overfishing Limit that contained little allowance for such unknowns. However, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistical Committeehas the right to adjust that perceived level of uncertainty upward, and thisyear, as in other years, it has decided to take such action with bluefish.
So it’s clear that biologists are willing to change the way that they assess the stock, in order to adapt to the best available data.
And it’s clear that the SSC is willing to change, decreasing the Overfishing Limit from the assessment to address data problems that they perceive.
But it appears that the folks who advise the Council on management measures are stuck in a rut, unwilling to consider managing bluefish in accord with the way the resource is used.
The problem dates back to 1998, when Amendment 1 to the Bluefish Fishery Management Plan was adopted. That plan allocated 83% of landings to the recreational sector, but included the provision that
“If the commercial quota was less than 10.5 million lbs. the quota could be increased up to 10.5 million lbs. if the recreational fishery was not anticipated to land their entire allocation for the upcoming year.”
That’s a provision that has always contained the potential for a lot of mischief.
As noted before, recreational fishermen are releasing more and more of the bluefish that they catch. Anglers release fish for a number of reasons; sometimes they’re compelled to by law, sometimes they don’t like to eat them and often because they want to keep an abundance of fish in the ocean for their and other folks’ use.
Unfortunately, the transfer provision largely frustrates the latter objective. While anglers may release bluefish today so that there are more in the water for them to catch tomorrow, the transfer of “unused” recreational quota to the commercial sector effectively sends anglers the message that such conservation efforts are pointless. Bluefish that they choose to release aren’t destined to improve the quality of recreational angling; instead, they just go toward an increased commercial quota and are killed all the same.
In addition, predicting recreational landings is very hard to do. The July 27 Summary ofthe Bluefish Monitoring Committee notes that
“For the 2010-2014 period, recreational landings have ranged from 10.52 M lb (4,774 mt) in 2014 to 16.48 M lb (7,477 mt) in 2013. Recreational landings for the 2016-2018 period are difficult to estimate.”
Yet, no matter how difficult it is to make, such estimate is very important, as it determines how much bluefish may be transferred from the recreational to the commercial sector.
A July 23 memo from Mid-Atlantic Council staff recommended that recreational landings should be pegged at the 2014 low point, which would maximize the number of fish transferred to the commercial sector.
The Monitoring Committee disagreed with that approach, and suggested using a three-year average (which would include landings from the superstorm Sandy-attenuated 2012 season); that approach would provide a recreational catch estimate of 12.95 million pounds (5,875 mt)—still slightly below estimated 2015 landings—and assume that, despite an increasing biomass, recreational landings would not increase at all through 2018.
The Monitoring Committee approach would permit only a small quota transfer—200,000 pounds—in 2016, but that would quickly increase more than tenfold, to 2.16 millon pounds, by 2018—while the recreational quota would not increase at all.
It’s a strange way to manage a fishery that is supposedly “predominantly” recreational, and largely self-managed by anglers to emphasize catch and release.
It’s also strange to give the commercial sector more fish given how large landings of bluefish depress the commercial market.
Here in New York, May always sees high commercial landings as the fish first move inshore.
In 2013, the last year for which catch information is available, May saw 260,962 pounds of bluefish sold for the princely sum of $122,902—about 47 cents per pound, although I heard rumors that the price dropped as low as 20 cents per pound for a part of that time.
In North Carolina, the price situation was even worse, with a total of 1,159,596 pounds of bluefish selling for an aggregate of $564,349—less than 49 cents per pound. And if it wasn’t for strong prices in March, which brought up the average, things would have looked far worse, with monthly prices in the other eleven months averaging between 39 cents and less than 46 cents per pound, with most months seeing an average price in the 40-41 cent range.
It’s hard to believe that such fish wouldn’t have had greater value—and provided a greater benefit to the nation—if no inter-sector transfers were made, and the bluefish were available to anglers to catch again and again, while using up bait, losing lures and burning gas—and providing more than a 47-cents-per-pound benefit along the way.
Even commercial fishermen probably would have benefited, as a lower quota and, hopefully, lower trip limits would have kept prices higher, allowing them to make the same money without working as long or as hard.
Thus, it’s more than past time to rethink bluefish management, and to adopt a management program that recognizes that “bluefish are predominantly a recreationally caught species” and, moreover, that anglers who fish for bluefish release most of their catch.
It is time for managers to stop maximizing folks’ opportunities to put dead bluefish on the dock, and to start maximizing folks’ opportunities to encounter live bluefish in the water, where they can best be enjoyed.
Doing so would represent a paradigm shift in marine fisheries management, but it is a shift that is long overdue.