Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Recuperation Report 2/08
Hi Folks,
Surgery on my right shoulder has taken me out of the deep-winter tog fishery. Hopefully I'll be back in it by March.
We are booking spots for May through November's fishing and will announce winter (spring?!) tog trips via the 'fish report'.
The one below is pathetically stale, but reflects the style I use. You can sign up for future fish reports by emailing me at mhawkins@siteone.net
Fish Report 12/2/07
Shoulda' Seen It
Stay On Message 
Hi All,
Couple tog trips ~ 120 some tags by the rail. Lot of fun.
Last day of November, Friday, was a sea bass trip. It was also the last day of toggin' for '07 and farewell to the 5 fish tog limit. Sea bass memory maker? Nah. Dagoned tog bit like I've rarely seen though. Very rarely.
Some had an appreciation for what they were part of. Nice. 35 more tags by the rail and ended up with a fair catch of bass & blues too.
North-west wind hammered us back in on Saturday. I thought we would have a blast while awaiting the wind to abate ~ trying to slip on off to where the bluefish mixed with stripers have been thickest, then go cbassing as it calmed. Too saucy for that. Not too far offshore, I turned toward a wreck that's in the heart of a new, undeveloped reef site. Had it on the depth sounder but when I went to spin her back upwind to anchor, the boat wouldn't answer. Portside astern, starboard ahead, wheel hard to port ~ a normal maneuver. Wouldn't budge. She just laid beam to the wind. Pinned. I opened the window and asked Ritch if he thought 35 to 40 knots was about right ~ "Yup". Revved up, goosed her around and kept right on going. Enough of that!
Sunday? Caught some sea bass and tagged a few more tog. Even caught a December flounder upon which I'd offered a free ticket as bounty. Never before had one this late. Good fish. 
It was the show afterward that will be remembered by those aboard. Unforgettable. Painted on radar about 3 miles away, hundreds of gannets were raucously plunge diving into schools of bay anchovies pushed to the surface by feeding bluefish and stripers.
Noise. Lots of noise as the birds followed along with the fish. Then WHOOSH as a fin whale surfaced in the midst of the melee. Again and again we drifted through, keeping blues and photographing stripers before release.
When we'd first arrived a weather-worn fisher hollered "It's like National Geographic!"
And it was ~ but better.
Great way to end the season.
Thinking with the appropriate accent ~ all high-brow and nasal, fur draped around the shoulders  "It's glamorous dahhhling"... Lots of folks can tell you what famous actor just got a part in a new movie; a football player that squandered fame for a jail cell, or which Oscar winner just separated from her 3rd husband. As a society we focus on the famous ~ the glamorous. The media uses that fascination to sell a message ~ advertising.
Unfortunately, our high regard of the celebrated is also true of the fisheries.
Flounder, striper and, by virtue of their worth, surf clam, have all had huge amounts of time and energy put into their conservation plans.
This while species such as red hake (ling), Boston mackerel and even sea trout are seemingly extinct in this region ~ though all were vibrant, important fisheries even in my time.
Now we have a coalition of groups that sense the time is right to hold managers' feet to the fire. The science advisors ~ the numbers ~ the plan, all say we have to be at the finish line in the rebuilding of the summer flounder stock very soon.
The coalition's message? "Rebuilding deadlines must be met." If you can't meet the rebuilding deadline without drastic cuts in the fishery, tough. 
This message isn't about sea trout. I personally caught more trout in one day as a teenager than all my passengers put together have caught in the last 10 years. Nope. Sea trout are OK.
Mackerel? C'mon. We sold the southern stock to foreign processors back in '91. One party boat caught more on any decent day in the 1980's than the fleet caught in last decade. All of it.
Red hake? Why on earth would we bother to manage them! Let 'em be gone; who's to notice? 
Scup? Whiting? Sorry, just because a bunch of old timers say they caught 'em doesn't mean that it really happened. We don't have the data.
No glamour ~~ Just worthless bycatch or bygone fisheries.
Fish Habitat? Can't do much about that. Still plenty of water.
What coral? Where? Ain't no habitat on that seafloor! Sez so right here in the science!
The coalition needs glamour to put the heat on management. Flounder've got it. The science supports it.
And we're going to get it.
Despite the data, from all accounts that I've heard and witnessed the flounder population has to be at an all time high in this region.
We have to fix that?
At some point, the same folks that have to OK the Essential Fish Habitat planning also have to OK the population estimate for the flounder stock. If you're up on this stuff you know there's a heck of a time counting dead fish brought ashore by recreational anglers ~ it's a very scientific WAG. Counting the ones still swimming? I wouldn't wager on that data. Hard enough to count dead ones. Here, flounder often live on or immediately around a reef-like environment. The population estimates used for management come, in part, by trawl net sampling. Can't trawl across reef ~ at least not a very robust one.
There can be no calculation of reef-like habitat's holding capacity of flounder, nor how much reef has to be avoided in a trawl survey.
Believe it, there's not a breath of coral habitat in any Mid-Atlantic fishery plan. We have no idea how much there is ~ nor how much more there could be if managed wisely ~ nor any idea if ongoing artificial reef building has altered it in the fishes favor.
The tautog, sea bass, flounder, red hake, scup and flounder know it's there though. Or knew.
The focus on high-profile species detracts from the real challenge: The restoration of a huge expanse of marine ecosystem. The rebuilding of the apex predator populations within that ecosystem can not occur until there is a solid foundation of prey and habitat to support them. Unless, of course, it's acceptable that some species thrive while hoping that others are at least laid down in the fossil record thereby preserving them in some fashion.
Habitat counts. Whether it's the numerous species that depend on the grasses and remnant oysters in the furthest reaches of a Chesapeake tributary or a 30 year old tautog that's never left it's natal reef, at some point all the pieces interact.

Our region's management must be approached more roundly - holistically. I think we have -through high-profile species management focus- created an imbalance. It's my observation that life on our local reefs, both natural and artificial, has been altered by the presence of flounder in the last few years. Sea bass do not behave the same when a reef is carpeted by these super predators. Scientists think that striped bass and bluefish are keeping sea trout from growing to maturity. Predation ~ they're feeding on the small trout. Managers, eager for a way out - a means to avoid rebuilding deadlines, are happy to agree. We're barely able to keep a genetic pool alive with which some future generation might resurrect the sea trout. Sturgeon anyone?
Stay On Message. It's a concept that has been well refined in the last decade. Want the public's attention? You'll need glamour ~ a famous species. The message? We're not doing a bang-up job of managing fisheries.
I wouldn't disagree with the message, but using flounder to bring it to the public is going to cause a tremendous waste of time and money when the fur starts to fly ~ the lawsuits... Lot of wasted resources and there's so much to be done. Flounder are the least of our worries.
Capt. Orie Bunting died in the mid-90's. He'd spent his entire life fishing this little piece of coast. I'll bet we caught more flounder in the last 3 years than he saw in all his days.
A goal of conservation biology might be to avoid that...
The boat-work begins. Sometimes sanding and painting look like a pretty good option!
Capt. Monty Hawkins
Party Boat "Morning Star"
Reservations 410 520 2076

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