Monday, October 29, 2012

Fish Report 10/29/12 CLOSED

Fish Report 10/29/12 CLOSED
Tying It Together
I Don't Just Want This Fishery Back, I Want Sea Bass Back Too.
Greetings All,
Offshore forecast includes sea heights from 25 to 38 feet.
Sandy--a NorEasticane--is making history.
Maryland's coast on the south side of the behemoth's landfall, despite flood damage we will be spared the worst. As in every natural disaster, that means someone else will not..
Boat hauled & on the hard since October 15th, we've only managed to get the wheelhouse in primer. With all the research & lobbying associated with NMFS again closing sea bass by emergency regulation, I've not been able to work alongside my crew nor oversee the work -- Sandy is not helping.
Be sometime in early November before the Morning Star's in finish paint.
By that time I hope to have shown the sea bass closure for what it is: A catch-estimate bungle, A theft of our fishery by bad-data; A fourth-tier, data poor fishery lost in economic purgatory because management was given inadequate tools to understand it.
Recreational Fisheries now revolve around one aspect of management: the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey (MuRFSS) & it's new federally mandated replacement, the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP).
With no embellishment I can quote exact MRFSS & MRIP catch statistics and make a room full of people laugh. People do not believe managers call these estimates "science."
Especially not their "best available science."
With acceptance of "duty" to use this science and allowed no consideration as to accuracy, a room full of managers can employ these same laughable catch statistics in the destruction of recreational fisheries - Are.
If no remedy can be found I suppose we'll go tog fishing -- dark days indeed for fishery management..
Tog too will again come under the regulatory knife if no repair is made to our catch estimates.
We suffer an unintended consequence of federal legislation.
Because of new Accountability Measures I fear it will get much worse before it gets better.
Some recreational fishing businesses will not survive.
Rode up to the ASMFC meeting in Philadelphia soon after NOAA announced the sea bass closure.
Surrounded by skyscrapers & a long way from Ocean City inlet, I paid $40.00 for valet parking--was glad to.
The last scheduled item after 4 grueling days of regulatory discussion including a near-war over menhaden management and with their suitcases stacked by the exit, the ASMFC sea bass sub-committee discussed management measures for the next 3 years along with NMFS' recent emergency closure.
Bear in mind, this is the Atlantic STATES Marine Fisheries Commission. They rarely have any say in federal waters outside 3NM.
Sea bass are jointly managed with the MAFMC, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
Where 96% of the alleged recreational sea bass quota overage came from states with a large nearshore fishery--their very large reef-like bottoms within 3NM of shore; During discussion on a motion to close all state waters, those same states thought they "Might be able to get sea bass closed by December."
Where just 4% of the MRIP recreational catch estimate is shown in the southern portion of the management zone (VA, MD & DE) and where there is no nearshore/state waters sea bass fishery: As in previous closures, the NMFS Emergency Rule will have instant effect on southern fishers while having almost no impact on northern fisheries where catch did occur.
It should be noted that New Jersey and Massachusetts had state regulations already in effect closing their cbass fishery--They Would Have Been Closed Regardless Of NMFS Emergency Regulation.
NY, RI & CT, however, will get around to closing sea bass in state waters if convenient.
For our purpose it should also be noted that if those NY, CT & RI anglers somehow manage to catch every sea bass above the Hudson it wouldn't dent the DelMarVa stock in the least. Owing to scientifically well-established habitat fidelity, not one fish from our region's stock would sizzle in a CT frying pan..
Delaware, Maryland & Virginia are reported to have caught just 4% of the recreational quota, yet are again the only states factually impacted by the Emergency Closure..
At the meeting I also learned we are still being charged an atrociously high discard mortality or "release mortality" as it is usually referred to when discussing recreational fisheries.
We are assigned 61% of the total estimated sea bass mortality, very nearly 500,000 pounds.
Even in the years before regulation began, much of my personal effort from 1992 on has been focused on measuring release mortality & discovering ways to reduce it.
In the 1980s we were always taught every sea bass thrown back died. Contrary to incredible throwback numbers in the recreational estimates from the 1980s, no one in the directed fishery threw sea bass back -- No One. Didn't Happen.
In 1992 I began strict enforcement of a 9 inch limit. By the end of summer we would see fish with multiple hook wounds in their lip. Some anglers still insisted on what they'd been taught -- throwbacks die. I have my 859th American Littoral Society tag return on my desk, a sea bass released in 120 feet of water in late May that was recaptured a month later. As now, early returns from personal tagging efforts begun in 1994 showed high release mortality was hardly the case - Did Not Exist.
Sea bass live when thrown back.
In 2009, I invited many scientists to come observe release mortality associated with barotrauma. We did two trips to 125 feet of water.. and couldn't kill a fish on release. Not One. I wanted to show where smaller fish have a better survival rate--and they do--but none of our releases went belly up.
Not long ago, perhaps due in small part to my own efforts, rec fishers were lowered from 25% throwback mortality to 10% -- our release mortality rate lowered tremendously ..or did they forget about that?
Caught tens of thousands of sea bass this year. Lost perhaps 30 or 40..
Not 30 or 40 percent but 30 or 40 individual fish.. I believe ten percent is still way too high; That -again- we are being billed for fish we have not taken.
In theory my boat's release mortality should be among the highest in the Mid-Atlantic because we often fish deeper and in warmer water than states where the quota is allegedly being caught-up.
I guarantee we did not approach 1% release mortality.
In a city of skyscrapers, this ASMFC meeting helps decide whether my fishing business will remain solvent.
Many seated at the table are volunteers, ASMFC paying only their expenses. Most, however, are state fisheries staff, others are from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOS, pronounced eN-Ge-Ohs) and on their payroll -- not that they're necessarily paid more money to attend, nor is state staff either.
NJ's recreational rep, Capt. Adam Nowalsky of the Karen Ann II, is a real hero in this regard. I honestly don't know how any for-hire skipper can volunteer entire weeks given our ever diminishing margins.
Believe me, attending these meetings --participating-- requires incredible effort on everyone's part.
A break; I was talking to several Commissioners in the hallway & was taken aback when one said northern sea bass had a faster growth rate than more southern fish.
That would be fully inconsistent with generally accepted wisdom: fish grow faster in warmer water.
Guy said it was in the science, "How else could they have all those 6 pounders?"
So I looked.
Derned if it isn't..
From Page 8 of NOAA's Technical Memorandum, NMFS-NE-143, Essential Fish Habitat Source Document, Black Sea Bass - subsection Adults: Black sea bass from Massachusetts had growth rates almost double those reported for New York and Virginia, but different growth estimators were used (Dery and Mayo 1988; Kolek 1990; Caruso 1995).
Sounds pretty unlikely to me, that Massachusetts fish grow noticeably faster despite colder water. That would require genetic variation or much richer feeding grounds. I sent an email to knowledgeable biologists including Dr. Gary Shepherd. He replied with a cutting-edge graph showing an ever-so-slight growth edge to southern Mid-Atlantic sea bass. I also have Dr. Shepherd's "Probability of Age" chart where sea bass length can quickly be referenced for age -- there is no separate chart for Massachusetts fish.
Managers need to make SURE this bit of disproven science is not included in stock assessments..
Along DelMarVa we had incredibly many more large fish when there was no creel limit & only an 11 inch size limit. With far higher production more fish evaded capture and grew. When the first creel limit was enacted and the size limit raised to 12 inches it created a bulge in our stock where every fish was a big one -- there were very, very few smalls in 2003 & 2004. Through about 2006 our pool winners were almost always fish north of 4 pounds, often 5.
Then too I carried a couple guys from Massachusetts a few years ago. They reveled us with tales of enormous fish, of double 6 pounders.. On the first drop one of them had a pair of 2+ pound fish, a nice double; "There's a pair of 6 pounders!" he exclaimed.
OK, I understood. I sure didn't get out a scale. If they advertise we catch six pounders that's fine. I don't.
As the ASMFC sea bass panel listened to our list of crimes, a catch estimators dream of untestable assertions proving we weren't just over-quota but FAR over -- Guilty -- No need to inspect data: Its the "best scientific information available." They then began debate on various management measures that might prevent further recreational wickedness; here I heard a commissioner say--in session, "No one at this table believes this data."
No one jumped up and shouted, "The Data's Good!"
All along I've been trying to tell them what they already knew.
But they think the data smooths out, that as you add more and more bad estimates together they become better. I suppose they could--but that relies on chance. Our catch estimates are so wifty that there's probably a better chance they'll average far away from our actual level of catch..
All managers have a concern with many fisheries--sometimes more than a dozen and always the commercial side too, for them a single focus on any one species' data is impossible.
Here I'll speculate that if you keep adding cockroaches to ice cream, sooner or later someone's going to get a whole one.
We've had spike after spike of bad catch data in the sea bass fishery.
That weren't no sea bass bone..
Back out in the hallway I talk to a fellow who is keen on Southern New England fisheries; has a breadth of knowledge and variety of fisheries I can only envy. From Rhode Island, he thinks his state's estimates are pretty clean this year -- but hasn't looked at the breakdowns.
Ought to.
For July/August 2010 RI For-Hire/Party/Charter has 5,500 cbass --- Rhode Island private boats almost 100,000..
Uh Hu.
For July/August 2011 RI For-Hire has 2,700 sea bass --- Private boats 8,900 (still eating the frozen ones from last year?)
For July/August 2012 RI For-Hire has 6,500 -- Private boats 42,500..
We have to check: When these fisheries eventually get sub-divided by permit; when we are all permanently assigned a percentage of quota, Rhode Island's party/charter guys are going to get a fat, juicy cockroach.
We all are.
If we last that long.
I'll bet there were single days when RI's party/charter fleet caught that many sea bass. I'll bet they sent VTRs or some manner of data to NMFS showing that catch.
MRIP thinks its better at counting our catch..
As for their private boats catching 100,000 -- 20X more than RI for-hire -- I'll refer you to Professor Bling Bling's alpha-numeric explanation. (copy & paste in browser)
This lecture, though less than a minute, offers a suitably sound explanation for our estimates' lack of accuracy.
Maryland too: We not only have zeros popping up in our most vital business periods--times when we're catching fish and carrying clients, times when we're surrendering data daily then credited with zero catch; We too have have private boats estimated to be outfishing the for-hire fleet.
There are even times in the 1980s when private boats are estimated to have caught hundreds of thousands more sea bass than MD party/charter; Back when LORAN C was a necessity, Back when we used to throw jugs -- and cut them off quick if ANYONE appeared on the horizon. One fellow I know even kept a loaded shotgun on his bridge, he'd shoot his jug and push his throttles to the pin if he saw anyone coming..
No, I think in those days private boats accounted less than 5% of our sea bass catch, probably much less.
Now in 2012 MRIP has MD Party Boat at 9,000 cbass in May/June with 12,100 fish for private boats - Charter gets a goose egg..
One day - Just Once This Year - I saw 5 private boats on a Maryland artificial reef. There were also 2 party boats and 2 charter boats there. So perhaps 80 folks aboard for-hire boats & 20 on private. That was a Saturday. A beautiful Saturday before tuna started biting.
During the week I rarely see a private boat wreck fishing -- ever.
Influenced only by statistic; management must think our reefs are being overrun with private boats.
For high-summer's wave 4 estimate, July & August, MRIP has MD's private boats catching 1,671 sea bass in 2012.
Unfortunately I was skunked. So was every other MD skipper. Altogether we caught Zero.
But if I hadn't sent in my Vessel Trip Reports detailing each & everyday's catch--including sea bass catch from every single day--EVERY DAY, my permits would be in serious jeopardy.
These data sets are absolute fabrication. There's no accuracy at all.
Even the data we send in is disregarded in favor of a WAG.
Smooth them out and you get cockroach paste - not ice cream.
But catch estimates can give managers an indication of catch. In the 1980s, for instance, MRFSS claims we caught the heck out of Atlantic Mackerel and then, beginning right after a Foreign Joint Fishing Venture where US trawlers caught and sold enormous quantities of Mackerel caught off Maryland & Delaware to foreign processors in 1991: MRFSS clearly shows that from 1992 forward recreational catches have declined to zero.
That zero is dead-on.
So's the fishery.....
How can my theory of a minimized spawning stock--where only the oldest sea bass are now spawning, but during the mid-late 90s/early 2000s every single sea bass in this region's marine area was actively spawning be true if the northern region has production??
What of my notion that running the size limit up has slowed sea bass production along DelMarVa to a crawl; Where --always in response to a very few outlandish spikes in data-- management has been duty bound to react by tightening regulation further & further; these spikes of unsubstantiated catch that once necessitated size limit increases now cause closures--And still our sea bass here do not thrive as they did in earlier management with far looser controls.
Why did we experience a fantastic increase in population after just a few years and then stabilize at a lower place..
How can it be that I once caught MD's entire 2012 for-hire estimate in two days and did that in this fishery's darkest hour; in a time before any regulation had been begun.
How did we go from a reef system I though very nearly at holding capacity in 2003, to a reef system with lots of room for improvement despite fantastically tighter regulation..
The size limit has gone up-up-up because management reacts only to enormous statistical spread's centerpoint. Statisticians all claim they offer a correct answer to the question, "How Many?" if the PSE is actively considered.
That "PSE" stands for Percentage Standard Error. You see it in the news daily as "margin of error" in presidential polls.
Except they wouldn't dream of releasing a political poll with a margin of error greater than 4% -- our acknowledged accuracy often trends beyond 70%..
Where MRFSS claims Massachusetts private boats' total cod catch was 1,467,000 with a PSE of 39.3 in March/April 2010 (and for-hire caught only 45,000?) what the statistician means is 1.5 million cod give or take 40%.. Well, it could actually be double the PSE and still not flunk but they'd prefer their estimates inside this "margin of error."
For once this particular MRIP catch estimate came in a little lower - a smidge. Our "New & Improved" estimate is 159,558 not 1.5 million.. For 2012 it was 703.
At the ASMFC meeting it was decided to use MRFSS for sea bass & not the new program. MRFSS estimates offer an even higher sea bass estimate this year than MRIP but I can't access any 2012 data in MRFSS.
We see MRFSS' 1.5 million March/April cod estimate followed 2 years later by MRIP's 703..
More simply, and just within the MRIP data, private boat catch is 6X higher than party/charter in 2010, followed by private boat being 6X lower than party/charter in 2012.
Betcha the same guys went fishing. Betcha most private boats were on the hard in March & April. Betcha those guys were glad to buy a party boat ticket or charter with buddies to avoid getting their boat ready until late spring.
But, officially, those same private boat guys caught 1.5 million in a few weeks in 2010 by MRFSS -- then a zero in 2011 by MRIP & 703 the following year.
But hey, if you average them together over a thousand years it starts to even out..
In Philly --with my business about to get swept-up in a regulatory hurricane-- a commissioner at the table said, "No one here believes this data."
But they use it without question?
Here's what a Ph.D. said about MRFSS just a couple years ago.
You'll remember MRFSS is the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey and USFWS is US Fish & Wildlife Service..
From "Adjustment to Striped Bass Recreational Catch, Harvest, and Fishing Mortality (F) due to Systematic Bias in the MRFSS from 1982 to 2008" by Victor Crecco, Ph.D. Connecticut Marine Fisheries: "The MRFSS annual saltwater angler estimates for coastal states between Maine and North Carolina have always exceeded the corresponding USFWS estimates by an average of 43% prior to 2000 (Crecco 2009). After 1999, MRFSS trip and angler estimates have risen sharply and are now at least twice the magnitude of USFWS saltwater angler estimates which have remained steady since 1999 (Crecco 2009). In addition, MRFSS saltwater angler estimates in Virginia, Maryland and Florida from 1985 to 2008 have always been at least 30 to 90% greater than the adjusted (taking into account noncompliance and lack of coverage) number of saltwater fishing licenses sold annually from theses states (Figure 1 to 3). Moreover, MRFSS saltwater angler estimates in 2008 from the states of Florida, North Carolina, Delaware, Maryland Virginia and Connecticut (in 2009) have greatly exceeded (by a factor of 2.0 to 3.0) the corresponding saltwater license sales even after observed license sales were inflated two to three fold to reflect noncompliance and lack of coverage (Table 1). By contrast, adjusted saltwater license sales from Florida, Maryland and Virginia closely approximated the magnitude and trend of saltwater angler estimates based on the USFWS from 1991 to 2006 (Figures 4-6)."
Looking for a silver bullet.. The beast won't die.
I bet this fellow, Dr. Crecco, knows exactly where the estimating formulas are skewed. All I can do is show their result
..and watch my primary fishery die.
Battle weary, even fishery officials who fully recognize the data's flaws continue to use it without modification.
Dr. Crecco's work really does explain a lot. It shows my constant and steady complaint that For-Hire Party/Charter (a separate data set from private boat/shore effort) is losing catch, That party/charter is shown to have a lower & lower percentage of recreational landings while in reality we either maintained traditional percentages or 'shared' just a few more fish with private boats in small increments. If private boat caught 5% in 1985 but now catches 20% - that's a huge increase, just getting to 10% would be double, but still substantially less than for-hire.
Each region's fishery will be different, but those percentages CAN be estimated and applied with VTR reports to determine some level of truth.
In about 2004 private boat sea bass catch began to run away with the sea bass fishery. It is in exactly that year when private boat catch first smothers for-hire effort.
It is in that year when MRFSS went from inept to dangerous.
A press release: I eagerly look at NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program. Nothing new. Its work does not extend north of Florida. Enormous reefs in clear water with coral of many species growing large enough that a warm & comfortable scuba diver can not miss them are enough to fulfill this program's mandate.
The videos I and others have made of our third-rate coral reefs are nothing to real coral reef ecologists.
Still, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-NE-143 - "Black Sea Bass Life History & Habitat Characteristics" -- The Essential Fish Habitat Document -- (EFH) opens with a quote, "The long-term viability of living marine resources depends on protection of their habitat." (from NMFS Strategic Plan for Fisheries Research, February 1998)
I happen to agree with that, as far as it goes.
As a statement of intent it falls far short of creating a blueprint for fishery restoration. Simply protecting the remainder of this region's natural sea bass habitat could not begin to restore the original habitat footprint..
As an aside, the EFH Doc also notes, "According to Beebe and Tee-Van (1933), black sea bass were introduced to Bermuda, however this was unsuccessful."
Boy, those were the days; Striped bass to California, Shad too.
Too bad no one brought a train-car full of California halibut back with 'em.. All we got was green crabs for tog bait & phragmites - no 50 pound flounder..
On page 11 of the EFH Doc: In many studies of reef fish, such as black sea bass, the availability of shelter limits successful postlarval and/or juvenile recruitment (Huntsman et al. 1982; Richards and Lindeman 1987).
Off Virginia, artificial reefs and wrecks are populated with active resident adult black sea bass during most winters and support commercial and recreational fisheries (Cheek 1977; Adams 1993).
The offshore habitats occupied by adult black sea bass during the winter are poorly known. There are speculative and anecdotal reports that the northern population is associated with rough bottom during the winter (Pearson 1932; June and Reintjes 1957; Neville and Talbot 1964).
Here's where our notion of Essential Fish Habitat strays far from reality: The existence of significant amounts of rough bottom in wintering areas has not been confirmed. Wigley and Theroux (1981) characterized the wintering area as flat sandy-silt with occasional areas of relict and active sand waves of varying size, without hard bottom. There are reports of hard bottom (consolidated clay or rock) near the head of submarine canyons at the shelf edge and in a few other isolated places (Emory and Uchupi 1972; Stanley et al. 1972; Grimes et al. 1987). Scattered shipwrecks and man-made debris are also available as offshore wintering habitat.
In this next segment Wigley & Theroux's illusion is cemented shut, our opportunity for science to move forward lost until someone finally pries the lid back off: Parker (1990) reports that black sea bass burrow into sediments during cold spells off the Carolinas. This behavior can explain how structure-associated black sea bass accommodate themselves during the winter on the relatively featureless offshore continental shelf of the Middle Atlantic Bight. However, burrowing in open, soft sediments may not protect them from trawls or the possible harm from suspended sediments (Churchill 1989). Several other resource species use the same habitat as black sea bass in the winter, including scup, summer flounder, butterfish, squid, and American lobster (Chang 1990; Able and Kaiser 1994).
Just astounding. Sea bass use reef in winter too. I wonder what those winter-rocks looked like before industrial fishing began..
In this same EFH source document cbass are said to occur "irregularly in the cool waters north of Cape Cod" citing (Scattergood 1952; DeWitt et al. 1981; Short 1992).
I also found Musick & Mercer (1977) holding the sea bass fishery waned at Block Island, while Dr. Shepherd maintains there was a small sea bass fishery above Cape Cod in the 1980s. (personal com, 2012)
Also in the NMFS-NE-143 Black Sea Bass Source Document , "Temperature, not the availability of structured habitat, appears to limit black sea bass distribution north of Cape Cod. [Lots of rock--too cold] In the Middle Atlantic Bight, black sea bass are usually the most common fish on structured habitats, especially south of New Jersey where the abundance of cunner (Tautogolabrus adspersus) declines. [aka choggie - strawberry bass - bergal] These structured habitats include shellfish (oyster and mussel) beds, rocky areas, shipwrecks, and artificial reefs (Verrill 1873; Bigelow and Schroeder 1953; Musick and Mercer 1977; Steimle and Figley 1996).
Yes, the same document that gave management the notion sea bass grow faster & bigger in Massachusetts, That asserts sea bass abandon reef-like environs completely in winter to become ostrich-like sand burrowers; This document also misses sea whip meadows and northern star coral as habitat, but at least mentions 'rocky areas' once or twice.
Not really the grasp of Essential Fish Habitat I'd like to see, but there are several projects underway that may change & firm our current understanding..
We do have good habitat science; more's coming. Its not yet been collected together yet to refute older works.
We see a similar problem here in age at maturity/length at age data from the EFH Source Document.
From page 3 - brackets [ ] are mine: In the Middle Atlantic Bight, individuals begin to mature at age 1 [age zero] (8-17 cm [3.1 to 6.7 inches] TL) and 50% are mature at about 19 cm [7.4 inches] SL [standard length] and 2-3 years of age [7.4 inch sea bass are all age one] (O'Brien et al. 1993).
In the South Atlantic Bight, Cupka et al. (1973) reported that both sexes mature at smaller sizes (14-18 cm SL) [5.5 to 7.1 inches]. Wenner et al. (1986) and Alexander (1981) found mature fish at about 10-11 cm [4.1 inches] (age 1+) [age zero] off South Carolina and New York; a majority of fish were mature at about 19 cm TL [7.4 inches] and at an age of about 2-3 years [age 1].
These scientists could certainly measure. Their aging data, however, was remarkably unrefined.
This is the first sea bass tagging study that I'm aware of, here from the EFH Doc: Kolek (1990) reported evidence from tagging studies of homing to spawning grounds. Some tagged adult black sea bass returned to the
spawning grounds in northwestern Nantucket Sound where they were tagged. Kolek (1990) also reported this local spawning group spawned earlier and in shallower waters than generally reported by Kendall (1977).
And from Page 9 - Based on collections of ripe fish and distributions of egg, black sea bass spawn primarily on the inner continental shelf between Chesapeake Bay and Montauk Pt., Long Island at depths of about 20-50 m [65 to 160 feet] (Breder 1932; Kendall 1972, 1977; Musick and Mercer 1977; Wilk et al. 1990; Eklund and Targett 1990; Berrien and Sibunka 1999).
To tie all this together requires discarding outdated habitat science; requires accepting the statistician's view of "How Many Fish Did They Catch" completely by including the full range of PSE. But Managers Have, For Years, Used Only An Estimate's Centerpoint For Brevity's Sake lessen the amount of time needed for arriving at regulation.
Tying this together also requires new science, climate change science..
In all of the above we doubtless see an increase in catch for Southern New England, but at the same time a decline in the lower Mid-Atlantic's sea bass catch.
I believe another area of divergence especially vital to understanding the depth of this contradiction is recreational fishers perception of catch regulation's effect. Where in 1995 MRFSS claims recreational fishers caught 6.7 million sea bass, we think of that as 3 fish to a pound (no size limit, no creel -- no management at all in 1995 except voluntary measures.) Sadly, MRFSS has those fish 1995 at a pound apiece. Not.
All alone then, we had a 9 inch limit and were measuring.. takes a few to make a pound.
So, if rec fishers brought 6.7 million fish home in 1995 at under 2.2 million pounds of catch, and then in 2000 (with the size limit now pushing 11 inches) landed 3.6 million fish at <3 million pounds; And now in in 2011 we landed 0.85 million fish for 1.2 million pounds: We sensibly think --and this is with no exponential expansion of population, only the exact production as occurred pre-management-- we think we're conserving 6 million fish annually under modern regulation.
Because sea bass are thought to live at least 12 years and as long as 20, that's about 44 million fish to the good without any calculation of additional production from unharvested spawners..
We'd have constant, uniform and incredibly high catch per unit of effort (CPUE) throughout the management unit.
But Don't.
We'd be leaving millions & millions to grow every year with millions and millions more entering an ever growing spawning stock..
But Aren't.
Maybe up in Southern New England though..
You see, as our earth has warmed in recent times (an undeniable assertion given the now-regular transit of the NW Passage above North America) this warming is expanding black sea bass habitat not only northward, but deeper.
Although melting ice cools the sea floor when transported south by the Labrador Current --this evidenced in MD by cod catches every month of 2011/12-- the Great South Channel likely shunts most of this effect below Cape Cod.
We see in the EFH document from Kolek's work that sea bass spawned in shallower water below Cape Cod than in all other areas. Even from just a few decades ago, warmer surface temps now carry deeper into Nantucket Shoals where Goode found a healthy sub-population of cod in his 1888 work; Its warmer in Buzzards Bay as well.
Given Dr. Jefferson's work on Southern Massachusetts' warming waters, each increasing fathom of warmer water penetration opens whole new regions along the granite coast suitable for sea bass colonization & spawning -- more rocks -- more new reef to 'home' to.
Where in the southern Mid-Atlantic we had an amazing increase in our sea bass population from the mid-90s through 2003, the stock contracted sharply in early 2004 and has stabilized at a lower level. At the end of that expansion I honestly thought we were very nearly at habitat holding capacity--that we just couldn't hold any more sea bass.
A common theme in population ecology among all animals; We should expect that fishes might have natural defenses against overpopulation as well as means to invigorate spawning where habitat is available.
I hold that our region's stock was well represented by the studies found in the EFH Doc, that our sea bass did indeed spawn at 7.5 inches (though it was age 1 and not "2 or 3 years") - that at times our fish behaved as more southern fish and spawned even at age zero.
Now, however, having once achieved holding capacity some manner of trigger has come into play--be it visual or pheremonal--where our region's sea bass truly do not spawn until age three: Once every single sea bass outside an estuary was engaged in spawning, now only the oldest are.
And, due to MRFSS-error driven management, We Target Them.
Production tapers.
In Southern New England their fishery failed to respond to management in it's earliest years. As I recall, while we began official regulation at 9 inches and saw immediate benefit, Massachusetts especially began regulation with 12 & 13 inch size limits for their commercial & recreational fishers. There was no objection because there was no established fishery other than salable bycatch in some of the region's lobster fishery.
At first stifled; now expanding..
And, with no possibility of overfishing as its possible cause, ours is contracting.
When I wrote, "On the Recent Improvements of Live Bottom Habitat in the Mid-Atlantic Bight" in 2001 I was seeing fantastic expansions of habitat I had fished for years -- Habitat was growing, and every sea bass was spawning. In 2003 we had more clients limit out on sea bass than not ..and took very few tautog.
But also in 2003 I wondered where the shorts were. That fall lacked its main player, the swarms of little sea bass headed off for their first migration.
With a mind-boggling 50% drop in sea bass catch during May of 2004 stemming from unregulated bycatch in the winter trawl fluke fishery, I thought the pain would soon ease as our fish would again regress into a younger fish spawning situation.
Still waiting.
Only the oldest spawn.
Rather than our limited artificial reef constructions, shipwrecks & again diminishing remnant sea whip meadows where every single scrap of reef is already colonized by 12 to 15 inch sea bass thus reducing the likelihood of spawning triggers occurring in younger fish; Where far to our north each layer of rock along the Granite Coast is becoming suitable for sea bass colonization, I should imagine their younger sea bass are active and so Sea Bass production in the northern portion of the management area is doing fine.
None of those fish will come south save in the heart of winter when they'll be 50+ miles out. CLOSED anyway.
Its up to management to reinvigorate our southern region's spawning production.
Its up to management to recognize habitat's importance throughout the fishery's range.
Its up to management to more-fully investigate data which fails to meet any science's test: Truth.
Its up to management to recognize inherent flaws in fishery management, To understand where seemingly minor flaws in the science become crushing errors later; That there are large errors in earlier age at maturity work, That there are incredible errors in not only our catch estimates but in conversion of numbers of fish to pounds; That expanding habitat in warming waters allows for dramatically increased production not factored into quota management; That if recreational fishers are not aware of how to reduce discard mortality then they should be educated; That off-the-cuff estimates of discard mortality should be scientifically tested -- and, most importantly, the fishery should be divided into regions with separate quotas & management especially mindful of winter's industrial effort.
I think this fishery is among the easiest to make flourish.
Roll some rocks of a barge and force young fish to spawn.
The only thing that would have allowed a lot more fish to exist here in 2003 would have been a lot more habitat..
We're not over-quota, the stock's under-scienced.
On present course management will destroy the human side of this fishery while having done far less than it might have for the fish.
Perhaps they'll roll this fishery's gravestone onto one of our artificial reefs.
That, at least, would help.
My Regards,
Capt. Monty Hawkins
Party Boat "Morning Star"
Reservation Line 410 520 2076

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