Monday, April 09, 2007

Fish Report Easter '07

Fish Report ~ Easter '07
Artificial Reef SMZs
Going Toggin'
Hi All,
Snuck a couple days in - lost a few days too. Dagoned April snow; who'd a thought it!
More of a mixed size of togs now, or at least the last few days. Gotta have acorns before you have oaks...
Released a few real dandies; fish up to 27 3/4 inches. Boated some too ~ even had some who took limits. Sure wasn't what we had in Feb/early March, but OK.
That's toggin'.
Tautog are never as densely schooled as sea bass or other types of reef fish. (Perhaps, more correctly, I should say I've never seen them that thick.) Everything about this fishery - previous experience, tag returns, and how the fishing is going - it all tells me that the most cautionary approach is needed to prevent treading down the same path ~ fishing them into a collapse.
Toggin's a fishery that will always be about challenge and not about groceries. I often find that the folks who have mastered the catching are most prone to the releasing. Respect.
Have a few for dinner? Sure. But the catching is where the fun is. Not catching? Oh humble day...
This I do know; what we catch in the future depends on what we don't take today. If we build more reef and manage the fishery wisely, the best tog fishing lies ahead!
Toggin' 'till the end of April - starting Tuesday the 'book' is open. Sailing every day - weather permitting. 15 people sells out the rail - crabs and clams provided - 7am to 3pm - Only 1 female tog over 20 inches in your 5 fish limit ~and no assurance whatsoever of a limit!~ Reservations required and leave the best phone number possible in the event of a cancellation, there will be more spring storms...
Thoughts on commercial traps on artificial reef below. Hot potato!
There is presently an attempt being made to create Special Management Zones, or SMZs, around many artificial reef sites. Apparently, the problem here is nowhere near as bad as to our north, though it can be irritating. Local trappers use 2 flags -one on either end- with 20 traps between. I gather that further north each trap has a buoy on it - very like the 'drop pot' traps that are set directly on a reef/wreck. Trapping with one buoy per trap would render our reefs unnavigable - very frustrating.
This is how I see the issue in a longer timeline:
A) For 70+ years we've been losing natural coral colonies ~natural reef~ to stern towed gears. Often times when there's an impact to natural reef, there's a trap fisher that just lost money in equipment and lost future catch revenues.
B) In any biological habitat study - whether it's Brazilian rainforest, Kansas prairie or mid-Atlantic seafloor - there's an equation that can be used to calculate 'holding capacity'. The particular holding capacity we're looking at is for demersals like tog and sea bass. In this case, the total amount of all types of reef equal the region's holding capacity.
By losing reef 'footprint' to stern towed gears -the rocky areas covered by natural reef- we lose holding capacity. Less reef = less fish. As time goes along, less habitat has to mean less fish. And that's before anyone wets a line or soaks a trap targeting these fish. Losing habitat means lost opportunities for spawning success and concentrates whatever fish there are left on a shrinking footprint of habitat. That makes it easier to catch them ~ but only temporarily. Once habitat is destroyed, it is taken out of production and can no longer be counted in the holding capacity. Only viable reef habitat is fishable and productive.
Remember when everyone was clapping each other on the back because the 9 inch sea bass limit was allowing them to come back? What happened? We had jillions of little sea bass ~ With the size limit now at 12 inches we should be able to walk on 'em with all the eggs...
Nope. Flounder regs eased - trawl effort expanded - reef diminished - and spawning success of sea bass declined.
Recreational sea bass fishing used to be about drifting the natural bottoms. Many decades ago the fishing spots ~the reef-like habitats~ were found with a compass and a watch. We can hardly imagine the drifts -the catching- that must have occurred in times past.
The main point is, our holding capacity is not what it could be. If you leave rocky bottom alone, reefs grow. Period. Tow a trawl, clam or scallop dredge over the rocky bottom and you have some rocks. No reef.
C) Artificial reef is almost always trawl proof. Risk of gear loss prevents anyone from towing a reef site. Artificial reef also increases holding capacity with each piece placed, and necessarily increases the region's habitat footprint. Building artificial reef is great for fish and fishing!
D) Some years ago the MAFMC declared a moratorium on sea bass permits. No new permits would be issued to commercial fishers after a certain date. Pretty late in the game; fellows were used to 'the permit grab'. Anyone who had ever sold black sea bass and still had a receipt from a fish market could get a permit. They did. Permits are worth money - especially moratorium permits!
There was no effort made to grade the permits based on previous landings. You either qualified or didn't based on any proof of sale.
The "moratorium" created one heck of a lot of new effort - new fishers buying and setting traps with their new license.
In a time of Total Allowable Catch, TAC, quota driven fisheries management - the new permittees were entitled to whatever they could land before the quota was filled and the fishery closed until the next period.
E) The guys that had been trapping bass/lobster/tog all along weren't about to let a bunch of newbies jump on their spots. Heck no! That's a serious, serious no-no in the commercial world. They'll cut the buoys, pop the doors and empty the traps. Just a friendly reminder of who's spot it is sort of thing... Witness the discovery channel commercial fishing shows when someone tries to trap in another's area. It's war. 
F) The newly permitted guys discover an untapped and untrapped resource -an area where the old-school trappers hadn't set gear- Artificial Reefs!
G) Present day troubles.
How in the world we could undo the initial permitting fiasco I can't guess. Far too late, I'd think.
Otherwise, if we had large areas of natural rock substrate that were trap and hook only ~areas where no stern towed gears were allowed~ then a lot of reef would grow back. There'd be a lot more sea bass/lobster/tog growing as the new habitat aged. No baloney - I've documented habitat loss on film. Leave it be a few years and fish start using it again. They spawn and the cycle starts moving in the right direction.
With more productive natural reef there will be less pressure on artificial reef.
Instead of trappers, recreational fishers and fisheries ecologists moving to create areas off-limits to the gears that screw it up; we have fisheries ecologists holding the reigns that are very comfortable with the status quo -that there isn't any scientifically documented natural reef in the mid-Atlantic- and a mega-contest brewing between the new trap fishers and rec fishers that like to fish artificial reefs.
Our seafloor doesn't have a whole lot of rock - it's a small percentage.
We'd have a lot more fish if we focused on what's keeping the fish populations down. It's in every aspect of fisheries management ~~Essential Fish Habitat~~ EFH. Magnusen Act ~yada-yada~ All federally funded fisheries management is supposed to look at EFH.
Hasn't happened yet...
What's the solution? A few ideas:
Single trap/buoy sets should be kept off - there's no way for an average skipper to safely anchor with traps set in that manner on a reef.
A permit that directly funds reef building with cost based on extraction wouldn't seem out of the ordinary with any other natural resource. This would go for recreational users as well as commercial.
Restoring the natural reef footprint through habitat protection would go a long way toward easing pressure on artificial reef.
When there's a lot of fish there's less conflict. We've got management -the sizes, limits and seasons- nailed down pretty tight; expanding the habitat footprint and increasing fish production will bring it all together.

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