Thursday, September 8, 2016


Hurricane/Tropical Storm/Subtropical Depression Hermine never got all that close to Long Island.

We got some rain, and the breeze came up for a couple of days, but just about all of the trees stayed standing, the power stayed on and the Mets could still go out and play ball.  Anglers, on the other hand, mostly stayed home, for while the storm never came close to land, it did push up some big swells and a crashing, beach-gnawing surf, and tides ran above normal for a cycle or two.

Now, as the seas subside and fishing this weekend becomes a real possibility, we wonder what we’re going to find.

I’m lucky, because I fish offshore, and there was a good yellowfin bite going on before the blow started.  If I don’t feel like running that far, I can still look for sharks on the 20 fathom line, where the sharks, in their turn, should be looking for bluefish. 

For the past couple of years, the key to the yellowfin have been big schools of sandeels, which are attracting everything in the ocean from skipjack to whales.  Thanks to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, those sand eel schools should be healthy in future years, for last August the Council passed its Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment, which will prevent anyone from starting up a new, large scale fishery that would kill them in bulk for chicken feed.

The same forage fish amendment would also protect the swarms of chub mackerel schooling a bit closer inshore.  There’s already a fishery for them, but the amendment will keep it from getting much bigger.  That’s good news for sharks in years such as this one, when bluefish can be scarce and the sharks need the mackerel to keep themselves fed.

But if winds keep me inshore, then the prospects fade. 

Hermine’s hard-running tides have probably convinced whatever fluke remain in the bays that it’s time to head for their deep-water wintering grounds.  Most years, that means a good run of fish at the inlets, and big fluke on structure offshore.  Unfortunately, six consecutive years of below-average spawning has impacted landings; although quite a few big fish are being caught, particularly out at Montauk, the 18- to 22-inchers that usually make up most of the catch, have been relatively scarce.  It’s going to take a few years before we see them in numbers.

Black sea bass don’t offer much promise.  The fish are still swarming, but with the federal season closing on September 21, anglers are soon going to be limited to structure within 3 miles of shore which, except off the East End of Long Island, has been pretty well picked-over, and holds few legal fish.  Scup—a/k/a “porgies”—are both abundant and large, but can be tough to find on a regular basis on much of Long Island’s South Shore. 

Usually, September is a time for bluefish, but fishing for them has been a little bit off this year.  That’s a little strange, because there have been hordes of menhaden swimming off every coast of Long Island this season, schools that usually draw bluefish like dead fish draw flies.  But this year, the blues have been spotty, and nowhere as abundant as they were a few years before.  The fish that are here are less available to anglers than they probably should be, thanks to a provision in the management plan that transfers “unused”—that is, uncaught and/or released—recreational quota over to the commercial side.

Striped bass also kick off in September—at least, they usually do.  But Montauk’s classic September blitzes, that saw bass chasing “whitebait” in the high midday sun, haven’t come off in the past few years, and the migration of mullet out of the bays hasn’t triggered a big South Shore bite for quite a while.  A lot of that’s due to a shortage of stripers, which have declined for a decade or so, and even though the last stock assessment update showed some improvement, they still have a long way to go.  Yet some states, most notably Maryland and the other Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions, are already looking at the good 2011 year class, and the decent, but smaller 2015, and using them as an excuse to increase striped bass landings when the recovery has hardly begun.

All in all, the post-Hermine offerings look pretty slim. 

But Hermine wasn’t really the storm that inspired this essay’s title.

The real storm is coming next season, when the fluke quota is cut by 30%, legal stripers get harder to find and bluefishing—probably—doesn’t improve.

Just what will fishermen, and the folks who depend on their business, do then?

Once, they could catch winter flounder, which jump-started the season at some point in March and could be caught, if you tried to, throughout the year.  But flounder stocks started to fall in the 1990s, and no one was willing to take the tough actions needed to turn things around.  Now, the recreational fishery is all but gone, as the flounder themselves disappear from our bays.

Then, too, we once had blackfish—a/k/a tautog—to fall back on in the spring, winter and fall.  September once saw them swarm Great South Bay, where I pulled numbers of quality fish from the base of the Robert Moses Bridge.  But they started to slide about the same time as flounder.  By 1996, scientists had told the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission how to rebuild them, but ASMFC’s Tautog Management Board, more concerned, as always, with short-term economic impacts instead of the long-term health of the fish, failed to take their advice.  Today, twenty years later, ASMFC might finally be ready to do the right thing.

But that won’t help anyone in 2017.

We might have had more stripers, but when anglers asked ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board to reduce harvest in 2011 to prevent the further decline of the stock, the Management Board demurred, unwilling to take any action until crisis forced their hand.  And who knows where bluefishing would be—if it might have made any difference—if anglers’ uncaught fish were reinvested in the spawning stock instead of being turned into commercial quota and killed.

Now, we find our fisheries option extremely limited due to bad management decisions made years ago.

Even so, it’s pretty predictable that some of the businesses—the party boats, and most of the charters, and likely most tackle shops, too—will respond to the shortage of fish in a knee-jerk manner, fighting the regulations needed to restore fluke and stripers, and keep the black sea bass around.  In fact, when it comes to striped bass, they’ll want to increase the kill.

But it’s that sort of thinking that led to this problem…

So as we look at next year, we have to ask ourselves, can spotty stripers, some bluefish and a handful of fluke keep anglers busy all year?  Can porgies and maybe black sea bass support us all?

That’s a pretty big question, because inshore, that’s all we’re going to have, and inshore is where most people fish.

So yes, it looks as if next year, we very well may have a storm.

It will be interesting to see, when that storm passes, just who and what survives.

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