Thursday, October 29, 2015


In the mid-Atlantic region, over the past half-dozen years, few fish have generated as much controversy as black sea bass.

Thanks to the hard work of federal fisheries managers, guided by the stock rebuilding requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, black sea bass, which were badly overfished not too long ago, have made a magnificent recovery.  The population currently stands just a bit above managers’ biomass target.

In addition, the 2011 year class was very large, and sent a big surge of fish into that population.

As a result, anglers are seeing and catching a lot of black sea bass, perhaps more than they have ever seen before.

That sounds like good news, and from a biological standpoint, it is.  However, the species' recent abundance, coupled with the fact that they are a structure-dependent species that congregates in large numbers around wrecks, rockpiles, making them easy to catch, has attracted a lot of angler attention, particularly as other popular targets, such as summer flounder, become harder to find.

That presents a real problem, particularly because the lack of a good stock assessment for the species forces managers to be extra cautious when setting annual catch limits.  

Lacking any reliable information that allows them to confidently calculate the fishing mortality rate or population size that will result in maximum sustainable yield, managers have settled on a “constant catch strategy” that is intended to keep landings steady without putting the health of the population at risk.

Unfortunately, it also caps harvest at far lower levels than the stock could probably stand if better data was available.  Thus, when the annual specifications were established at the August meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the Acceptable Biological Catch was set at just 5.5 million pounds. 

A little more than half of that may be caught by anglers, although when an allowance for dead discards in included, the recreational harvest limit was reduced to just 2.33 million pounds.

That’s a problem, given that landings were higher than that in four of the past five seasons, even though regulations were made more restrictive every time the harvest limit was exceeded.

It looks like the cycle of constantly tightening regulations isn’t going to end at any time soon; 2015 is far from over, and landings data is only available through August 31.  However, with one-third of the season left to run, recreational black sea bass landings were already nearly 2.5 million pounds, already exceeding the angling quota.

There is one bit of hope on the horizon.  A team of biologists has come up with a new approach to set annual catch limits for data-poor species such as black sea bass.  At its October meeting, the Mid-Atlantic Council, following the advice of its Science and Statistics Committee, approved the new approach and increased the Acceptable Biological Catch to 6.67 million pounds, and the recreational harvest limit to 2.82 million.

As of August 31, anglers hadn’t exceeded that new figure—yet.

However, in 2013, about 27% of total recreational sea bass landings occurred in the last four months of the year; last year, the proportion was even higher, at around 32%. 
If we split that down the middle and assume that the 2.5 million pounds landed by August 31 represents about 70% of the landings for 2015, black sea bass landings for this year should come in somewhere around 3.5 million pounds, roughly 25% above the 2016 landings limit.

That means that recreational regulations are going to have to be tightened again.

The question is, should all segments of the angling community suffer equal cuts, or should managers target what the data suggests are some very obvious abuses?

One of the biggest examples deals with compliance.

Here in New York, we have a 14-inch minimum size for black sea bass.  Early in the season, there are plenty of fish of that size—and larger—around, but as the artificial reefs off the inlets, along with the most popular wrecks and rockpiles, experience heavy fishing pressure, a lot of the larger fish are removed and much of what’s left falls far short of the minimum size.

At that point, there’s a real temptation to put undersized fish in the cooler, and a lot of folks apparently succumb.

As part of the catch sampling process, surveyors for the National Marine Fisheries Service measure the size of fish caught by anglers.  So far this season, it turns out that 35% of the black sea bass measured by NMFS surveyors in New York were undersized.

That’s pretty bad.

But the percentage of undersized fish wasn’t consistent across the angling community.  It varied considerably by mode.  About 16% of the black sea bass that were caught by private boat anglers and measured by NMFS surveyors were below legal size.  Charter boat fishermen had a far more criminal bent; the majority of their fish—over 57%--were illegally small.  And party boat fishermen behaved a little bit worse, with over 63% of the fish measured by NMFS surveyors falling below the minimum size.

To be fair, the sample size was small, and the numbers might have been different if more fish were measured, but it is not realistic to believe that some pattern of illegal harvest would not still be there.

And what makes it worse is that there’s pretty good evidence that the party boats’ landings are badly undercounted. 

NMFS estimates that fewer than 10,000 black sea bass were landed by New York party boats during July and August of 2015.  I found that hard to believe, for just where I fish off Fire Island Inlet, I see party boats constantly hovering over the reefs and wrecks where black sea bass are found.  So I did a little research, looking at the fishing reports published by the two party boats belonging to the Laura Lee fleet out of Captree, New York.  

Those boats report on their web page that, by themselves, they harvested 12,580 black sea bass between July 15 and August 31 of this year, about 26% more fish than NMFS reported landed by the entire New York party boat fleet during that time

So based on the information available, the party boat sector chronically harvests undersized fish, while its landings appear substantially underreported; its harvest of illegal black sea bass is probably much higher than the NMFS figures suggest.  Yet the same sector that, when each year’s regulations are set, always calls out for special consideration.  This year, New York agreed to increase the bag limit by 25% in November and December, when most private boats are laid up for the winter and for-hire boats are the primary participants in the fishery.

In an environment of increased regulation, it would be appropriate to first end such preferential treatment, and then craft regulations that place a greater burden on those who fail to follow the rules.

But even following the regulations can lead to excessive harvest, if the rules themselves don't make sense.

NMFS data shows that over 95% of the black sea bass harvested by anglers in 2014 were landed between Massachusetts and New Jersey; a similar percentage will probably be landed in the same region this year.  So when harvest reductions were put in place for 2015, it was those states that had to tighten their regulations.

All of the states between Massachusetts and New York adopted a 14-inch minimum size limit in order to constrain landings.  While it didn’t work all that well at reducing harvest, at least landings didn’t go up.

That was not the case in New Jersey, which maintained a 12 ½-inch size limit and tried to achieve the mandated reduction with a complicated combination of season closures and changing bag limits.  It didn't work.  Instead of reducing recreational landings by 33%, New Jersey actually saw them increase by nearly 21% during through August 31—even though the season closed on July 31, and didn’t open up again until the end of October.

More than 40% of those landings were composed of fish between 12 and 14 inches long, so it’s easy to argue that if New Jersey had adopted the same 14-inch minimum size as its northern neighbors, it would not have exceeded last year’s harvest, and might actually have come somewhat close to achieving the required reduction.

Thus, if more restrictive regulations are required next year, it would clearly be inequitable for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is responsible for approving state plans, to require the states between Massachusetts and New York, which at least tried to meaningfully reduce their harvest, to make the same sort of reduction required of New Jersey, which insisted on keeping the smallest minimum size and highest bag limit (for most of the year) of any northeastern state.

New regulations should have the greatest impact on the folks creating the problems. 

Fisheries managers should tailor any new rules to rein in the states and the sectors that abuse the system, and make things hard for us all.

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