Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Fish Report 3/5/14

Fish Report 3/5/14 
Colder & Colder 
Sea Bass Season Reservations 
Of Reefs & Restoration

Sadly, I have no trips to offer. I believe this winter's weather has left our tautog too chilled to be cooperative. Water's colder & colder.. 
Spring will come. Meanwhile Mike & I will take the Morning Star through her Coast Guard required paces as the channel is re-dredged during March. 
Might take a few weeks, Might be April before we're venturing inshore to newly-awoken & hopefully hungry tautog. Just as our waters cool more slowly than land from late fall into heart of winter, so too does the sea warm more slowly come spring. 

I am, however, offering opening week of sea bass reservations. Just Opening Week For Now – I'll Allow Transfer Of These Tickets But No Refunds – Monday, May 19th to Sunday, May 25th – Sea Bass – New 15 Fish Limit – Still 12.5 Inches – 6 AM to 3:30 PM Long Trips - $125.00 – You Know We're Going To Count & Measure..

8,700 "Oyster Castle" reef blocks by the rail – 2,524 at Jimmy's Reef – 1,746 at Ake's – 360 at Lindsey Power's..  

Greetings All, 
We've had a few trips since my last report. 
On one I ventured a very long way only to find the slackest tide imaginable. A client I'll call "Scott" was tossing culled crabs off the side. They'd still be floating there after 10 minutes. It was dead water. A beautiful, flat calm day.
We finished with 2 keepers and half a dozen tags; and that with a very skilled rail. 
Another day I was anchored perfectly on a spot, my third spot. No one had yet felt a bite. 
That's cold water toggin. 
Still, I thought there ought to be something to it; so I dropped down, hooked a dandy & handed the rod to a young lady. With interest suddenly renewed, clients started to catch a few fish 
..and then that bite died. 

Interestingly, both of those days were CAVU, an aeronautic term meaning, "Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited." CAVU creates a strange effect when land is reflected from around the curvature of the earth. 
We could "see" the trees on land – but they were far, far beyond line of sight.. 
I recall reading about it in Bowditch's American Practical Navigator. Perhaps a younger student can recall or research the passage. 

When the next calm came I carried a crew of MD birdwatchers 40 miles offshore to see puffins & murres; birds from icy places that have migrated far south this winter. We saw a lot of common dolphin that day; sometimes riding the bow-wake for over a mile. We also found several groups of whales including a pair of humpbacks that flipped us the tail; perhaps for leaving them a bare sea.. 

As much trouble as I've had convincing management our nearshore corals are important to reef fish, I find it pretty doubtful anyone's accounted an increasing whale population's caloric need. 

My last trip out, Sunday, March 2nd, was with Eagle Scout Applicant, Patrick Miller, and his trusty band of Scouts – Building Reef. 
While Mike & I loaded a pair of anchors and mooring for the Reef Foundation's barge, the scouts loaded 144 oyster castle blocks and 38 eight-foot cement planks, nearly 3 tons worth, before getting underway. 
Greg Hall's Tow Boat US guys met us at the reef site with a barge-load of concrete pipe and scored a bull-eye as they pushed it off. Then we anchored the Morning Star within feet of those pipes and the scouts let-fly our concrete. 
A day's work, a lifetime. 
More Coral, More Fish. 

You'll recall Patrick's Eagle Scout project is being funded with donations to the Ocean City Reef Foundation ( 
Capt. Tony put together an awesome raffle prize selection with top-prize a Turner Sculpture table. Grand prize winner might also choose between several smaller pieces of equal value.. Buy or split a $100.00 ticket with someone – I'm telling you, Turner Sculpture's works are featured around the world for a reason.. 
Second place is a 36 hour offshore trip! 
See details on the website. 

The Reef Foundation's Annual Sponsorship Drive will begin in a few weeks. We have charts, t-shirts, sweatshirts, stickers, pens & coffee mugs – everything's ready. Look for 2014 to be a huge year. The Reef Foundation hopes to have the largest single Maryland Coast deployment ever this summer. 
I'd be thrilled to send you a mug or T-shirt by way of appreciation for your support toward that goal – We'll build a big reef that will last for centuries..

Have a lot going on in the "Advocacy" department. 
Spent three hours on a conference call in Monday's snow lobbying for an idea I have for an 'Industrial Reef Unit' - a seriously large multi-pipe concrete unit with pre-spat oysters tucked-away inside. 
I think making artificial oyster reef from loose shell or shell mimics is pretty silly. Unless you're a dredge operator: For them shell is perfect when they 'harvest.' Commercial oyster harvesters have demanded spat-on-shell since at least 1921. 
What is perfect for a put & take fishery isn't working so well for oyster reef ecosystem restoration: No Reefs Have Ever Been Restored With Shell Anywhere In The Chesapeake. 
Been trying for almost a century. Still are.  
Maybe this time it will work. 

Consider: If a reef builder were tasked with mimicking a dead oyster reef, they could logically dump loose shell off a barge and declare themselves done. Shell laying flat on the bottom catches silt perfectly. The dead reef mimic will remain dead. 

Were a reef builder tasked with mimicking a live reef, however, they'd certainly want a material that was vertical: Oysters growing on reefs grow UP. 
Vertical substrate gathers silt far more slowly, if at all. 
Oyster spat attaches splendidly to vertical substrates. 
For shell laying flat to grow oysters you have to force-set oyster spat in a tank. 

The Nature Conservancy was told they ought to pick another project when they began toying with the idea of creating oyster reefs behind Virginia's barrier islands. 
"Disease, Predation," they were told, "They'll just die like everywhere else." 

World's full of Can't. 
But TNC tried. Used shell, used concrete oyster castles too. 
Now there's more oysters growing behind VA's barrier islands than in all of the Chesapeake. 
But if you suggest using a vertical substrate in the Chesapeake you'd better duck - here comes a can full of can't. 

With our once-blue Mid-Atlantic ocean waters sometimes green even to the canyons, looks to me like we need a can full of Can-To. 
Oysters are a water filtering machine – the machine. 
Don't soon get oysters right we'll reach a tipping point of no sunlight to the ocean bottom. Algae & jellies will thrive where our corals cannot.. 

Wonder what I can rent a jellyfish dipnet for.. Hear the Japanese eat 'em. 
Sport jellyfishing. 
Damn right. 

Then too there's the ongoing question to NOAA: "Why does NOAA/NMFS use catch estimates no one believes to continuously tighten regulations on sea bass?" 
I doubt there's a soul who believes NY & NJ private boats outfished their respective party/charter fleets last summer, not even by a little bit. Nevertheless, our "New & Improved" MRIP recreational catch estimating system not only claims they did outfish their respective for-hire fleets, but MRIP holds these post-Sandy surviving boats caught more sea bass in two months than all US party/charter caught all year & all together. 
Would have been a neat trick  ..didn't happen. 
Yet, for all practical purpose, it certainly did. 
Because those boats "caught" enough sea bass to push the recreational fishery over-quota, our coastwide regulations have tightened again. 

No one believes the estimates that forced our new regulatory tightening. No one thinks they're real. 
Those regulations will be real though. 

I can go back – have, clean back to 1998; Each time sea bass regulations tightened I can show the estimates responsible. None would stand a test of logic, All are false. 

Many of you wrote Dr. Kathy Sullivan, Undersecretary for NOAA, & asked her about the catch estimates. 
I did too. 
All crickets. 
No One Got A Reply. 

Recently I asked my Representative, Congressman Andy Harris MD, to check and see if NOAA would answer him about the catch estimates. "Dear NOAA, Why does NOAA/NMFS continue to use MRIP catch estimates no one believes?" 
He called it a Congressional Inquiry. 
Its only been a week. 

I wonder: Would the same technique work to get our corals recognized? 
"Dear NOAA, If a managed species lives only on a certain type of habitat, e.g. reef fish living on reefs; does the fishes' use make that habitat an Essential Fish Habitat? 

I don't know.. I sent another of my Representatives, Congressmen Gilchrest, a video of our corals back in 2001 – long while back. 
NOAA did spend 3 days filming nearshore corals last summer. Its a start. 

Ocean turns much greener it ain't gonna matter. Our nearshore corals won't grow without sunlight. 

'Not Our Fault,' they seem to say.

"Fish Are Moving North And Offshore!" 
That's management's refrain. 
They think its because of climate change. 
I know the water's getting warmer. Surface water for sure. Down at the bottom though, down 120 feet & deeper; sometimes its much cooler. 
Ice melt sinks & comes south with the Labrador current. 

So maybe the reason "Lobster Landings Are In Decline" in the lower mid-Atlantic isn't because of water temp, but because cbass trap effort is shifting offshore. For some trap fishers' it makes more sense to use their individual cbass quota aboard offshore trawlers in winter; it's more profitable than pulling traps all summer, even if they do catch less lobster. 

"Fish Are Moving North And Offshore." 
Except sea bass. 
They're moving north & inshore. 
In where no federal catch reporting is required on commercial or rec for-hire boats. In where the MRIP boogeyman can make great big spooky catches anytime he wants. 

"Sea Bass Are Moving North" 
Sea bass are factually in decline from NY south among professional recreational sea bass fishers. 
But MRIP has so-bolstered NY & NJ private boat catches that it looks like just DE, MD & VA have a declining population.  
Moving North. 
That's what managers are being sold by science.

Consider: If you go straight offshore would you expect a constant temperature or an increasing temperature? 
Is it not so that to MAINTAIN a constant temperature while moving offshore on the US East Coast requires movement north in ratio to offshore? It's pretty far north too.. 
Fishers run offshore to find warmer water. 
If you want to stay at the same temp while running offshore – You Must Go North. 
Why, exactly, do so many of our near-shore fish migrate offshore in winter instead of just going south? 
Yup. Its warmer. 

Scientists are running anywhere they can to explain why tighter & tighter & tighter catch restriction is resulting in fewer & fewer & fewer sea bass. 

I do, however, believe it's true some fish are moving north & offshore. They're doing so to find better water – cleaner water. 
Not green muck. 
They're seeking a stable temperature by going north. Simply going offshore would be warmer. 
Bluefish would offer a prime example. 

If the scientific community is really looking for a canary in their warming coal-mine and not just a crutch, I'd advise watching the tautog stock for temperature-caused population diminishment/extirpation first. 
No one's catching tautog in Georgia or Florida. 
Lots of folks catching sea bass there though. 
Water's PLENTY warm on the Gulf side of Florida. Sea bass still spawn just fine. 
But they do so younger because the season's open year round with a 10 inch size limit. 
Scientists also hold that when we see young sea bass in the spawning population, that's a sign of a stressed population. They "don't want" a stressed population. Its science from the gut. 

In 1992 I saw precisely what MD DNR Biologist Nancy Butowski told me I'd see when she said, "All sea bass have spawned by 9 inches, some twice." Those fish were all spawning – and they were all one year old. We put our own size limit in effect and never looked back. Fishing got better & better. 
In 2013 my crew and I discovered three 9 inch male sea bass all year. We used to see hundreds everyday pre-management & early management – sometimes even a thousand a day.. 
Today's spawners aren't maturing until age three. 
It would be nice to think they're not "stressed" - not like a partyboat skipper. Perhaps today's Mid-Atlantic cbass are relaxed in fine style with all that extra room at the reef.. 

A kindergarten student can be taught to recognize a mature male sea bass. That they change sex later & later depending on our size limit is obvious. 
The reason I keep including this graph (below) is to show upper management that the left side of the second spike was their doing: That's what we're after. It wasn't an accident. That's what fishery management looks like when it's hitting on all eight. 

There was a huge population of small spawning sea bass protected by size limit. When the sea bass population was climbing straight up recreational extraction (factual) & commercial landings were incredibly higher than today – But The Cbass Population Continued To Grow.
Regulation was far more relaxed when the small spawners were "stressed." 

By the time we had a 12 inch size limit it was obvious age at spawning was shifting. Not that anyone was thinking about sea bass, but everyone back-then thought population-density controlled age at maturity, that crowding forced a delay in joining the spawning class. 
Ain't been a crowd off here in some while; yet age at maturity hasn't slipped a bit. 
If anything, maturity has solidified to where almost no two-year olds are spawning, just three and over. 

Whether by pheromone or brute nature, its the SIZE of surrounding fish that controls when sea bass begin spawning. 

Early management caused that right-hand spike. I was watching it happen before federal management began. Where that right-hand mountain starts in the valley at about 4 & climbs to 8, then to 16 – that's what's called exponential population growth. 
Where that peak rolls over and starts down is management's doing too. 
"North & Offshore!" 
"Angler Effort Is Hard To Predict!" 
"No Matter How Much We Tighten Regulation, Private Boats Take More!" 
To paraphrase Lang: Rather Than Fisheries Science Illuminating A Path Forward For Management, Studies & Statistics Of Convenience Are Offered As Regulations' Crutch. 

I've been asking regulators to allow half-day party/charter along DelMarVa, the boats that target our most inshore reefs & wrecks, to be allowed a 5 fish limit at 11 inches. (same size limit as commercial) 
I predict that would force the inshore population to spawn at age two with some spawning at age one. 
I further predict there would be a clear delineation seen between sea bass age at maturity on reefs targeted by full-day boats at the 12.5 inch/15 fish bag-limit. 
I firmly believe if this regulation were begun before the May opening, we'd plainly see an increase in sea bass production by fall. 
I'm positive there's no possible way real catch would rise above quota. 
With MRIP, however, our catch estimates could show anything at all. 

Do nothing and that right hand slope will continue to taper away. 


Capt. Monty Hawkins 
Partyboat Morning Star
Ocean City, MD

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