Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fish Report 5/23/13

Fish Report 5/23/13 
Cbass Not What I'd Hoped 
The Dinner: Thank You  
Junior Tog Fishers 
Sea Bass Spawning Production 

XLong Cbass Trip — Thursday, May 30 — 5:30am to 4:30pm — $150.00 — Big Boat Ride — Intrepid Anglers Preferred! 

Fishing For Sea Bass Everyday Weather Allows – Sailing Daily. 
Reservations For Sea Bass Trips at 
410 - 520 - 2076.
LEAVE YOUR BEST POSSIBLE CONTACT NUMBER - Weather Cancelations Are Common - I Make Every Attempt To Let Clients Sleep In If The Weather's Not Going Our Way.. 

I don't even know which little girl it was; found out one of the school children on that tog trip was Capt. Bob Gower's great-granddaughter. Another youngster; a sturdy, polite young man with well developed fishing skills, was grandson & nephew of Kerry & Stormy Harrington: Fishing's past is inextricably tied to fishing's future..  

4,704 "oyster castle" reef blocks by the rail - 1,396 at Jimmy's Reef. Got That New Truckload — Thank You! 

Greetings All, 
Opening day of sea bass, May 19th, was announced by Maryland on May 18th. The fed never did announce. I keep hearing something about a press release in June.. 
Windy & Rough; borderline weather greeted us as we cleared the inlet opening day. I thought the hard part would be getting to a good reef in heavy weather, that the cbassing would be a cinch.  

It was not. 

In these opening days we've seen a summer pick, even a slow summer pick some days. Sending folks home with dinner; some with a few dinners. Have had a couple cbass close to 5 pounds & some clients in double digits. Working hard to get folks a catch. 
Fair many throwbacks; seeing a few tog and even some ling  no fluke yet. 

We had a long sustained ENE wind not too long ago; lasted almost 2 weeks. While scientists like to tell us about how warm surface waters have become with climate change: often warming's greatest perceived effect on our reefs is from melting ice-water coming down-coast with the Labrador Current & cooling the bottom. 
Those SCUBA divers I put down at the Radford May 10th, those Nitrox divers, they experienced not quite 60 degrees on the surface yet had 44 on the bottom.. 

Even though I think black sea bass are at a multi-decadal production low, Even though I think discovering & quantifying reef habitat's loss here in the nearshore waters of the Mid-Atlantic is a vital part of reef fisheries restoration, Even though I think allowing our cbass spawning stock to shrink owing to biological response from overdone size-limit restriction is management's greatest flaw: I believe what we have now, today, is fish missing — this shortage is because they haven't all come inshore yet. 
With chilly bottom temps a large percentage remain offshore.  
I hope. 

Time will tell whether the bite improves. 

As I have written many, many times; The single most important repair to this fishery—What we could swiftly do to improve cbass production—is to force more young fish into the spawning stock. 
Much more on that below.. 

The Hall's Restaurant Spring Reef Dinner went well. We quite nearly doubled last year's participation. Joe Hall & Family donate their staff, facility & food — Thank You! 
Oyster Bay Tackle owner Sue and her husband Bob, the good folks at Ake Marine, and auctioneer JL Cropper have long been the backbone of this fundraiser, have always been there — always.  
Joining in the heavy lifting this year was Benelli, especially their senior gunsmith, Randy, who donated a hand-made knife amidst mountains of other auction items. Anthony's Carryout donated carving of their delicious roast beef; Capt Kane on the Fish Bound donated a charter trip; Fleming donated two autographed pieces of sports memorabilia; Capt Dan of the Finchaser donated two reels; Capt. Victor from the Ocean Princess donated tickets; an anonymous angler handed me a fistful of hundreds; Gus from Accurate Pawn in Baltimore brought three nice St. Croix rods and assorted goodies; St Croix themselves donated a sweet tog stick, Seacrets gave us a nice gift certificate, All Tackle OC donated a bunch of deep-drop jigs, Gander Mountain in Pittsburgh donated several big boxes of goodies, Capt. Dan Harrison of Crisfield donated a splendid matted photograph, Dick Arnold had several of his photos present.. 
Too many to remember! 
Thank You All! 

The Ocean City Reef Foundation's mission is pretty simple: More Coral, More Fish. 
Have a new website about to debut at  .. Lot of pics. 

There's been a local battle over our tautog size limit. Somehow it was discovered that there were errors in the coastwide recreational tog catch estimates, and its obvious that MD's catch had plummeted since going to a 16 inch size limit. 
A very real sign of improving management; MD DNR Fisheries devoted a lot of energy to getting the tautog size limit reduced which would be consistent with nearby states. I very much appreciate that they carried the tautog idea forward.  
Its really quite different from DNR of decades past.. 
It just happens that I was an opponent; that I & very few others wanted to keep the 16 inch limit. 
I think this is the one fortunate accident of management's response to bad catch estimates in recent times. It was because "MD private boats caught 19,000 tautog in Mar/Apr 2010" (nineteen or 190 would be closer to the truth..) and similar ludicrous over-estimates that the size limit shot up 2 inches: We Were Falsely Accused Of Overfishing -Again– But here participants' pain will truly result in fisheries gain. 
Is already.. 

I have supported a 16 inch size limit since 1992.. Enforced it on the OC Princess years before regulation began.  
Because there are several types of tautog reefs—Or, more precisely, varying amounts of fishing pressure on reefs where tautog live: I have long thought (and written) that a gradual move up in size limit along the jetties and bulkheads that are heavily fished would be a better management strategy than jumping from 14 to 16 inches all at once. 
I've tagged about 8,000 tautog; am convinced our fish are non-migratory. Although bigger is slower, as they age into the size limit they seem to average 1.25 to 1.5 inches of growth per year. Therefore, because heavily-pressured reef populations are capped at the size limit, because they're being fished so hard at the jetties, for instance, that there are virtually no fish above the size limit—they're all caught as they grow through—it stands to reason that jumping two inches when they only grow an inch a year would, in fact, cause a drastic decline in catch the first year of new regulation. 

That did occur. Despite abundance, there were no keepers last fall on our most heavily fished reefs because of the two inch regulatory jump. I had predicted it for many years. 
Though not as bad, we even felt some of that pain offshore on more lightly fished reefs. 
But the pain's about to end. A lot of tog are going to 'recruit' to the fishery – become legal come fall.. 

I can illustrate exactly what I mean with one day's tagging data: 
On Friday afternoon, May 17th, I carried the Berlin Intermediate School Fishing Academy on a tog trip. These 11 & 12 year olds possessed no extraordinary fishing skill but certainly didn't lack enthusiasm. It happens that we took 5 tog between 16.25 & 19 inches and let 30 go in the space of about 3 hours over well-known artificial reef locations that are not over-pressured. 
We tagged every single release except for 3 which were already tagged. Another tag return had wear (the numbers were getting hard to read) and was retagged. It would be extremely out of the ordinary if these tags were immigrants from another reef – it is a virtual certainty they were originally released at each location where they were recaptured. 
(this same habitat fidelity occurs inshore too where many large tog were caught after sea trout collapsed decades ago) 

These eleven & twelve year old anglers:
Kept five. 
Released six above size limit — tog which could have been kept to 27.5 inches (14.5 lbs.) 
Released thirteen sub-legals between 10.25 & 14.75 inches which will not be legal this fall. 
Released thirteen sub-legal tog between 15 & 16 inches which will be legal this fall. 

A lot of fish are going to recruit come fall. 
Meanwhile, an awful lot of additional spawning will have occurred from fish that would have been slipped into hot oil. We will benefit from increased production because of the size limit increase: We Will See An Increase In Population From Fantastically Many More Eggs.  

I think 16 inches and 4 fish through winter, with a lower creel to accommodate the summer fishery—while so many other species are available—and no closures at all recognizes the increased fecundity of larger fish & allows the most heavily pressured places to contribute to production. 

Additionally, an enormous increase in tautog fishing effort occurred because of needless sea bass closures. Management might claim otherwise, but I believe they were simply lucky that privately funded additions of habitat, combined with the happy accident of a huge size-limit increase wrought from bad catch-estimates allowed stability and even growth of the tautog population at a time when they might have easily been over-pressured; when they might have honestly become over-fished.  

As it happens, MD DNR has now dropped their effort to decrease the size limit. In a time when there's pain everywhere, they would have had to convince every state that ours was a special plight.. 

We've tagged 40 tog since sea bass started, most of them caught on clam. Boxed a few keepers too. 
There really do seem to be more small tog than ever. That can't be a result of the 16 inch rule yet, but I like where we're headed. 

I do not like where cbass are headed though.. A very disappointing start; a decade-long decline. 
I shall work harder on my age at maturity thesis. I have to convince the Fed that our sea bass troubles lie not with over-fishing, but in over-regulation. 
Talk about moving a mountain.. I'm trying to convince management that its not climate change, its not overfishing, its not fantastic assertions of impossible catch seen on their computer screens; Its The Recreational Size Limit Forcing A Biological Response In Sea Bass: "Don't Spawn Yet, There Are Too Many Big Fish." 

We get down to 11 or 11.5 inches from 12.5 we'll see an enormous jump in production; see fantastically many more sea bass in the spawning population. 
The best sea bass fishing I've ever seen was not in 1983 or 1993 — but 2003, some 6 years into regulation. Every sea bass in the ocean was spawning back then and the bottom was re-growing. 

In 2003 I believed our sea bass were very nearly at habitat holding capacity. 
Commercial landings of sea bass from 1950 to 1959 are greater than all commercial landings since combined. 

If I saw present day habitat at capacity; It would take incredibly more habitat to support the sea bass of the 1950s. 

Today only a fraction of our sea bass are in the spawning stock, habitat is nowhere near holding capacity and our natural reef habitat footprint has decreased in the last decade.. 

If we keep going like we are, Massachusetts & the warming "Granite Coast" will swallow the recreational cbass quota while our reef habitat idles along at about 1/5 production. 

Older scientific works thought 5.5 to 7.5 inch sea bass were "mature at two to three years." Today we know sea bass at those lengths are actually early in year one — 12 to 18 months— and never-ever 2 to 3 years old. Although sea bass management began in the late 1990s by using lengths as quoted for regulatory purpose, they've gradually shifted to spawning stock data showing sea bass as "two to three years old" from these older works. 

Obfuscating: Late in the second to the third year of life really is when our sea bass begin spawning now; the assertion agrees with our present reality; They really do spawn at age 3 now

Yet early in management those 5.5 to 7.5 inch fish, those late age zero to early age one sea bass really were spawning — but they were age zero & age one..  
I had regulation all through the 1990s based on the scientific assertion that "All Sea Bass Have Spawned, Some Twice, By 9 Inches." 
When actual fed/state management began in 1997 that was their refrain too. 

Early management saw fishing get better & better..
In 2003 we even sometimes fished with shiny bare hooks — no bait whatever, we often fished plastics & spoons with no bait all day; We were catching limits most of the time. All those fish came from a period of 10 & 11 inch size limit production with NO bag limit: All of them.  

Last year we didn't see a dozen under-9 inch male sea bass – we were looking too. Used to be we'd see hundreds of small males every day. 
Small fish no longer spawn. 

Ignoring this immense shift in age at maturity as shown by comparing ONLY the lengths taken in years past is costing us dearly in this fishery
Cbass used to spawn at age 1 – some even at age zero. 
Now sea bass start spawning just as they recruit to the fishery, just as they become legal.. 

Tighter & tighter regulation has us targeting –fishing for- the spawners; Tighter & tighter regulation is wrecking the fishery. 

Early Fishery Management Plans held that just 4% of the cbass population was over 3 years old (and thought that was 7 1/2 inches?) Because sea bass presently have a 12 1/2 inch size limit, a large percentage of the population should actually, honestly, be age 3. 
In today's fishery only 3 year old and older fish are recruited to the spawning stock, whereas previously virtually every sea bass over 6 months of age was at least trying to spawn.

The closer to shore, the more heavily fished a reef is & the more pronounced this effect on spawning population. I believe it is those close-to-shore fish who drive the most fertilized cbass eggs into our estuaries..

When Bad Catch Estimates forced management to raise the size limit first to 12 inches & then 12.5 — We lost our fishery. 
We Need It Back. 

See a section of my report "Course Correction" included below for more a more detailed look at how age at maturity has changed..

Right now most of management thinks I've lost my mind; believes in the easily held & simply reasoned BOFFF hypothesis where 'big old fat fecund females' will drive a population upward. 

If BOFFF were true of sea bass, my crew would be wearing out fillet knives much more so than in the late 1990s & early 2000s. 

Instead; using nonsensical, even absurd at times, recreational catch estimates as a substitute for biological observation leaves us in a place where spawning stock biomass is a hypothetical, where reef fish restoration is attempted with no knowledge of reef habitat & where managers' greatest assets; habitat, habitat fidelity & age at maturity lie unused in their tool kit..

It struck home after that school trip. I don't even know which little girl it was; found out one of the school children on that tog trip was Capt. Bob Gower's great-granddaughter. Another youngster; a sturdy, polite young man with well developed fishing skills, was grandson & nephew of Kerry & Stormy Harrington: Fishing's past is inextricably tied to fishing's future.. 

We need to get this right, we have to. 


Capt. Monty Hawkins 
Partyboat Morning Star
Ocean City, MD


From "Course Correction" – 12/11/11 – Capt. Monty Hawkins

….The "Iron-Clad Rule" (Murawski) of fish populations becoming far more numerous if fished at the appropriate level relies heavily on several simple assumptions that no scientist or manager should make when dealing with reef fisheries: To be true --for fish to become far more numerous-- age at maturity must either remain constant or its changes factored into management; And the base area, the footprint, of reef habitat must remain unchanged or increasing.
The 'rule' is now being applied with opposite force as fish perceive population characteristics of a mature reef; their spawning behavior is: SLOW DOWN, there's too many of us..
From the 1996 Chesapeake Bay & Atlantic Coast Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan:Fifty percent of black sea bass are sexually mature at 7.7 inches Available at NSCEP by searching title.
From NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-NE-143, BSB EFH Source Document: 50% are mature at about 19 cm SL (7.5 inches) and 2-3 years of age (O?Brien et al. 1993).
Also from the EFH Source Document: 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).
Able & Fahay "The First Year in the Life of Estuarine Fishes" Pub 1998, citing Lavenda 1949, Mercer 1978 & Werner et al 1986: ..that matures first as female, then changes to a male at ages of 1 to 8 years:
That first 9 inch size limit agreed perfectly with my own observations. When lit-up in spawning color, male sea bass --blue heads or knot heads-- are very simple to spot. It follows that where small 7/8/9 inch sea bass are observed to have transitioned from female to male there ought to be active females of similar or same size. What science claimed then was true then: Yes, by 9 inches every sea bass has spawned.
The claim some sea bass had even spawned twice made perfect sense to me..
Age at maturity in sea bass is now noticeably older than it used to be: Where we used to see numerous small male sea bass under 9 inches, even as small as 6 3/4 inches; We now see males transitioning at the new size limit, at 12 to 13 inches and only rarely at 9 inches.
I believe we're still using the same science, but where emphasis was once on length, now age is quoted from those same early works.
There was a bad growth curve back then.. Where it says
50% are mature at about 19 cm SL (7.5 inches) and 2-3 years of age we now know those fish are barely age one, not 2 to 3 years of age.
From Mercer 1978: "..Black Sea Bass had significantly faster growth rates in the Mid-Atlantic.."
Early FMPs had just 4% of the cbass population over 3 years old (and thought that was 7 1/2 inches?) Because sea bass presently have a 12 1/2 inch size limit (age 3) a large percentage of the population should be age 3 -- In today's fishery only those 3 year olds and a fewer older fish are recruited to the spawning stock, whereas previously virtually every sea bass over 6 months of age was at least trying to spawn.
Whether accelerated spawning experienced for decades was a result of more young fish spawning or young fish learning to spawn earlier makes no difference: Spawning Was Accelerated, Fish & Fisher Benefited.
Now we don't.
Prior to 1997 recreational fishers averaged roughly 4 million sea bass a year with no size limit and no creel limit. Despite my own boat's management beginning in 92, back then very few Mid-Atlantic cbass EVER saw their 3rd birthday, Many were taken before they'd even had a birthday. But we still averaged 4 million a year in the lowest point of fishing's history, before cbass management had even begun.
Since 2004 I believe we have factually averaged well under a million fish landed per year in the Mid-Atlantic States, all of which were at least 3 or 4 years old.
If habitat, winter trawl & age at maturity had remained constant within the several distinct regional populations, or -far better- were actively managed for productivity, we'd conservatively be 2.5 million fish to the good every year just from recreational measures.
The other 50% of cbass quota goes commercial and their catch too is measurably declined -- Now we're 5 million cbass to the good annually.
Sea bass live about 12 years..
That would be 35 million cbass having escaped harvest just since 2004.
These many fish escaping harvest via management should offer an incredible increase in spawning capacity..
We have nicer fish--bigger fish, but less of them than straightforward math would have.
Counter-intuitive though it may seem, management has turned spawning activity down to simmer in the Mid-Atlantic with larger & larger size limits--are using natural biology to reduce the spawning stock size & remain unaware their actions are steadily eroding the recreational cbass fishery.
Management overweights assertions of overfishing, favors catch restriction policies to the point of exclusivity: Tools using biological considerations such as age at spawning/maturity, habitat production & habitat fidelity remain unused.
In 2002 a creel limit was created -25 fish- we saw the stock blossom. We experienced cbass fishing as it must have been "in the old days."
From my Fish Report 11/7 (2003) Habitat Fidelity, : "If a subset of a coastal stock were targeted, though unintentional, with heavy pressure (in winter), then fishers on that stock in the other parts of the year would see greatly reduced landings."
Come February & March of 2004 trawlers were hailing trap fishers, conch fishers; anyone who had a sea bass permit to come get their overage, their bycatch: From directed effort & summer flounder bycatch, there were a lot of sea bass caught.
There are no live discards in deep-water trawl.
Using my For-Hire Vessel Trip Reports (VTR) the recreational sea bass catch along DelMarVa was halved in 2004 and has restabilized at a lower population since.
This event even shows up in the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey (MRFSS) and was also shown to me in personal communication as a spike in trawl effort in NMFS chart area 626 -- the region where many DelMarVa cbass overwinter.
Where mid-management often explains away spikes in recreational catch via reduced commercial pressure; Here they should have no trouble understanding how a convergence of winter trawl on one region's stock could leave inshore fishers with locally reduced opportunity come spring..
Having already noted an increasing age at maturity in sea bass; In 2004 I believed it was absolute numbers of fish that dictated when sea bass would begin spawning--that crowding lowered the number of spawners. I believed the spike in directed winter trawl & summer flounder bycatch was certainly more than an inconvenience, but that we'd soon see an increase in spawning productivity and our regional stock would re-right itself.
Spawning size regression never occurred. Small fish remain predominantly absent the spawning population.
I now believe it is visual cues that drive spawning urge; That larger fish's presence prevent whatever hormonal response is needed for age 0, 1 & 2 cbass to join the spawning class.
I believe we have managed the black sea bass stock to a point where only a quarter or third of the stock engage in spawning.
I believe the size limit should be lowered by half inch increments until a strong uptick in spawning participation is seen -- probably at eleven inches.

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