Monday, December 14, 2015

Fish Report 12/14/15

Fish Report 12/14/15 
Best December Weather Ever (unless you like skiing or duck hunting) 
Keep On Building Reef 
Three Tools? 

(Still) Crazy Weather For December! Adding Wednesday, December 16, & Sunday, December 20th - 6AM to 4PM - $135 - Sea Bass - Reservations Required

Reservations Required at 410 520 2076 - On My Rig You Can Reserve What Spot You're In. Please See For How The Rail's Laid Out..
LEAVE YOUR BEST POSSIBLE CONTACT NUMBER - Weather Cancelations Happen - I Make Every Attempt To Let Clients Sleep In If The Weather's Not Going Our Way..  

We have the Iron Lady wharfed in West OC for another week. 
When this boat goes back to the Chesapeake it may be years before we see it again - or never. 
If you can pitch-in, please do!   
Even $50 or $100 helps. We burn $7,000.00-plus to load & go two trips in a day.. 
No t-shirts, no charts, no mugs - just seize the opportunity to build reef that will last many generations.

Back aboard the Morning Star:
Be a half hour early! We always leave early! 
..except when someone shows up right on time. 
Clients arriving late will see the west end of an east bound boat. With a limited number of reserved spots, I do not refund because you over-slept or had a flat..

Dramamine Is Cheap Insurance! (Meclizine's Better!) Crystalized Ginger Works Great Too. It's Simple To Prevent Motion Sickness, Difficult To Cure.  If You Suffer Mal-de-Mer In A Car You Should Experiment On Shorter Half-Day Trips First! (Wockenfuss Candies sells crystalized ginger locally - Better is Nuts.Com.. Chewable Meclizine is a good pharmaceutical with Scopolamine Patches the gold standard.) For Anglers With Known Issues Dramamine & Meclizine Work Best If Treatment Begins The Night Before..
Honestly - If you get to go on the ocean once month, once a year, or even less; why risk chumming all day? Similarly, if you howl at the moon all night, chances are good you'll howl into a bucket all day.  

Bring A Cooler With Ice For Your Fish – A 48 Quart Cooler Is Fine For A Few People. Do Not Bring A Very Large Cooler. We DO have a few loaners - you'll still need ice. 
No Galley! Bring Food & Beverages To Suit. A few beers in cans is fine for the ride home.   

Limits are a fact of life.
If you won't count & measure your fish, Maryland will cheerfully send a man with a gun to do it for you. 
I fight bad regulation nearly every single day - but abide the law as it stands until we can see it changed. 
Anglers wishing to keep undersized fish or go over the limit will not enjoy fishing with me. At all. 
We count & measure - ALWAYS. There is no "close enough," only keepers & throwbacks. We'll show you how to measure the same way DNR Police do. 
When 5 fish cops suddenly appear behind the transom as we're pulling in the slip, no one aboard my boat should be worried in the least..

Now 12,526 Reef Blocks Deployed at numerous sites. Active presently are Doug Ake's Reef with 2,382 - St. Ann's 1,471 - Al Giles Barge 598 - Eagle Scout Reef 744 - Sue's Drifting Easy Reef 147 - Nichols' Concrete 540 - Upside Down Tank 132 

Trucks are rolling in - money's flowing out.. 
With the Iron Lady here & ready to deploy we can almost instantly convert donations into concrete reef. 
Please Support the Ocean City Reef Foundation!
We're Nowhere Near Reef Building's True Potential. 
Thank You! 

Every Splash Makes Fishing Better..

Here's a pair of diver videos by Oleg Kaplan shot at OCRF's Bass Grounds Reef - & 

Greetings All, 
Had two of the best December days ever I think wise, at least. 
Fishing wasn't half-bad either. Lots of limits Sunday on our regular trip & a boat limit in short order on our extra-long Saturday trip.. 
So I've split the difference with these two trips - will do two 10 hour sea bass trips this week coming.. 

On our way out last Sunday we set a mooring with two 100 pound Danforth anchors for the Iron Lady. When we picked those heavy anchors back up on the way in, I saw a very fine new concrete reef on the bottom where that mooring had been.  
I bet that same new reef will be fished by our grandchildren's grandchildren.. 

A sea bass is on the November cover of the American Fisheries Society "Fisheries" magazine. 
Dr. Olaf Jensen & Mikaela Provost seem to be looking into thoughts on 'age at maturity' as a necessary management tool for sea bass restoration. This is really sticky stuff -- & then These two have done experiments which affirm extreme habitat fidelity and are now contemplating when sea bass switch sex. 
I think what's absent is when sea bass USED to switch sex. Mikaela's observation of sea bass switching at 13 and even 15 & 17 inches today would be irreconcilable with scientific measurements taken before the regulatory period began. 
Where sea bass used to switch to male as young as 7 or 8 months of age, now they're age 3 or more..  

The 1977 NMFS Sandy Hook Blue Book on Black Sea Bass Habitat has "Females mature as 2 year olds at a length of 17 cm. (6.6 inches) Generally, males tissue is first seen in fish 3 years old at about 18 cm (7.08 inches).
While surely this early work got the lengths right; from Gary Shepherd's collection of aging work up & down the coast, however, both these measurements are solidly age one. A sea bass of 6.6 inches & 7.08 inches could easily have been born on the same day. 

Here too from the same 1977 work: (page 15) "Since black sea bass are protogynous hermaphrodites,  sex ratio varies with age & size of the fish. Larger fish are all males. Nearly all fish >25 cm (9.8 inches) are males. Thus catches of large fish will consist of males."

A catch of fish 10 inches or greater was considered large fish? 

Little different today.. A catch of cbass even 15 inches or better wouldn't be all male. A catch of all 11 inch fish would almost certainly be all female & thrown back - too small. 

When I witnessed what I believe was our sea bass at habitat capacity in 2003, I realized habitat expansion was the only way forward from that point. The only way for management to increase a population of fish already at habitat capacity is to increase habitat. 

In a system that has yet to recognize natural reef habitat exists in the Mid-Atlantic, we see marine fisheries restoration & management's odd journey prolonged by folks at the top of management today who were taught in school 'artificial reef only concentrates fish for easier extraction'

Published in 1980, a well-worn college text in my possession by Nielsen & Lackey, "Fisheries Management" (p. 259) has, among many gems, "Sportsmen clamor for a bigger share of the catch, usually referring nostalgically to their remembered catches of years gone by. Commercial fishermen are disinclined to spare 10 fish so that anglers, in their hilarious ways, may catch five."
Science in unbiased form? 
Perhaps not. 

Still, from before MuRFSS recreational catch-estimates' creation, these editors recognized management had tools at hand aside from catch restriction. 
On page 279 in this 1980 text we find: "Carrying capacity, the long term maximum biomass (of fishes) which a habitat can support is dependent in large part upon the food resources available."
Written just past the peak of US commercial fishing--just as fishing businesses were failing more frequently owing to collapse of target species; these editors of yore inform students about a special fresh water problem: "Artificial spawning structures may be necessary because of deterioration of natural spawning grounds in natural lakes or their tributary streams... Frequently, amount of suitable substrate for spawning is insufficient."

After WWII, surplus diesel engines & even boats were cheap as Uncle Sam looked to reduce inventory. Post 1950 stern-towed gear impacts to ocean seafloor habitats must have been the greatest in history as boats powered by these surplus engines were put to sea. 

Habitat loss grew worse as precise LORAN C navigation became widespread in the 1970s. Where once an area would have been steered clear of altogether by skippers operating towed fishing gear: as precise navigation became possible, stern-towed gears were pulled as closely as possible to any remaining hardbottom habitats. Where a cluster of boulder was avoided at all costs because it would snag any towed gear, it was also true that very close to those rocks were fish to be harvested. 
If seafloor habitat out to 100 fathoms held fish or shellfish and could be towed - it was towed.
If towing damaged or destroyed that habitat either temporarily or permanently least there was a paycheck in it before production was lost. 

Throughout the restoration community even today, no recognition exists for Mid-Atlantic seafloor habitat, and especially not for any loss of such habitat. 
Absent any knowledge of habitat, management today cannot apply Nielsen & Lackey's sweetwater commonsense restoration philosophy: "Artificial spawning structures may be necessary because of deterioration of natural spawning grounds" because no recognition exists we ever benefited from spawning occurring upon those now long-lost habitats, or "spawning structures."

In reference to artificial reef, Nielsen & Lackey also held that: "Although provision of (artificial)reefs in moderate amounts may effectively concentrate fish for harvest*, reefs in excess have much the same effect as submerged vegetation in excess. That is, prey fishes (like sea bass?) may become overabundant and game fish will be so widely scattered that they are difficult to locate. Few data currently exist on optimal size for artificial reefs. For some species, small artificial reefs which provide cover for only several game fish are adequate since new individuals inhabit the reef almost immediately after any fish are removed by harvest.**
(*That's what artificial reefs were for - to concentrate fish for harvest.)
(**Wow.. with reefs capable of spontaneous fish creation, it's a wonder the idea didn't catch on sooner.  Then too, overabundant prey fish would be a real headache & I'm sure all Chesapeake .orgs would hate having too much submerged aquatic vegitation..)

Lesson Learned? Artificial reefs concentrate fish for harvest while thinning gamefish so harvest is difficult & create magic habitat where new individuals move in immediately after harvest..  
Awwww: Too Confusing! Better not build those reefs.

My experience has been rather different. I believe every artificial reef ever built off Ocean City, Maryland; or any area of natural reef that has ever re-grown after storm or commercial gear impact of Ocean City, MD, has contributed to reef-fish production - each & every one.  
I believe because fish cannot tell the difference between naturally exposed rock on the seabed & rock humans have dropped to the seabed (or any artificial reef mimic;) fisheries production occurring on natural reef is identical to an artificial reef's given an equal exposed surface area suitable for growth of hard-substrate colonizing animals such as corals, mussels & fish. 
In other words, when considered by cubic measure, so far as fish are concerned, reef is reef is reef..

Building places where fish gather for protection, to feed, grow to maturity & spawn has helped enormously with keeping our fisheries viable--"so that anglers, in their hilarious ways, may catch".. 
Each reef in existence, no matter whether natural, accidental or artificial; each reef is part of an important bioeconomic engine. Each new reef we build bolsters that engine's power. 
When management at last grapples the as-yet unrecognized force found in their ability to control some reef-fishes' age at maturity, habitat increase will then become singularly important in restoration. For when a species is at 'habitat capacity' -- when management has done All It Possibly Can -- at that point only addition to habitat, or improvement of habitat, can raise the population further. If x amount of habitat can support XX amount of fish, then xxx amount of habitat must hold more. 

Managers of today, people working incredibly hard to leave a legacy of improved fisheries, see themselves as having three tools - size limit, creel/quota limits, & season. 
True advances in fisheries will come when those tools are recognized for their role in managing for increased spawning production. 

While we can still readily notice tautog & summer flounder's positive response to increased habitat; it's also true that artificial reefs built in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, & early 2000s were swiftly colonized by numerous spawning sea bass. 
Reefs of today are only colonized by a few spawning cbass  ..but they're a lot bigger. 
I guarantee we have a greater percentage of FEMALE sea bass in the spawning population than ever before, and those females are bigger than ever before  ..yet production languishes. 

Why do sea bass of today evidence a negative population response when they should be, according to management's pet BOFFF theory, hitting new highs? 
BOFF is shorthand for Big, Old, Fecund, Females (fecund = lots of eggs) make for great spawning production. 
With sea bass we witnessed fantastically better spawning success when there were incredibly more numerous small males.

When management began, 100 out of 100 ocean-found sea bass in June were in the spawning stock. Today I'd estimate that number at around six or eight out of 100 ocean-found sea bass in June to be active spawners. 
When management began it was not unusual to catch & release hundreds, even a thousand, under-9 inch males EVERY DAY. 
Today we see between one and six under-nine inch male sea bass A YEAR. 
I believe a direct result of that change in undersize male population has been a spawning population decline, accompanied by a spawning production decline. Despite ever more restrictive regulation we have lost all management's earlier gains. 

With management officially begun in 1997, sea bass along DelMarVa soared to new population highs by 2003. They were already at new highs before a bag limit or reduced seasons were ever employed in 2002. 
Today we have fewer sea bass than perhaps ever in history. Ever. Since sea bass first colonized the Mid-Atlantic, EVER
By lowering the recreational size limit to equal the commercial size limit (eleven inches,) we can force nine & ten inch sea bass back into the spawning population. 

Now, with management's "three tools" growing more & more restrictive, we see the sea bass population steadily shrinking. (except for one heavily regulated rocky area about 90 miles long)
With shorter & shorter seasons; fewer & fewer fish allowed; & lengthening size limits - what manner of "tools" does management employ that drives a population downward? 
(Readers will, of course, be aware management's primary concern is their federally required response to MRIP recreational catch estimates...)

The one tool management actually used that drove sea bass upward in the mid/late 1990s was the species' spawning response to what size other sea bass were on our reefs. 
I believe a vital key to restoration & eventually bioeconomic stability in the commercial & for hire sea bass fisheries can be found in understanding sea bass from 1990 to 2010.. 
We ignore early exponential population growth at science's peril.  
When biologists claimed, "Every 9-inch sea bass has spawned once, some twice" it was true. Those fish were age zero & age one. It was very common for sea bass to spawn in the first year of life. 
Now sea bass must survive to age three or more before joining the spawning population. 

It was size limit, and size limit alone, which created increased spawning production early in the regulatory period. 
Management will concede sea bass quickly grew to new population highs in the late 1990s & early 2000s ..but that was an accident. 

Management thinks of "Habitat Capacity" as a theoretical - yet the "K graph" showing population rise and then oscillating along a top is commonly seen in fish population charts. 
In the case of sea bass we swiftly achieved habitat capacity - then screwed it up by valuing recreational catch estimates far more than any science or observation.

If management does not soon recognize this early management response of vastly more numerous spawners, of benefit from an "all hands on deck" spawning response, a response commonly seen in early restoration efforts; I fear the economic pummeling in the partyboat trade along our coast will continue.. 

"But, But!" NOAA cries, "It's the best available science." 
Was a time when taking mercury, bloodletting, & lobotomy were all thought the newest wonder-cures in science. Even tobacco, LSD & thalidomide were once touted in the Best Available Science. 

Management of today, as with doctors who once prescribed lobotomy, risk killing the patient. 
I'll tell all who will read: the sea bass fishery is being squandered. 

Management must learn to use every tool at its disposal to enliven spawning production. All tools useful to regulating harvest are as nothing when there is no population from which to catch. 

We now have over a decade of lost production. I'll keep trying..

Capt. Monty Hawkins 
Partyboat Morning Star
Ocean City, MD

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