Thursday, September 15, 2022



It’s that time of year again.

After months scouring the rips for striped bass, or taking clients offshore in search of dolphin or school bluefin tuna, light-tackle guides and private anglers are swarming inshore waters between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras, seeking to find false albacore, a fish better known to biologists as Euthynnus alleteratus, or “little tunny.”

The fishing can get intense, as boats engage in “run and gun” tactics to pursue schools of fish that burst to the surface chasing bait, then quickly disappear.  Off popular ports, particularly on weekends, conditions can devolve to what some have called “combat fishing,” when boats cluster so close together in pursuit of fish that flyfishermen’s backcasts have been known to plink off the T-tops of nearby vessels.

Similar scenes unfold on shorelines and jetties, as casters crowd together for shots at breaking fish, often casting over one another’s lines, and crossing the lines of hooked-up anglers, in their rush to draw a strike before the feeding albacore disappear.

Personally, I’ve never understood the hysteria.

False albacore belong to the family Scombridae, which includes the tunas and mackerels, a fact that is readily apparent from one glance at their fusiform bodies.  They are fast fish that fight hard, and so they’re fun to catch, and the fact that they often show on the surface, where they strike lures and, more important to many anglers, also hit flies, only adds to their appeal.

Still, if you’ve caught one false albacore, you’ve pretty much caught them all, as there isn’t much variation in the way individual fish fight.  And most people don’t care for the way that they taste although, if properly handled, they can make some decent sashimi.

But mine is clearly the minority view.  For many anglers, and particularly those in the light-tackle community, the fall false albacore run is one of the highlights of the season.  There is no question that it is a keystone to the survival of the light tackle saltwater guide, who knows that even when striped bass and bluefish populations are in serious decline, they can usually count on false albacore to keep their clients excited and booking trips through most of the fall.

Yet, as important as the false albacore fishery is to a sizeable segment of the recreational fishing community, it is completely unregulated.  Outside of some inconsequential regulations in Florida that lump the fish in with othergenerally unmanaged species, and limit landings to the greater of two fish or100 pounds, neither federal nor state managers pay any attention to the species. 

Yet false albacore not only support a substantial recreational fishery, but a not-insignificant commercial fishery as well.  So it’s reasonable to ask whether the false albacore population in the northwest Atlantic requires conservation and management.

That’s a key question, because the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in federal waters, provides that

“Each [regional fishery management] Council shall, in accordance with the provisions of this Act, for each fishery under its authority that requires conservation and management, prepare and submit to the Secretary a fishery management plan…  [emphasis added; internal formatting omitted]”

Thus, a regional fishery management council has no obligation to develop a management plan for every species of fish that swims through waters under its jurisdiction; however, it must develop such plan for each fishery that requires conservation and management.

And when is conservation and management required?

Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t answer that question directly, although it does define “conservation and management” as

“all of the rules, regulations, conditions, methods, and other measures which are required to rebuild, restore, and maintain, and which are useful in rebuilding, restoring, and maintaining, any fishery resource and the marine environment; and which are designed to assure that a supply of food and other products may be taken, and that recreational benefits may be obtained, on a continuing basis; irreversible or long-term adverse effects on fishery resources and the marine environment are avoided; and there will be a multiplicity of options available with respect to future uses of these resources.  [internal formatting omitted]”

However, the National Marine Fisheries Service has published guidelines to assist in determining whether conservation and management are needed.  Such guidelines read, in part,

“…Not every fishery requires Federal management.  Any stocks that are predominantly caught in Federal waters and are overfished or subject to overfishing, or likely to become overfished or subject to overfishing, are considered to require conservation and management.  Beyond such stocks, Councils may determine that additional stocks may require ‘conservation and management…’  [A] Council should consider the following non-exhaustive list of factors when deciding whether additional stocks require conservation and management:

(i)                The stock is an important component of the marine environment.

(ii)              The stock is caught by the fishery.

(iii)            Whether [a fishery management plan] can improve or maintain the condition of the stock.

(iv)            The stock is a target of a fishery.

(v)              The stock is important to commercial, recreational, or subsistence users.

(vi)            The fishery is important to the Nation or to the regional economy.

(vii)           The need to resolve competing interests and conflicts among user groups and whether [a fishery management plan] can further that resolution.

(viii)          The economic condition of a fishery and whether [a fishery management plan] can produce more efficient utilization.

(ix)             The needs of a developing fishery and whether [a fishery management plan] can foster orderly growth.

(x)              The extent to which the fishery is already adequately managed by the states, by state/Federal programs, or by Federal regulations pursuant to other [fishery management plans] or international commissions, or by industry self-regulation, consistent with the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and other applicable law.”

So, given those guidelines, do false albacore require conservation and management?

For many years, I would have said no.

For a very long time, false albacore were seldom retained by recreational fishermen, and there was no significant commercial fishery.  When people raised the subject in the late 1990s, I was quick to predict that no regional fishery management council would be interested in developing a little tunny management plan.

And for a very long time, events supported that view. 

Sometime around 2002, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council considered adding little tunny and Atlantic bonito to its CoastalMigratory Pelagics Fishery Management Plan, but dropped any management efforts after Magnuson-Stevens was reauthorized in 2006. 

When the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council wasdeveloping its Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment in 2016, it considered adding little tunny as one of the protected forage species.  However, it had a problem doing so, as the forage fish protections were adopted as an amendment to existing Mid-Atlantic management plans, and although false albacore or avidly fed upon by fish such as blue marlin and shortfin mako sharks, they are not eaten by Mid-Atlantic Council-managed species such as tilefish, squid, or summer flounder.  Thus, the Unmanaged Forage amendment was not an appropriate vehicle.

In addition, as Capt. John McMurray, then a Council member (and still a light-tackle guide that depends on false albacore for part of his business) regretfully admitted,

“Even if the council were to put albies back on the unmanaged forage fish list, NMFS probably wouldn’t allow it.  The alternative is a fishery management plan, and that would be a disaster.  You’d have a bunch of eggheads in a room, and they’re gonna look at this massive biomass of fish that nobody’s really targeting, and say you could take a gazillion pounds out of it and it will still be fine; and they’d be right from a yield perspective.  But it wouldn’t be fine for anglers and guides.  The unmanaged forage fish amendment was the perfect vehicle to manage something before it needs to be rebuilt.”

But there are some indications that the false albacore situation may be changing.

Recreational harvest over the past decade averaged about 3.45 million pounds; landings peaked at about 5.5 million in 2015, and then began to decline.  In 2021, 2.4 million pounds of little tunny were harvested by anglers.  Recent recreational landings are significantly higher than they were at the beginning of the century; from 2001 through 2010, recreational landings averaged just 2.0 million pounds, with most years’ harvest falling somewhat below the 2 million pound mark.  Thus, it appears that recreational pressure on false albacore has increased substantially in the past 20 years.

The commercial fishery, although somewhat smaller, is also showing an similar landings pattern.  Reported 2021 landings were 435,132 pounds, somewhat below the last decade’s average annual landings of 509,780 pounds.  Commercial landings peaked, at 613,112 pounds, in 2014, a year before recreational landings reached their apex.  And, as in the case with recreational landings, commercial landings for the first ten years of this century were lower than they are today, averaging 391,550 pounds, suggesting that the commercial fishery has also been expanding.

The published commercial fishery landings probably don’t tell the whole story, because some commercial landings data is deemed to be confidential, due to the small number of fishermen landing false albacore in a one or more states.  There are also anecdotal reports which suggest that a thriving under-the-counter bait fishery exists, particularly in Florida, which sees local shops buying significant quantities of false albacore directly from fishermen, who never report such landings to fishery managers.

The seemingly increasing pressure on the false albacore resource is beginning to cause some concern in the recreational community, among anglers who fear that fishery managers’ failure to consider conservation measures may be doing real harm to the population. 

Foremost among those concerned about the health of the population is the American Saltwater Guides Association, which has a membership that is deeply invested in, and dependent upon, a healthy false albacore fishery.  After hearing from members concerned about possible unfavorable trends in the false albacore population, ASGA researched the issue, and has decided to become the little tunny’s champion.

It began, as all conservation and management efforts should begin, with the science.  Because very little information on false albacore exists, ASGA partnered with the New England Aquarium, along with some generous sponsors, to place 50 acoustic tags in such fish caught in Nantucket Sound.  Various teams of scientists, working on projects completely unrelated to little tunny, have installed arrays of acoustic sensors all along the Atlantic coast of the United States.  When one of the tagged albacore passes near a sensor array, its tag will “ping” the sensors with a unique code, and allow researchers to determine where an when the fish is traveling.

Hopefully, information gleaned from the acoustic tagging process will permit scientists to fill in some blanks in the little tunny’s life history, including migration patterns, local stock structure, and how well the fish survive catch and release (because if few or no fish are picked up by the sensors, there’s a good chance that most die soon after release).

The biggest problem with that research effort is that acoustic tags are expensive, and that tagging 50 fish off Massachusetts is unlikely to unlock all of the data needed to properly evaluate and manage the population.  Thus, ASGA has also teamed up with NMFS’ Southeast Fisheries Science Center in a higher-volume and more wide-ranging effort to plant inexpensive nylon “anchor” tags in fish caught all along the East Coast.  Those tags, which are composed of the dart-like nylon anchor and a highly visible plastic streamer, are being deployed by some of ASGA’s member guides, who operate in waters between Massachusetts and Florida.  Such guides were selected based on both their experience with tagging programs and their geographic location, to best assure that false albacore caught along the entire coast will be part of the study.

Yet, even if the tagging studies begin bearing fruit quickly, it will take appreciable time for the data to be compiled and analyzed, and the results of the studies published.  Thus, ASGA has also petitioned the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to again consider including little tunny in its Coastal Migratory Pelagics Fishery Management Plan.

ASGA is convinced that, based on NMFS published guidelines, little tunny very much require conservation and management, and that conservation and management measures should be implemented on a precautionary basis, before existing fisheries expand or a new fishery can take root and grow, and the lack of a management plan does real harm to the stock.

As the ASGA website relates,

“Light tackle and fly anglers up and down the Atlantic coast pursue false albacore during all parts of the season.  It is estimated that over half a million trips per year are taken with false albacore being the primary target.  In regions like North Carolina and Massachusetts,  these targeted trips generate a robust economy for surrounding coastal communities.  These fish are valued by anglers as well as business owners due to their inshore availability as well as their hard-fighting nature…

“Our guides and fishing-related businesses on the Atlantic coast can’t afford to lose another species.  ASGA believes that false albacore need to be managed under [a fishery management plan] according to the [Magnuson-Stevens Act] National Standard Guidelines laid out by NOAA Fisheries.  For us, albies meet these criteria:

·        The stock is an important component of the marine environment.

·        The stock is targeted and caught by fisheries.

·        [A fishery management plan] could improve or maintain the condition and scientific understanding of the stock.

·        The stock is important to recreational and commercial users and regional economies.

·        Developing fisheries may emerge, and [a fishery management plan], with precautionary management strategies, should be in place to oversee it.

·        There is no formal management or regulation for false albacore by federal or state entities.

Our position is simply that the stock is important and valued and therefore needs to be managed…”

So do little tunny off the United States’ Atlantic Coast require conservation and management?

The American Saltwater Guides Association seems to make a good argument that they do, based on NMFS’ own published guidelines.  

Recreational and commercial landings data, which suggest increasing landings throughout most of the past 20 years, but also show such landings peaking in 2014/2015 before entering a mild decline, might also militate in favor of precautionary management measures, as do anecdotal reports from light tackle guides on the Florida coast, who report that false albacore—they call them “bonito,”—are neither as abundant nor as large as they were just a few years ago, and attribute a rapidly-expanding commercial bait fishery for the change.

ASGA’s petition to include little tunny in the Coastal Migratory Pelagics Fishery Management Plan was signed by many anglers, guides, and fishing tackle manufacturers and dealers; ASGA hopes that it will be discussed at the next meeting of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.  

In such petition, ASGA is not seeking any particular management measures; until more data is developed, it is impossible to know what sort of management measures might be needed.  Instead, it is seeking a precautionary management program, in which the South Atlantic Council develops the information needed to manage the species, and prevents any rapidly expanding fishery from threatening the stock before such information becomes available.

While the American Saltwater Guides Association, along with quite a few other members of the recreational community, believe that false albacore require conservation and management, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council still needs to decide the issue, a decision that it could make when it next meets, although the smart money is on the process to take a bit—maybe quite a bit—longer.

In the meantime, it’s hard to argue against a precautionary stance.  Given their importance to the light tackle fishing industry, and the public’s general disregard for their value as food, false albacore are worth quite a bit more alive than they are dead.  Keeping them alive ought to be managers’ first concern.

No comments:

Post a Comment