Thursday, July 12, 2018
"...BUT WHERE ARE THE BLUEFISH?"
Here on Long Island, bluefish have always been a big part of the angling scene.
We curse them when they chop up an eel cast for stripers, or destroy carefully-rigged ballyhoo before the tuna even get a chance to sniff them, but it sure feels good to know that, from the beginning of May through the end of November, when other fish decide to ignore you, the bluefish will always be there.
Except, lately, they’re not.
There’s still a big run in the spring, with fish of mixed sizes, including some truly large ones, invading the bays and ripping up bunker outside. But that run isn’t lasting too long, and once it’s over, bluefish have been hard to find.
Sure, they show up in pulses, sometimes offshore, sometimes at Montauk, sometimes in Long Island Sound. But summer blitzes of bluefish have become localized events, few and far between, and not the sort of thing that might erupt anywhere, at any time, the way they did not too many years ago.
Last season, I shark fished from August into October, concentrating my efforts along the 20-fathom line south of Fire Island. I caught makos. I caught hammerheads. I caught sandbar sharks. I even caught some very nice dolphin (mahi-mahi). But in all that time, I didn’t have one single bluefish pick up a bait.
I can assure you, that’s pretty strange. Typically, at that time of year, they swarm in the chum slick, leaving only when a mako begins to draw near.
It’s the sort of thing you talk about, but you try not to worry when it happens, because drawing a coastwide conclusion from limited, local observations is a very good way to be wrong. Even so, I was a little shocked when I was in a tackle shop one day last season and an angler who I know—a very good angler, who runs other folks’ boats up and down the coast, and might fish everywhere from Canada to the Caribbean over the course of a season—said “I never thought that I’d say this, but I’m starting to get worried about bluefish.”
I had to agree, although I keep trying to tell myself that I’m overreacting to local conditions, and that the bluefish are doing just fine along most of the coast. But just this week, I came across an article from The [Nantucket, MA] Inquirer and Mirror, titled “Still plenty of stripers, but where are the bluefish?” and realized that other folks were asking the same question I was.
The article noted that
“…Our bass fishing is excellent, but our consistent push of bluefish is a ways off. Most years guys lament the arrival of bluefish, because it often means that bass are on their way out.
“This year we have much bigger concerns. Are we actually going to get bluefish in the numbers that we are used to?
“Unfortunately, the tale of the bluefish decline is a couple of years in the making. For the past three years, we’ve seen consecutive declines. We’ve attributed it to a lack of bait and simply the cyclical nature of bait.
“This year we have tons of bait and very few fish…”
So it seems that what we’re experiencing on Long Island is about the same thing that folks are seeing up on Nantucket. And that may mean something, because one of the excuses that we heard from some fishermen, at a recent hearing on bluefish management held here in New York by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, is that there’s nothing wrong with the bluefish population. They’re not catching too many here on Long Island, they said, because the fish have gone up north and further from shore to escape warming water.
Well, Nantucket is certainly north of us, and as an island, it’s further from shore, but they don’t seem to be seeing too many bluefish either. So maybe there really is a problem.
That got me even more curious, so I started reading fishing reports from up and down the coast, trying to get a feel for what the bluefish were doing. One of the things that struck me isn’t that writers were, like the columnist in Nantucket, talking about the absence of bluefish, but instead they weren’t talking about bluefish at all, which is a little strange for the first week of July.
Last Friday, there was no mention of blues in what is probably the most-read angling column on Long Island, which appears in Newsday. That says a lot in itself; at this point in July, blues should be tearing the hearts out of menhaden schools in every harbor from the Bronx to Peconic Bay.
But they’re not.
The only local mention I could find was an article saying that “cocktail blues”—small, one-year-old fish—are abundant in a few East End bays.
We should be seeing more action than that.
Other articles suggested few bluefish in waters well north and south of Long Island.
One angling column in a Massachusetts newspaper surveyed the fishing from southern Maine to southern Massachusetts, and only noted abundant bluefish in the southern part of Cape Cod and in a small section of Cape Cod Bay.
A column in a Baltimore, Maryland paper, the Capital Gazette, chronicled an outdoor writer’s unsuccessful efforts to find blues in Chesapeake Bay. The writer said
“I was surprised by two things: That there were no fish, and no sport fishermen. Clearly I had missed the memo, but surely there had to be a few stragglers, right? Apparently not.”
So there doesn’t seem to be swarms of bluefish south of us, either.
And when there are just a few fish to the north, a few fish to the south, and a few fish in the middle, maybe it really is time to get just a little concerned.
The last bluefish stock assessment gives no real grounds for worry, telling us that the stock is at about 85% of the target level. However, that was based on the state of the stock in 2014, before we started hearing anglers complain about a lack of fish; what we don’t know for certain is whether there are fewer bluefish today than there were four years ago.
The assessment also underestimated the recreational bluefish harvest.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has recently recalculated catch and effort data for recreational fishermen, and found that angling harvest is higher than previously believed. In the case of bluefish, NMFS data now shows that, for the years 2013-2017, recreational landings were between 2.1 times (2013) and 3.4 times (2017) higher than originally estimated.
That means that fishing mortality was a lot higher than anyone knew.
Which brings us back to Chris Dollar’s column in the Capital Gazette, because he didn’t just write about a slow day of fishing. He reminded anglers that the Mid-Atlantic Council, in conjunction with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is currently considering a new amendment that would reallocate supposedly “uncaught” recreational quota (although the new NMFS data shows that anglers actually overfished, rather than underfished, their bluefish allocations) to the commercial sector, which will be more than happy to catch and kill it.
With the rising concerns about the health of the stock, that is a particularly bad idea. As Mr. Dollar notes,
“…As an outdoors writer, professional fishing outfitter and part-time guide, I have an obvious financial stake in a healthy bluefish population, so my opposition to the proposal is a no-brainer. I think it possible that this action, if approved, could trigger undue hardship down the road for tackle shops, guides and the waterfront communities that support sport fishing.
“The proposal also seems counter-intuitive to me, from a conservation standpoint—why ask recreational anglers to keep only enough blues to eat, and preach the benefits of catch-and-release, both of which do help protect bluefish from overfishing, only to turn around and give that surplus to the commercial sector?”
That makes sense to me, because no, the “missing” bluefish are not swimming out in the Atlantic, somewhere between here and Africa, as one divorced-from-reality party boat captain suggested at the New York hearing. Nor is the new size limit on mako sharks going to lead to a bluefish shortage, another hare-brained idea that was mentioned that night.
Some writers, like those captains at the hearing, might still conjure up visions of seafaring bluefish, writing things such as
“I’m second-guessing theories that place a massive overwintering biomass of blues no farther away than the Carolinas and a bit southward. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission reports, ‘In winter (bluefish) tend to be found offshore between Cape Hatteras and Florida…with schools that can cover tens of square miles of ocean, equivalent to around 10,000 football fields.’
“It’s an impressive perception, to be sure, but I’ll beg to moderately differ. There’s simply no picturing such an AD/HD species just slamming on the brakes to settle down—or even slow down—for a lengthy winter hiatus…anywhere. It’s just not in their genes. I’m sure that a beauty of a bluefish biomass annually has a showy gathering right where the commission suggests, but I’ll bet the bay barn that a ton of them are off to party truly unknown…”
But while that sort of evidence-free speculation is fine in a newspaper column, it can become dangerous when it is introduced to fishery management discussions, as it too often is. There, claims that “the fish are just somewhere else” are interposed for the express purpose of avoided needed regulation, and fish stocks can be hurt quite badly as a result.
Thus, anglers who are concerned about bluefish would be well-advised to get a copy of the Scoping Document for the allocation amendment, read it, and send their comments to Chris Moore, PhD, Executive Director, Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, North State Street, Suite 201, Dover, DE 19901 soon; all comments must arrive at the Council before July 30.
Comments may also be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the message line “Bluefish Allocation Amendment Scoping Comments.”
Whether you send them in by snail mail or email, get them in by the 30th. Because if there aren’t a lot of bluefish in Massachusetts, off Long Island or in Chesapeake Bay, the smart money says that there aren’t very many anywhere else.
And increasing the commercial allocation, to put more bluefish on the dock and keep fewer in the water, will just make that situation worse.