Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Fish Report 8/30/19

Fish Report 8/30/19 
(Didn't Post This Here! Better late than never?) 
Catching Sea Bass (Not Mostly Flounder Like Usual This Time Of Year) 
Will that change? Will fluke/flounder come on after this NEster? 
On Sea Bass Production: A Comment. 

Opened Labor Day Sunday, 9/1/19 to a regular trip..

Reservations Now Open Through October 31, 2019.. Sundays Through Sept are closed/held in reserve for special trips. 

Sailing Daily For Sea Bass Weather Permitting (Sakes!) Flounder/Fluke should have been OK by now - they are not, Not Yet! (Ever?) Saturday's 6:30 to 3:30 - $125.00 –Otherwise 7 to 3 at $110.00.. 
Fishing's mostly been a matter of catching a nice fish fry's worth of cbass   ..

Reservations Required 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..  

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..

Bonine Is Cheap Insurance! "Natural Dramamine" Does NOT Work! 
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..

Bring A Cooler With Ice For Your Fish – A 48 Quart Is Fine For A Few People. 
No Galley! BYO Sandwiches & Soft Drinks. A few beers in cans is fine. (bottles break at bad times)

If You Won't Measure & Count Your Fish The State Will Provide A Man With A Gun To Do It For You. We Measure & Count — ALWAYS — No Exceptions! 

We're Nowhere Near Reef Building's True Potential. 

If you have a few blocks in the backyard taking up space and just making snake reef, bring em. We'll toss em overboard with the rest.

26,639 Reef Blocks have been deployed at numerous sites as of 8/30/19..  
Here are sites currently being targeted: Capt. Jack Kaeufer's Reef 837 - Doug Ake's Reef 3,805 - St. Ann's 2,284 (2 Reef Balls) - Sue's Block Drop 807 - TwoTanks Reef 827 - Capt. Bob's Inshore Block Drop 900 - Benelli Reef 964 - Rudy's Reef 209 - Capt. Bob's Bass Grounds Reef 1,922 (2 reef balls)  - Wolf & Daughters Reef 713 - 352 at Al Berger's Reef - 353 Great Eastern Block Drop.... 

Greetings All, 
Been posting the blow-by-blow on Facebook -- Reporting daily about Morning Star catch on my personal page and Morning Star Fishing ( @ocfishing ). 
Haven't sent an email in over a month. August is a busy month like that.. 

Never did see summer flounder in numbers we're accustomed too. Thankfully sea bass obliged clients most days with at least a nice fish fry. 
Nearly 15 years we've had good to great flounder in the ocean during summer. This year? Not so much! ..and that after a banner spring/early summer inshore---in our back bays. 

A few weeks after sea bass moved inshore the bottom temp dropped a bit - seemed too. Sea bass sure got fussy. That's usually on account of cold water or an abundance of prey. 
Bottom water temps in 120 feet were reported in the mid/upper forties in late June, had not reached 50 in early July.  
My theory, for now, and I'm sticking with it; a cold pocket of water settled along the bottom inshore - summer flounder found other places to be. 
Though some fluke/flounder came & stayed, most moved to better conditions. 
Sure hoping they move back! 
Could use a shot of flatties. 
Until then? Sea Bass! 

Here a comment to sea bass managers everywhere..
Fishery management is a frustrating bit of business. In my youth there were no regulations at sea. None that I was aware of. From the stories of old-timers, however, it seemed pretty obvious which way things would continue to trend if we didn't act soon. 
In 1985 Maryland led the charge with a complete closure on striped bass. The feds followed & acted on stripers too. 
And then nothing for other species for a long while.  
In 1992 I put a boat limit on sea bass - 9 inches. Might sound laughably small now. Was a big deal to many clients then. No one had ever thrown any back before. "They all die anyway!" was one common response; was what I'd been taught too. Yet we'd see little sea bass with even 5 hook wounds in their lip by end of summer. By 1996 I'd tagged thousands with ALS Tagging  - one important Result was unexpected: sea bass have nearly absolute habitat fidelity. Even returning to the exact same reef after offshore winter migration.
What we threw back stayed there and would return there next year. 
We were throwing back spawners knowing they'd end up in a frying pan before too long. 

The single most important reason for choosing 9 inches as a size limit back then was the assertion that "all sea bass have spawned by 9 inches, some twice" that was made to me by a MD State biologist, Nancy Butowski in 1991. Research confirmed what I was already seeing at sea, that many cbass had indeed transitioned to male by 7 1/2 inches. (First I suppose you have to understand nearly all sea bass begin life as female. Only some will switch to male to keep a reef's spawning population in balance.) 
What we saw over the next few years in the pre-regulatory era carved it in stone -- Areas where we fished with our own size limit became much better despite heavy pressure. There were many more sea bass. Every artificial reef we built back then filled up with sea bass—and this our greatest period of reef expansion.  Tautog were returning in good number too and colonizing every reef we built. 
Before management even began on our reef fish, I knew it was going to work. Had already witnessed wonderful success. 

With the 9 inch limit, populations grew despite intense fishing pressure. When fed/state management began in 1997 they too went with a 9 inch limit. 
Sea bassing got better & better. We were protecting an entire year class of spawners... 

So what happened? Why isn't sea bass fishing today just off the charts? 
Best I ever saw was in 2002/2003. 
In 2003 I limited clients at 25 fish apiece more often than not. 

At a huge national meeting a scientist sits at the table and listens ..but not very well. 
"So after you began overfishing, how long before sea bass collapsed?" 
Numbskull.. In the 1980s we threw nothing back — Ever. When sea bass got tough we killed tog. When tog and sea bass were tough, we boxed up red hake ('ling' in these parts.)
I saw many days with nearly a hundred sea bass a man. Some days where high-hook would have close to 200.. 
Regulation put an end to all that. THAT's what overfishing looked like - not this tightly regulated mess of today. 
Still, with today's far stricter regulation than in early/pre regulation, we now witness far less spawning production. 

Here's where management's disconnect comes in. Science has been thrown askew from implausible Recreational Catch Estimates from MRFSS & MRIP. 
NOAA asserts the most asinine catches to small private boats. Regular readers will have seen hundreds of examples in my reports. 
Here's just one. In November/December 2016/2017 NOAA's MRIP recreational catch estimates show New York's private Boats landing more sea bass, over 3 million pounds in perhaps 20-some fishable early winter days, than All Party/Charter from Hatteras north caught all year.. 
NY skippers on big-water Partyboats report no such fleet of private boats as to make this a remote possibility. 
Those estimates are off by about 3 million pounds.. 

That's where 'overfishing' comes from today. A computer screen with LOL dumb statistics on it.. 

We now - and since 2002 - have had a 12 1/2 inch black sea bass size limit because of repeated MRFSS reports where, in the face of steeply declining for-hire catches owing stricter regulation, private boats are calculated to have crushed all sea bass catch records despite increasing regulatory constraints. These assertions of overfishing have triggered management actions to raise the size limit multiple times in other states/regions, and are often accompanied by emergency and routine closures.

It took me a while to piece it together. Why the decline when we were catching vastly fewer fish? 
I explored discard mortality in detail. Were our throwbacks at this higher size limit not making it? Commercial pressure spiking where our fish winter? 
Was it the little bit of hardbottom habitat loss I'd witnessed as summer flounder regulation finally loosened on trawl gear? 
Was it, as many thought; that increasing trap pressure on artificial reefs were forcing a decline? 
I explored all these. Our throwbacks do fine. Despite an enormous spike in trawl in late winter 2004, I'd seen no sign of another. 
Traps were tightening up because the fish were too. Very unfortunate for reef builders, but the sea bass decline from that early 2000s high was seen broadly across all habitat types - not just artificial reef. 
By 2006 I was telling management 
that since 2002 the recreational size limit had lowered spawning production. 
They still don't get it. May never. Maybe you won't either. But I'll try to explain it! 

Management might ask, "Well, what does age at maturity matter so long as we're applying more & more catch restriction? Doesn't taking less result in more?"
Well, No.
It isn't.
And managers believe, to their very soul, that successful fishery management must include BOFF - Big Old Fecund Females. (fecund meaning lots of eggs) 
Well, for a long time now we've had larger female sea bass than science even believed existed prior to 2000. Sometimes a client's fish pool winner will be a female - beating all others aboard. 

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 without careful consideration; especially 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—they look around and see big scary large males that will likely kill or wound them if they switch to male while too young. Their spawning behavior is - SLOW DOWN, there's too many big guys.. 
Today we rarely see males less than 11.5 inches. Just as they mature they also become legal. There is therefore no longer a spawning size-limit protection. Hasn't been since 2002 when we forced sea bass to mature later. 

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 (today we know 7.5 inches is early age one) 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 mostly at the new size limit, at 12 to 13 inches and only rarely at 9 inches. 
It's my understanding that the transition to male is at even larger sizes up north where 15 inch size limits are common. 

There was a bad growth curve back then in the science.. 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 Fishery Management Plans (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 that survive fishing pressure 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 in pre/early management was a result of more young fish spawning or young fish learning to spawn earlier makes no difference: Spawning Was Accelerated, Fish & Fisher Both 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. In fact, 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 from premanagement -- If management were humming along we'd be 5 million cbass to the good annually.
Sea bass live about 12 years..
That would be 35 million cbass having escaped harvest just since 2009 - and at least that many again since. Consider too the added boost which should be occurring from spawning population increase.. 

Yeah, No, it's not working. We're receiving no benefit whatever from catch restriction based management using the most amazingly ludicrous statistics ever called science—what are NOAA's MRIP & MRFSS catch estimates..

We have nicer fish--bigger fish, than the premanagement era, 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 via larger & larger size limits--they have unwittingly used spawning biology to reduce the spawning stock size. Owing grossly overinflated catch estimates, Management and science 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. 

As Reef populations declined, spawning size regression never occurred. Small fish remain predominantly absent the spawning population 

..except for a large scale experiment management didn't see coming. 
In 2013 MD Wind Energy Area surveys began. 
I complained bitterly that sub-bottom profiler survey equipment was driving sea bass and summer flounder from about 500 sq miles of bottom. 
I wasn't guessing. In 2007 I was anchored up and catching like crazy at the Jackspot artificial reef site when a 50 foot state survey boat, run by a good friend, came in to finalize our permit conditions with a survey. That's why I was there - history in the making. (To me at least!) 
But when Rick came in for his first leg, the sea bass bite - a magnificent bite - instantly shut off. 
Literally like a switch. 
I asked him what he'd turned on. "My sub-bottom profiler." 
When he turned it back off the bite resumed at a far more tepid pace... 
Now picture 150 footers with much more powerful sub-bottom profiler equipment running back and forth 12 miles, day & night, for 3.5 summers.. 
The fish simply left. They couldn't stand it. The bottom was barren, devoid of sea bass and fluke. 
These "sub bottom profilers" are NOT the extremely loud oil/gas survey equipment. Some hold they mimic a gigantic echolocating mammal — a humongous dolphin — and scare fish that way. 
I made a video at surveys' conclusion. (YouTube search "Survey effects off Maryland") 
I predicted to management that when surveys were over, the entire area would be recolonized and that spawning size of sea bass would regress to that early/pre management size of under 9 inches. 
That's exactly what happened. Production shot straight up too. We've enjoyed much better sea bassing the last few years owing, I believe, to a boost in spawning population as age 1 sea bass rejoined the spawning stock on this massive area of uncolonized reef.. 
We've now worked through it. Saw the very last of the under-9 inch spawners this spring (2019) and none after early July. 
We'll now witness spawning production fall again as it must with far-fewer participants in the spawning population.

I believe it is visual cues that drive spawning urge; that larger fishes' 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 a fifth of the stock engage in spawning. 
May well be less than that...

In 2003 I thought, and wrote, that I believed we were at holding capacity — that we could not possibly have a larger sea bass population along DelMarVa; That our reef habitats couldn't hold anymore..
If readers comprehend "holding capacity" as a function of environment--either in forage or physical dimension--where there simply must be enough to eat; If you can then imagine a reef with no fishing pressure whatever reaching its climax population, a point where natural recruitment of young fish replaces natural mortality — where that reef's population is in balance: If so, then you can imagine a method of doubling that population of fish by simply doubling the size of the reef.

Fishery managers should be interested in means by which they can double a population of fish..

I have several videos on the web that document DelMarVa's remnant natural hardbottoms as well as artificial reef. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cMC8JVa2Bk ) & ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n77WF9XQRJM&feature=related or YouTube search, "Common seafloor habitats" & "Maryland corals."

Here from a 1961 study: California Fish Bulletin 146, Man-Made Reef Ecology: Summary & Conclusions -- Page 198 Brackets { } are mine, BOLD original but emphasized. Parenthesis ( ) & quotes are original.
..it is apparent that "non-productive" areas of nearshore ocean floor can be made "productive" by installation of relief structures {artificial reef}. Initially, these structures attract fishes from surrounding areas and present a substrate suitable for development of the complex biotic assemblages {reef growths, e.g. mussels & coral} typical of natural reefs. As these new reefs mature, biological succession occurs and fishes which may have been initially attracted only to the structures are incorporated into the reef community in response to increasingly available food and shelter. Ultimately (in about 5 years) a natural situation is attained and the plant & animal populations exhibit fluctuations typical of {natural} reef ecosystems.

Artificial reef substrates create natural reef production.

It remains true that there were more sea bass caught from 1950 to 1961 than in all the decades since combined. 
Sea bass can never be rebuilt to the population of the 1950s with the habitat footprint of today. They'll never stay rebuilt without winter quotas specific to region. Habitat & habitat fidelity —Spawning Site Fidelity — are tools which must be grasped for quota assignment & size limits that maximize spawning potential. We have an ocean to work with; yet, for the most part, Recreational regulation is driven almost solely by catch statistics no one any longer believes. 

Lowering the size limit on sea bass to 11 inches would swiftly lower their age at maturity. 
We'd soon see a far larger spawning population.. 

Were NOAA to discover the seafloor reef habitat footprint of the late 1940s and restore it; lower the size limit as a tool to enhance spawning production; use habitat fidelity in quota management: we'd make incredible strides in fisheries abundances - especially sea bass.. 


Capt. Monty Hawkins 
Partyboat Morning Star OCMD 

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