Fish Report 7/20/08
Still Sea Bass & A Very Few Flatties
The Four-Seventy Plan
After a decade of tightening recreational and commercial quota management, I think sea bass numbers have declined to below their pre-nine inch federal size limit population.
Heart of summer's a busy time in Ocean City. Weeks and weeks of calm seas and warm temperatures..
Would that the fishing were as predictable.
In my last report I wrote:
A tough summer; tough if you expect to fill a box with sea bass. Not so bad if you want to enjoy a day on the water and don't mind just catching a dinner or two.. And every once in a while either having to go out to dinner - or buy freezer bags to put fish up!
Usually lots of throwbacks with a few keepers. Seems like the slower days have a much better grade of fish.
Flounder tease - just a handful. Based on my 4 years of fluking the same wrecks and natural corals that I've fished for 28; not time yet.
And that is exactly the case now, perhaps a bit tougher. Thought I'd wait 'till fluke were biting better before sending a new one.
Not Yet. Soon. I hope......
"Well captain, why aren't there a lot of sea bass."
It's a question I'm asked a lot; sometimes venomously, as if I headed up their management.
Sheesh, though there is some progress, I haven't even been able to get the region's coral reefs recognized as Essential Fish Habitat nor even tried to get our tube worm colonies looked at. If coral's too much trouble...
Still, I am going to wander through a lot of years spent in the fishery and try to point out ways that we ought to manage sea bass differently; also point out some 'coincidences.'
I worked deck on the old wooden Angler in the early '80's. It was a time when the first 2 weeks of August were brutal. We'd go in the ocean knowing that 7 or 8 sea bass on the whole boat was going to be about it. Not 7- 8 keepers and a lot of throwbacks. In those days everything was a keeper. Everything.
I put the first 9 inch size limit on bass in 1992. Just a boat rule; it was enforced with the blessings of the Nichols who owned the OC Princess.
Angus Phillips called the idea a 'Band-Aid'.
And so it was. Derned if it wasn't a pretty deep cut. The fishery needed first aid. A band aid was all I had.
Often carrying 85-90 people; the self imposed size limit ensured we'd put some back. But with no creel limit we'd often have customers with 40 or 50 fish each. In late fall high man would often break 200. Yet the sea bass population continued to expand.
In '97 or '98 the state and fed got on the same page and regulated sea bass with a 9 inch limit.
It was during this time when I noticed reef areas getting bigger. as an example, I'd fished a rock for years on two tight anchors - set just so. Now I could drift 3/4 of a mile there.
And catch 2 or 3 thousand fish before moving.
In other places 6 or 7 thousand fish.
A thousand fold increase.
Even with the tiny 9 inch size limit, most of the sea bass caught were throwbacks. But there were enough keepers to make it interesting. These sea bass were so small that once filleted, gulls could swallow the carcass whole. A lot of the keepers were male. A lot of the throwbacks were too. (Hermaphrodites; sea bass all start life female; some then transition to male)
During the 80's - early 90's multi-state trawl effort off our coast, especially in the fall, was substantial. After considerable research and underwater video work, I attribute the new reef growths --the expansion of natural reef-like habitat-- to draconian restrictions put on flounder trawls in the early mid-90's. Exploding demand for horseshoe crabs as bait in the conch fishery and one hundred pound summer flounder trip limits kept the trawl fleet tight to the beach. With no gear mowing it down, the soft corals, sponges and bryozoans grew back - the rocks further offshore had become reef again.
Many large patches of tube worm grew too and were colonized by sea bass.
Also during this time of expanding habitat and increasing sea bass numbers we tagged about 5000 sub-legal to jumbo cbass. Recaptures strongly indicated habitat fidelity; that the fish returned after overwinter migration to the same area.
Management escalated: 10 inches, then 11 inches and a 25 fish per person limit, then 12 inches with the 25 creel.
In 2003 it had all come together. Customers were often limited out on whatever size limit they chose. Twelve was legal, but why waste opportunity. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen inches; you could get a 25 fish limit or dern near on the high end. Only on the hot, calm days in deeper water did I insist that all legal fish be retained - release mortality skyrockets in those conditions. Interestingly, release mortality is rarely a problem in sea bass smaller than 10 1/2 inches.
What I best remember of the peak: two old gentlemen giggling as they caught double keepers on bare silver hooks; whole days when we'd never use bait, just plastic grubs - that's what the fishing was like.
And virtually none of the throwbacks were male..
A mature stock of fish.
I believe our present dilemma began in the early part of 2004 when commercial boats were steaming way offshore to pick up sea bass from trawlers working the wintering grounds that had caught too many.
I heard a lot about it then, but didn't give it much thought. They were under quota regulation - so many fish and that's it.
In some instances a trawler 50 miles off may have had tens of thousands of pounds of sea bass, but no permit to land them. Better to have offloaded them to those with a permit than dump 'em back dead..
I saw the graphs. It was the highest reported trawl landings where our sea bass overwinter.
And, many were actually landed by other types of boats. I have no idea how they 'reported' their 'catch'.
It was a lot of fish.
Knocked off balance - the stock began to topple.
With high expectations, coastal fishers -the trappers, partyboats and charters- worked hard to catch in subsequent years. Really hard. Still are. We tried to catch on the pummeled remnants what we had caught in the 2003 season.
Sea bass, like so many species, spawn at a younger age when their population is down. In well developed populations spawning occurs later.
If my assertion is correct that the amount of sea floor habitat expanded, then that would also be cause for numerous young sea bass to transition to male. This because the new habitat being colonized was not inhabited by older 'bulls' nor large females that could fairly rapidly transition to male.
Also, during most of the period when the sea bass population was expanding, there was no creel limit. Constant heavy pressure on the species kept the spawning age young.
Curiously, commercial spiny dogfish landings peaked in 1998. If there is a case to be made for direct predation or competition for prey it may show here....
Now, after a decade of tightening recreational and commercial quota management, I think sea bass numbers have declined to below their pre-nine inch federal size limit population.
Enter the Four-Seventy Plan; or, Another Fortunate Accident In Sea Bass Management.
With diesel at $4.70 a gallon and Individual Fishery Quotas (IFQs) in place, trawl fishers seem to be waiting to capture their quotas of flounder.
From what I can see, trawl effort in the 12 to 30 mile range is way down.
There is once again an abundance of sub-legal males.
The oscillating curve of the sea bass population is going to swing upward.
Meanwhile, managers are going to continue to do what they always do: respond with far stricter regulations. An increased size limit and decreased creel. It's what to do when there's no other known course of action.
Essential Fish Habitat protections; varying recreational trip type limits; vigorous and visionary artificial reef development; close examination of recreational discard mortality; overwinter quota by habitat area, simply being mindful of the species' habitat fidelity... A clear effort to look for ways to keep the spawning stock abundant; to prevent imbalancing the stock.
That's the management we need.
At the very least, management must ask, "Why did it seem to work so well and then fail miserably."
Despite an obvious stock expansion in the period of no creel limit, we'll end up having to fight tooth and nail for a 15 or 20 fish recreational limit.
I doubt folks will drive to OC for a chance at 10...