Sunday, September 22, 2013

Fish Report 9/22/13

Fish Report 9/22/13 
Fluke & A Few More Cbass 
On Methods Of Fishery Restoration..  

Sea bass populations shot skyward with far less regulation and are now in decline. 

Overfishing nowhere to be found, It Is Management's Duty To Find Out Why. 

Sailing Daily 

No One Could Guess Exactly When Flounder Will Slow & Cbass Resume..

Reservations For Flounder/Sea Bass Trips at 410 - 520 - 2076. 

New-To-The-Boat Clients can see much more info at   

And, From Coastal Fisherman, See Our Latest "Show You Around The Boat" Video (many regulars have pics in it). 

Bring A (not so big) Fish Cooler With ICE For Your Party.. We want to avoid keeping the chips & hoagies cold while fresh fish cook in a hot bucket.. 

Eight Hour trips $110.00 - 7AM to 3PM – Saturdays 6AM to 3:30PM - $125.00 

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.. 

Be A Half Hour Early - We Like To Leave Early.

Clients Arriving Late Will See The West End Of An East Bound Boat..  

Taking Reservations Through October 15th.. November & December Fishing Are On Hold Until A Review Of Recreational Catch Estimates Can Be Had. 


7,380 'Oyster Castle' Reef Blocks By The Rail. Now 2,197 at Jimmy's - 1,324 at Ake's. Deploying the 7th truckload of reef blocks; Thank You To All Who Helped Buy This Truckload! 

See if you'd care to help fund the next truckload. Snailmail a check – any check! 

Trying to keep a large selection of OCRF long sleeve & ss t-shirts aboard. 

And stay tuned for a handful of framed & matted Jimmy Jackson numbered prints.. 

Greetings All, 

Have had wonderful days of fluke/flounder fishing. Had a clunker too. Even then some anglers caught well, however, so I truly oughtn't complain. 

I does strike me as though the rare client who airs the declaration: "I am here, Ocean, and Have A Large Cooler: Surrender Your Fish" are the very clients who will have a 'bad day' when the bite gets fussy.. 


Wind NNE at 25 & gusty; that was enough to keep us to the dock TuesdayWednesday the cbass bit better than they had in a month or more while catching fluke offered greater challenge. A sign of fall's approach.. 

Thursday we very nearly limited the rail with fluke/flounder. 

(North of DE Bay summer flounder are always called fluke. South of that line we haven't caught winter flounder in 2 generations so differentiating between flounders is unnecessary.)

Fathometer shows lots of sea bass on the reefs/wrecks where I'm fishing. Sometimes I'll have folks drop into 20 feet of sea bass  ..they'll catch flounder. 

Not a bad thing, perhaps not even unusual in these conditions. 

It'll change. 

Just got my 900th tag return back. Closing in on a thousand I suppose. 

Number 900 was a female tautog caught on the same artificial reef she was released at 16 months earlier. She'd grown from 16.5 to 18 inches – quite normal. 

Another tog, return #901, grew .75 of an inch from Nov 12th to May 14th. Not unusual: This female moved from a well-established artificial reef (almost 20 years old) to a newer reef less than 4 years old. Always less than a mile away so far; We see tog colonizing new reefs as they become habitable, usually 3 to 4 years after construction. 

Another tag, return #902, was at liberty 3.5 years. This male too remained at his 'home' reef, a well-known artificial site. Re-released with a new tag, the fish is most likely still there.. Didn't grow a whole lot though, just 2.5 inches. I'll have to look & see if that's common with males. Tag nearly illegible, I thought surely the data was lost. ALS' tag coordinator, Jeff Dement, saved it with a microscope. 

Another tog was first tagged in April, 2013. But I'm certain it had previously been caught because it had a "third fin rip." Tagging takes a lot of time & money. To ease paperwork we began marking tog with a tear in the dorsal between the third and fourth fin bones. Just slip a hook in the soft flesh – heals very swiftly and appears to leave a permanent mark. 

This fish, however, was noted as a female when tagged. 

At recapture just 6 weeks later it was noted as 'sex indeterminate.' 

Sea bass well-known to change from female to male as spawning demands; Many other reef fish, especially wrasses, change sex too. 

Tautog are a wrasse. 

Perhaps we'll see evidence of it in tautog from our tagging. 

The American Littoral Society welcomes new taggers. See 

I think crucial work could be done from the jetties. It would really benefit managers to understand if the jetties are 'just another reef' where tautog live or a transition point for estuarine production, for small tog moving offshore. 

I'm certain that our ocean fish are non-migratory — that they stay put unless there's a dern good reason to move. 

I'm unsure what jetty tog do. Sure have seen some BIG fish off the jetties over the years. 

Perhaps a mixed habitat use..

Been a lot of years since I tagged sea bass heavy. By the thousand in the mid-1990s, now I just tag a big cbass now & again. 

Working with any scientist who expressed an interest back then; I sought to understand habitat expansion/contraction, cbass/tog population increase, release mortality related to depth & hook wounds.. 

In the late 1990s I sent a rock pulled up from the Old Grounds with sea whip growing on it to NMFS' Sandy Hook Lab.. Quote: "Interesting. Can't see how sea whip would create habitat though." 

In 2001 I sent video to NMFS & Congress showing our sea floor reef habitat. In 2013 NMFS did survey some of the places I hold as vital fish habitat. 

In 1992 I was enforcing, really enforcing, boat regulations – especially a 9 inch size limit on sea bass. 

In 1997 MAFMC decided that was a good idea too. 

By 1993 I knew putting a size limit on sea bass was incredibly beneficial. 

In 1998 I learned bad MuRFSS recreational catch estimates were capable of stealing a fishery. 

In possession of a Doctorate, the scientist rolled his eyes as if to say, 'Here's a dunce cap. Go stand in the corner with all the other fishermen. You dumb fishermen always overfish & then wonder where the fish went.' 

Its always that way when I tell a scientist, "We used to catch a lot more fish with a much smaller size limit." 

Its hard to convey that I witnessed the very bottom, I saw the Mid-Atlantic's final years before regulation. We'd get a few weeks of sea bass in the spring and again in the fall in the 1980s. Sea trout (weakfish) collapsed - that fishery remains lost but there's hope. Red hake (ling) were 'moving offshore' and would collapse too by 1989. Cod were a species we'd see a few times a year; the good fishing locked away in old–timers' memories. We beat our resident tog population to a pulp in just 2.5 years after sea trout collapsed. And, finally, Boston mackerel were lost in the early 1990s.. 

Emergency Closures my foot.. Here's your dunce cap back, I know what real overfishing looks like.

In July, 1991 a MD DNR biologist, Nancy Butowski, told me, "All sea bass have spawned by 9 inches, some twice." 

I presented the idea of boat regulation to the Nichols family. Strongly supported – off we went. 

By August 1992 I was seeing sea bass with as many as 5 hook wounds in their lip. 

The attitude among older clients still persisted, "No use throwing them back; They all die." 

But it was already obvious that sea bass didn't die when thrown back; that instead they used to always die in a plastic bag or cooler.. 

It was only luck that in the early eighties I'd noticed clients' hook-up ratios were much better with a wide-gap (or Kahle) hook. I didn't realize how important the shape of a hook was in reducing deep-hooking mortality then: It was just better. 

(its understood today that wide-gap performance equals a circle hook's)

We only rarely fished deeper than 120 feet & didn't really see small cbass that deep anyway, just larger cbass. I wouldn't begin to fuss with baurotrauma until later. Those 9 inch sea bass rarely ever had a problem with depth.. 

Lots of tags by mid-1990, the pattern of 'habitat fidelity' swiftly emerged. Sea bass would migrate offshore in winter & return to the exact same reef. Some say the same precise spot on a reef.. 

Fishing party boats for sea bass 34 years now, Here are my release ratios for ONE WEEK of May for the past 17 years. I believe real recreational sea bass regulation began in 1998. (a loophole in federal timing prevented the Council's 1997 regulations from being broadly adopted..)  {Just One Week; This isn't a reflection of the whole year – Just In May When Larger Fish Are Usually Caught. Release Ratio's generally higher in the fall as young sea bass make their way offshore for the first time.} 

One Week's Sea Bass Landings – An Average. 

Year - -   % Kept — Size Limit - Regs forming Spawning Population(note #1)

1997 - -    81.6%       — 9            - 9 (self regulation)

1998 - -    87.2%       — 9           - 9 (partial state compliance) 

1999 - -    53.33%     — 10           - 9  (now federal regulation) 

2000 - -    55.55%     — 10           - 9 

2001 - -    44.49%    — 11          - 10 (*Possession Limit*)

2002 - -    24.97%   — 11.5        - 10 

2003 - -    21.83%    — 12          - 10 (many clients fishing much higher, even 16 inch, personal limits) 

2004 - -    32.17%     -- 12          - 11 (Feb/Mar Fluke Trawl Bycatch Event)

2005 - -    29.93%    — 12          - 11.5 

2006 - -    26.24%    — 12          —12

2007 - -    33.33%    --  12           - 12 

2008 - -    28.09%   — 12            - 12 

2009 - -    18.86%   — 12.5         - 12 

2010 - -    27.29%   — 12.5          - 12 (**Gunshot Start**)

2011 - -    13.53%  —  12.5          - 12 (Gunshot) 

2012 - -    17.07%  —  12.5          - 12.5 (Gunshot)  

2013 - -    15.34%  —  12.5          - 12.5  (Gunshot) 

*First Year Of Possession Limit

** Gunshot Start (Sea bass traditionally had no "Official Start"- the first spring trips exploratory. Season began when fish moved in, usually in the first week of May.. The end of May should be outrageously good with a delayed start — isn't) 

Note #1: On "Regs forming Spawning Population" I calculate the size limit in play when the youngest of the spawning classes were themselves spawned and are now recruited to the fishery – the regulations that allowed that population being caught to survive fishing pressure & themselves spawn… 

All those "Percentage Kept" numbers have no meaning whatever without the chart below.. From 1997 to 2002 we were keeping about 50% of our sea bass – See Gary Shepherd's "Total Biomass" chart. 

Please note the lag in catch to regulation. That, for instance, all the large fish caught in 2003 were spawned by fish protected by a 9 & 10 inch size limit.. No closed season. No creel Limit.. 

If spawning production had remained apace until today, 5 to 7 pound sea bass would be prolific. 

Production has instead tapered. 

This biomass graph makes it plain to see how our sea bass population climbed from the VERY BOTTOM of unregulated fisheries to a robust population in just a few short years, and did so when recreational fishers were taking a much higher percentage of fish home to fry. Since then, however, while trending to less than 20% of fish caught being kept, the sea bass population now wanes. 

Yes: the fish & fishing are better than before the regulatory era. 

Compared To Restoration's Obvious Possibilities, However, Our Present Management Method Stinks. 

Despite incredibly less fishing effort than ever before & that under greater regulatory restriction; Instead of a swiftly rising sea bass population as we saw in the late 1990s, the sea bass population languishes. 

I have asserted for years that we have shifted the age at maturity —spawning age— of sea bass from age zero/age 1 in early management, ("All sea bass have spawned by 9 inches") to the present-day age 3 spawning class — I believe as today's sea bass grow into their now-delayed spawning population they also grow into the size limit and are heavily pressured/removed. 

Older scientific works, still used as guidance for the sea bass Fishery Management Plan, 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 in these works for regulatory purpose, they've gradually shifted to spawning stock data showing sea bass as "two to three years old" from these older works while ignoring the lengths quoted. 

Obfuscating: Late in the second to the third year of life 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 too; but they were age zero & age one – not three.. Now they do not spawn. 

I believe it is no coincidence Dr. Shepherd's sea bass biomass chart so closely resembles a Habitat K graph, a  habitat carrying capacity chart.. 


(My apologies to the author of this graph. I have no idea where I got it.) 

Here for any population: picture an unfished population of sea bass. The number can only reach "Habitat Capacity" before stabilizing. No population can grow infinitely owing to food/space limitations. 

My entire argument concerning "age at maturity" centers on sea bass's biological response: 'Its Getting Crowded: Slow Down On Spawning Already!' 

It would be perfectly in line for a population peak to roll over & restabilize at a lower level – Habitat's Full. 
Look at the two graphs above — its not a coincidence. 

Fishing pressure is what rounds the top down further-still in Dr. Shepherd's Biomass graph. 

Management is forcing sea bass to behave as though their habitat is full. 

Management's restoration efforts were far more successful when fish were behaving as though habitat was unlimited. 

Age at maturity is not fixed, its variable; Its how populations are controlled naturally. Variability seen & documented in many species — we need to put it to work. 

Its not population density that's driving age at maturity—we had that 10 years ago and do not now with no regression in age at maturity. Its the size of the fish from whatever means, pheremonal or visual, that triggers a delay in age at maturity, not crowding. 

A decade ago I believed it was population density that drove spawning response — too many fish would cause a slow down. In 2002/2003 I would see offshore (20NM) reefs with a large fish population & few small males. I would also see heavily pressured inshore (7 to 13NM) reefs with an incredible abundance of small males. 

Populations today are greatly diminished from their highs, but there has been no regression of age at maturity. In fact, along DelMarVa the spawning age has stabilized at recreational size limit — 12.5 inches/3 year old. 

Bright blue knotheads unmistakable, we frequently saw 7.5 to 9 inch males in early management; sometimes by the thousand during a single trip. 

This year I'd seen two. With one more last Saturday, that makes three under 9 inch mature male sea bass in all of 2013.. 

At meetings concerned scientists & other parties speak of "fewer males" and even recently, "Not enough females" - Some are worried recreational pressure targets bigger males.. Aiming to split hairs, they all miss: We've removed two entire year classes from the spawning population — That's The Problem. 

The solution is a smaller size limit. 

Here scientists and managers will roll their eyes again and hand me my dunce cap.. 

"We have recreational catch data proving overfishing." 

"You can't have a smaller size limit without drastic cuts in season & possession limits." 

Well, science & management, I think we have moved so far from overfishing you don't even remember what it looked like. 

That population spike of sea bass at the turn of the millennium wasn't luck, it was management working. 

This population decline — despite an enormous increase in habitable area owing to Buzzards Bay & surrounding waters warming, and the lowest coastwide fishing pressure in history — This population decline sources from science & management's failing: Failing to recognize & deal with wholly unverifiable assertions of recreational catch, & Failing to utilize fishes natural inclination to increase spawning activity/production. 


Regulations have been driven tighter and tighter by isolated two-month & individual state spikes in MuRFSS assertions of catch. That is, recreational catch estimates show, for instance, how Massachusetts' private boats caught cbass fantastically better than that state's party boats in May/June 2010.. In fact, those private boats are asserted by this "Best Available Science" to have caught 17.6 times the number of sea bass that state's party boats caught. That's even more than every US party boat caught.. 

Participants in the fishery, however, are reluctant to believe private boats even catch on par with party boats in the sea bass fishery. 

Further still, while MA private boat anglers were "landing 448,000 sea bass," Rhode Island party boat anglers caught just 79 in the same period. 

That 448,000 private boat catch estimate still carries enormous impact on recreational regulations. Recreational sea bass fishers have never been forgiven even one utterly ludicrous catch estimate: From the 1998 mini-closure & increase to 10 inches, to recent Emergency Closures & shrinking season; every impossible assertion of catch continues to have an effect on recreational regulation. 

Used to be if a recreational fisherman complained about a bad catch estimate he'd be awarded the eye-roll & dunce cap: Used to be if the catch-estimate said jetty fishers caught more tog in two months than all US for hire boats in a year, then that's bloody-well what happened. 

I believe now regulators have gotten a strong whiff of Bad Science. 

Recreational catch estimates, today in the guise of MRIP, are getting beaten & bloodied in the back-alleys behind Council & Commission. Indeed, Louisiana has abandoned MRIP altogether. 

In the early 2000s my clients often had limits, almost everyday in 2003. 
Pool winners were rarely under 4 pounds. Because a cbass has to escape at least 7 years fishing effort to get 4 lbs, all those jumbos back then were spawned in pre-regulation & then under 9 inch regulation. 

Pool winners on sea bass trips today are two pounds, sometimes three. Had a handful of fish over 4 this year. 
When we were keeping 50 to 80% of all sea bass caught - the stock grew and big fish were abundant. 

Now we keep well below 20% and the stock shrinks 

..along with our season 

..and ticket sales. 

Some scientists believe hurricanes exist the likes of which we have never seen. Look at a US map from Hatteras to Florida. It is believed those scallop marks, those bite marks along North & South Carolina, are from unclassed hurricanes – storms too big to class. Not just buildings, roads & bridges — acreage, big acreage, gone. 

Just one catastrophe among many fish species have evolved a means of repopulating swiftly for, I hope to never see a super-hurricane. 

Fish kills not uncommon, low/no oxygen, storm — and predation from fishing; all can cause severe drops in a population. 

We need to not only harness our human ability to manage via quota and habitat protection & modification, but to also manage in conjunction with nature's defense against catastrophic depletion: We Need To Trick Fish Into Increased Productivity..  

I believe this will become the true nature of fishery management, to manipulate a species into maximum production—with a safe buffer.   

Consider Too: Given absolute perfection of management, perfect performance in creating optimum catch; Then the only way thereafter to increase reef-fish yield would be by increasing reef habitat.  (easy as shoving boulders off a barge)

When a reef-fish population is nearing habitat capacity, when you can't hold any more, the benefit of increasing habitat becomes plain to see. 

It was in 2003. 

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

Consider: If I saw present day habitat at capacity, It would take incredibly more habitat to support the sea bass of the 1950s than we have today. 

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

Managers must not shrug their shoulders and press on with tighter & tighter regulation, They must not slay fishers with regulation wrought from deranged catch-estimates as Ajax slew his own army's sheep in madness: Managers must discover what makes management work and sensibly use that knowledge to make fish populations far higher than we've known. 

Sea bass populations shot skyward with far less regulation and are now in decline. 

Overfishing nowhere to be found, It Is Management's Duty To Find Out Why. 



Capt. Monty Hawkins 
Partyboat Morning Star
Ocean City, MD

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