Sunday, July 04, 2010

Fish Report 7/4/10

Fish Report 7/4/10
Sea Bass, Fluke & Mahi
An Angry Wife
Hi All,
Been many years where we didn't lose a day to windy weather in June. Lost three this week. Did get out Tuesday with an extra-light crowd. Pretty day, cbass biting well, a few tog on Gulp sand eels, mahi trying to steal the show..
Was our first mahi of the year.
Used to call them dolphin, then dorado. Restaurants were under intense pressure not to sell dolphin from a letter writing campaign in the early/mid-80s. Sakes, the writers thought the longline & 'recreationally' caught & sold fish were bottlenose dolphin: Flipper. The Hawaiian moniker, mahi-mahi, apparently sold dinners better - now shortened.
So a pair of mahi came in under the boat hungry for that world-famous bluewater bait, clam. Fed one on a fairly light spinner; Gave the rod --with a now-very-active & jumping fish-- to a lady who's been out with us many times.
"I don't know what to do!"
OK, so it's her sister that's been out with us many times..
She did fine. Ritch's gaff shot stilled the fish; Pictures taken before colors fade: Fishing is good.
Another angler that day was a real surprise to have aboard. Just out of the hospital & still recovering from a stroke, an old sea-dog that's done near every kind of fishing in the ocean; he had hopped aboard at the last minute.
"Yeah, Monty, my wife gave me the credit card. Told me to get the heck out of the house. You got any room?"
I'm sure he was high-hook; That he caught more fish than anyone else..
His wife, who knows an awful lot about getting people well after illness or injury, was positively livid when we got back in.
Near a month in hospitals; Doctors' orders were bed-rest & therapy. The old skipper had a different therapy in mind....
Some had a good day Friday--excellent perhaps. Fellow won the pool second time running. Others aboard scarcely scratched up dinner.
Saturday's weather was as close to "Perfect" as this ocean offers. Cool, calm, a light westerly breeze. Sea bass biting pretty good.. tapering.  Keeper flounder in the net. Another. One guy limited, flat-fish to 5 pounds aboard. On the last wreck, the last stop, we did not catch a sea bass - only flounder, summer flounder; They call 'em fluke north of us.
So it goes. You're not going to rush out and buy a new freezer on our account for a day's fishing, but we are catching dinner. Occasionally better.
Targeting sea bass & fluke. Sometimes we'll catch both. Sometimes just one or the other.. Hope never neither! 
If you want to know exactly what we're going to catch and how big they'll be you'll have to wait till we get back in. It's fishing............
Got a heads-up about a "Pre-Decision Webinar." (seminar on the web, yes?) The Councils' Science and Statistical Committee will soon be dealing with several species of fish dear to us along the coast. No striped bass so off the radar for most Marylanders.. Flounder though..
I've read through some of the material. Will try to get to all of it.
Consider this a comment to the SSC's pre-decision meeting. May want to send it along to your state's fishery representatives.
The data --in coastwide collection-- is given to the best and brightest in our region's fisheries to review before setting future quotas. It's therefore brutally important that it be right.
Just my thoughts.
Here goes.
There's a recent graph showing age at maturity for cbass, the age at joining the spawning population. It shows that at 13.38 inches 100% of sea bass have joined the spawning stock. I believe similar work from 1991 showed how ALL sea bass had already spawned, some twice, by 9 inches.
Both assertions are true depending on the variables of size-limit regulation & fishing pressure. We can see, have seen, all of our region's cbass in the spawning stock at age one. (From memory that's roughly between 6 3/4 & 9 1/2 inches. 'Age one' is the second year of life -- 0 to 12 months being age zero.) A super-abundant spawning stock is what we saw prior to the first creel limit in 2002; That, as any species might, our region's cbass joined the spawning population as soon as possible under heavy fishing pressure. It's part of -instrumental to- why our region's stock expanded so nicely under our self imposed and then, later, Federal/State 9 inch size limit regulation. 
An immediate effect of creating a larger average size fish by upping size limits and then adding creel limits was that age one fish did not join the spawning class.. Then age two also failed to recruit among the spawners.. Wasn't it fun to limit-out the whole boat on jumbo cbass more days than not in '03 -- To have clients select only 15 inch or better fish..
The stock mushroomed. 
And crashed.
This story is very complex. These fish all start life female; only some transition to male..
And they are all genetically programmed to return to a specific place to spawn. What a philopatrist might call habitat fidelity; Perhaps in sea bass we'll one day discover the behavior is natal fidelity--think salmon and their well-known return 'home' to spawn..
What I see in the fishery here, and I do not/can not see the whole coast--Just here--is that where the population bubble of all legal-sized spawners --and no sub-legal spawners-- was under intense fishing pressure, it collapsed.
That is why a 1/2 day boat could go 6 miles out in 2003 and have some clients catch 25 fish limits, yet go to that same spot now -today- and catch very few with no keepers.
Areas under less intense fishing pressure faired better but were not unscathed.
There's a whole lot of sub-legal spawners out there now. A happy accident.....
Another chart, a pie chart, in the meeting materials shows 14% of the total sea bass catch --including commercial-- as recreational discard. When we sports think of the fish shoveled by the rail as dead discards in a commercial fishery we should know that we too have our regulatory dead discards: Our own bycatch.
Don't want it. Certainly wouldn't feed sea bass to the sharks or gulls if we weren't forced to. Commercials either.
In total, 18% of the whole sea bass catch from Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod is thought to drift away dead but unused; That >25% of the recreational catch is lost to regulatory discard mortality.
That's a lot of cbass..
And it's a bunch of stuff. Barnyard stuff from over in the bull pen.
No, this too is a complex story involving depth, weather conditions, feeding behaviors, hook selection & size regulation: The WAG that we have 25% release mortality gives terrible disservice to all fishers.
I tried last year to show scientists that there was a correlation between size and release mortality, That bigger fish are more susceptible to barotrauma than smaller fish, That releasing 9 and 10 inch fish --even 10 1/2-- is fine even in quite deep water, But in over 110 feet of water some 11 & 12 inch fish are lost--can not recover suitable air bladder pressure before over-heating kills them.
In two trips with fishery staff aboard we couldn't kill a fish on release - even in 125 feet of water - even with up to 8 minute float times. They all lived. I'm now confident this is because the fish were feeding well up in the water column, that their air bladders were adjusted for 90 feet or so--this 30 feet off the bottom and therefore the air bladder's expansion wasn't as traumatic.
So far this year cbass are often holding tight to the bottom, a different feeding behavior. Just in the last two weeks my clients have had to indulge me in the time it took to collect dead fish drifting far behind the boat 3 times: All were measured; Almost all were thrown back again as required by law. Despite catching numerous fish at these locations as small as 7 1/4 inches, only one of the dead discards was below 10 inches. The majority were over 11 inches, many were 12 and a bit - nearly legal. One was 12 3/4. We ate that one.
If you are interested in and might understand a really detailed hypothesis that considers gill size, heart rates, blood volumes and why there might be a consideration in how age/size of the fish matters in barotrauma you'd want to contact Rudy Lukacovic with MD DNR.
He's a real scientist - I just provide observations.
Among the dead-discards I have observed this year - under no circumstance was the mortality rate 25%.
Less than 10% more likely & that only on very few days in very specific conditions. But what of its aggregate....
I hold that by size limit and fishing pressure we control at what age cbass join the spawning stock.
Also by size limit we control what percentage of sea bass become dead discard.
If believed, one could see where regulatory indiscretion, management lacking depth of consideration, might push the stock backward.
The biggest problem I see is that if this collection of data were perfectly correct, this mountain of facts, figures & numbers whole & complete; Within it restoration still could not be found without major adjustment to management's philosophy & action.
On our present course the size limit will continue to go up until most of our quota is taken by discard mortality; That eventually we will kill far more on release than what sizzle in hot oil. That by Regulation, As required by Law, we will have become like the pelagic sealers of just over a century ago, the men who shot seals for fur & oil that lost at least two thirds of their kills as they sank away. They didn't care. There were more, far more, to shoot..*
In this present-day growing-size-limit style of management the whole spawning stock is allowed into the fishery--'recruited' they might say.
The fish drifting away dead are those tasked with replacing what we've caught, with spawning: They can't spawn dead.....
In practice what is occurring is loss of interest by anglers; There are things more fun than winding up sea bass and throwing them back. To those concerned with only the paper population models as a target, any reduction is good that increases populations. A "Fishery" however, must encompass the human-use side of these populations.. where fishing businesses fail so has management.  
(*From "The Unnatural History of the Sea" by Callum Roberts -- 2007 -- Wow! Just picked it up, a quarter way in..)
Hold up. Nevermind the spawning stock a minute: How in Great Blazes can we expect to rebuild a reef-dwelling species if no one goes to check on the reefs?
I suspect we'll find that habitat fidelity --combined with certain stern-towed fishing gear's ability to destroy that habitat-- was pretty important in restoration.
Reef fishing's hotspots are simply places with less pressure, their production less encumbered and perhaps even unhindered by hook, trap or tow.
Habitat restoration simply multiplies the amount of productive bottom, the number of hotspots and, hopefully, will do so in advance of increasing fishing effort.
Those that argue in favor of "Natural" habitat restoration need be very patient - Another ice-age or two should do.
Rock, Concrete & Steel. Add salt water - Reef forms. Fish spawn there. Clients of restaurants, party boats & guvmint management can then enjoy fish dinners, sport and economic stability.
It's among a few simple truths..
..while the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey --MRFSS-- is not. The scientific community responsible for seeking truth in this data ought to screen it far more carefully than the present dogmatic --For the Truth Is Written Here-- crowd would have. Put some of those data sets on Jeff Foxworthy's "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader" and see what passes their sniff test.. An estimate of 36,017 flounder caught from shore in two months when the average is thought to be about 5,000 -- And even then half of the sets have a zero value.. Acceptance of such rubbish causes severe economic repercussions and loss of fisher's faith in management; Leads to 19 inch size limits, shortened seasons & Emergency Closures.. More.
Plenty more.
Starting with the megafaunal (large animal) mass extinctions at the end of the Paleolithic era due, I think, to advances in making stone points (think mammoths but there are many others) we have continued to wear away on earth's species list with our technological improvements in capture.
If fishery managers are to succeed where whale and seal management all but failed, then they too must seek better use of their technologies. 
I do not want my clients to come fishing only on the hope of great gambling profits, of some lucky lottery tag or million dollar dead fish; I want the catching--while safeguarding for the future; The fun and camaraderie of good sport, The seeking of good fish, And the dishwashing at day's end..
Management now, inadvertently, carries us further from those goals. The "Emergency Sea Bass Closure" last fall was due to a statistical system failure and a management failure. Had these systems been correct it would have been a greater failure still: At no time should our regulations allow a whole coast's sea bass quota to be captured in one small region.
Lower the size limit on sea bass a half inch a year to eleven inches so that "Released" always means "Returned to spawn another day" & also so that more age one fish join the spawning stock. Incorporate habitat into management both in restoration and susceptibility to over-pressure so that real restoration can begin: Divide the stock into management units to protect each region's population from the greatest overpressures in winter & similarly upon the most nearshore reefs. Swift and huge increases can be had in the amount of natural reef simply by protecting barren rock bottoms that are not lost; They regrow to productivity in under a decade.
And, lost as Atlantis; Perhaps tubeworm colonies were once more important seafloor habitat than hardbottoms. I have witnessed these frail habitat makers run through succession identical to an artificial reef's or regrown/recolonized rocks: Juvenile fish settlement, maturing, spawning, increasing numbers and continued controlled harvest.
Now I can't find any tube worms.
At all.
It's all anecdotal, I didn't think to film any.
They're gone.
Could come back.
A great deal of this sea bass discussion also has applications to other reef species such as summer flounder and tautog. It likely has merit with more southern reef species such as red snapper too.
Numbers on paper with values that shift like smoke are at no time as firm as anchors down, poles bent & banknote due: We --All Fishers-- need restoration to work. 
As the war for our nation's independence was fought one battle at a time, so too will fisheries restoration be won.
Find the habitat. Make every release count. Increase the spawning stock.
Restoration can be carried far beyond present expectation.
Capt. Monty Hawkins
Party Boat "Morning Star"
Reservation Line 410 520 2076

Blog Archive