Monday, March 05, 2007

Fish Report 3/5/07

Fish Report 3/5/07
Toggin' tales & another habitat piece...
Hi All,
A few weeks back when we left the dock it was 11 degrees in Salisbury. Pretty chilly for these parts. Breaking ice and easing through slush seem to be lie behind us now. That cold spell finally worked it's way into local marine waters though. For a while the water temperature at the buoy 20 NM ENE of Ocean City's inlet was constantly below 40 degrees and is again. I had a report from divers working on a government project of 35 degree water at Isle of Wight Shoal. That's plenty cold enough to put tog into a dormant period. They just cover up with sand like a flounder and have a snooze. Warming air temps should have their effect soon enough; the hard southerly winds probably won't hurt either.
By working offshore on my last two trips we found bottom temps suitable for them to still be feeding. For some anglers they were pretty decent trips. Others were pretty choked up as tog to 16 pounds went by the rail sporting a pretty yellow tag!
Tog fishers are a breed apart. This is not your average bottom fishing! The cold weather certainly, but it's the fishing itself that is unique. Sure, plenty of folks have had a great day of toggin' - sometimes on their first try. That (would have been) state record that we released 2 years ago comes to mind. Makes you crazy - if you curse when you drop a good fish you haven't figured it out. Laugh and rebait! Yes, there's skill to it. The fellow that released the 16 pounder last Wednesday was the same guy that caught 2 over 16 pounds the week before. It took me 26 years to break 16! 
Know what? There's always a chance at one bigger..
Another fellow has the bug bad. He's definitely getting on to it - no doubt! Had a decent day and decides that he's going again in the AM. His buddy that came with him and has to work the next day? Aw, it was ugly! He got home alright - just make sure you know how fanatical your fishing buddies are...
Going fishing, Caveat Emptor,  cold water. Might work ~ might not! The last 2 days of February we had 60 some tags. A little under half were over 20 inches. No one took a limit - though some sure could have! I'm going again on Friday, Saturday and Sunday - March 9th, 10th and 11th - Weather's too far out to be real, but it does look good. 12 people sells out the rail - crabs provided - 7 to 3 - reservations required - leave the best phone number possible in the event of cancellation.
Below you'll find a paper suggesting HAPCs. Habitat Areas of Particular Concern - guvmint speak for somewhere we don't want to mess up. I think the coordinates must have dropped off the email somehow, sorry 'bout that!
These are the regions that I'm constantly writing about, trying to get scientists and managers interested in the habitat. There has been some success in that of late. Well, at least they don't laugh anymore when I suggest there's coral beds in our waters. 
Marine production's no joke. Many species are dependant on it year around, others just overwinter at sea. Either way, by protecting habitat we will expand it. An expansion worth many-many times our artificial reef system would keep us reeling in fish for a long time to come.
There's an idea.
Capt. Monty Hawkins
Party Boat "Morning Star"
Reservations 410 520 2076
Fishery managers, marine ecologists, advocacy groups and even some fishers are unaware of naturally occurring coral reef systems in the mid-Atlantic Bight. Because these areas remain unknown, contributions by this productive ecology type are unrecognized in management. In particular, lost production due to gear damage is unquantified in any regional management plan. Calculated over the span of many decades, habitat loss must have played a role in the diminishment of fisheries.
This report contains descriptions of areas of hardbottom reef locations in the hope that scientists will be able to recognize the value of it's contribution to the region's marine ecology and make recommendations for proper management. 
                      For Consideration as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern:

                     Locations of Mid-Atlantic Bight Nearshore Natural Substrates

                                and Associated Coral Reef Communities

 Capt. Monty Hawkins - 3/1/07 - 11546 Dolly Circle - Berlin, MD. 21811 -

Our fisheries depend on marine production; the interaction of all the components of the food web that allow fish to thrive. Seafloor habitat in the form of reef is among the most productive of habitats.
This seafloor habitat ~be it hard corals, tubeworms, clay bottom riddled with holes, mats of dense grass-like hydrozoas and bryozoans, or meadows of sea whip~ all form important complex habitat for fish and other valuable species under management in the mid-Atlantic.
In many regions of the US, indeed the world, managers are actively protecting reef-like areas. To date, however, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council has done little with regard to marine bottom habitat.
Perhaps this is because science, on the whole, has missed the existence of these habitat types in the region.
If any of the science and my own observations are to be relied upon; allowing these habitats to flourish must benefit many of the species that make up the region's fisheries. Protecting certain habitats would enhance juvenile survival rates by increasing forage supply and improving their ability to avoid predation. When recruitment rates go up the fishing gets better. Indeed, a thriving reef ecology may also have unforeseen benefits to the highly migratory species and at least one sea turtle, the loggerhead.  
Species presently under management that utilize the areas for feeding, spawning and growth to maturity are: sea bass, tautog, lobster, loligo squid, scup, and summer flounder.  Species that use these reefs for feeding are many and include numerous sharks, loggerhead turtle, bluefish and bluefin tuna. And, while locally extinct now, both codfish and red hake were once bountiful in these regions as well. Taking reef's production as important to the great predators is only a link or two away - especially if squid do indeed spawn upon hardbottoms as I believe they do.
Though not treated here, areas of dense tubeworm are strongly favored by sea trout and croaker.
At this time, hard-bottom reefs in the mid-Atlantic are considered rare. However, their importance to the regions bioeconomic model is directly evidenced by landings of lobster and sea bass.
Of the two routinely cited scientific studies concerning the mid-Atlantic seafloor, one failed to find any hard-bottom in the region. (Wigley and Theroux - 1981 - "Atlantic Continental Shelf and Slope of the United States - Macrobenthic Invertebrate Fauna of the Middle Atlantic Bight Region - Faunal Composition and Quantitative Distribution") The other, Stiemle and Zetlin - Revised 2000 - "Reef Habitats in the Middle Atlantic Bight: Abundance, Distribution, Associated Biological Communities, and Fishery Resource Use" mentions very few areas of natural substrate but concedes that "...more low profile hard bottom and reefs will undoubtedly become known or identified". (P. 37 3rd paragraph)
Hard-bottom is again briefly mentioned in the EFH Source Document for Tautog describing a large area of coral known to fishers as the Winter Quarter Coral Beds. (NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-NE-118 citing Eklund and Targett - 1990 - "Reproductive Seasonality of Fishes Inhabiting Hard Bottom Areas in the Middle Atlantic Bight.")
By my coordinates there are 219.6 square miles that contain hard-bottom patch reefs inside the 25 fathom line between Cape May and Winter Quarter. There are more reef areas offshore but I have no direct knowledge of them. The well known Cape May Rocks area is but one offshore example.
According to the 2002 publication of the National Research Council "Effects of Trawling and Dredging on Seafloor Habitat", the sensitivity and vulnerability of hard-bottom reefs is greater than of other habitats with the exception of tubeworm colonies. 
Live-bottom coral communities meet all the criteria of Essential Fish Habitat and warrant protections that can be created within an area designated as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern. 
The potential for accelerated recovery of fish stocks dependant on live-bottom habitat, as well as benefits to multiple other areas of the marine food web, should be of great interest to the region's fishery managers.
Decade by decade historical gear impact summaries could be created through interviews with long-time fishers. More modern impact assessments may be estimated through Fishing Vessel Trip Reports, video evidence of snagged/lost gear and actual habitat loss on substrates well suited for reef growths. There is a short video at that shows local hardbottom habitats in conditions ranging from pristine to freshly trawled. 
Over time, as management takes into account the sensitivity of habitat and acts to prevent damage to it, there will be a corresponding increase in marine production that will be of great benefit to the region's fishers.
A governing body charged with rebuilding populations of economically valuable mid-Atlantic species can hardly continue to ignore habitat's importance to the successful repopulating of overfished species; both directly through it's value as spawning and sheltering habitat and it's contributions to the prey base for feeding.
With enough effort, managers could one day calculate allowable landings based in part on the region's habitat footprint. Habitat holding capacity theory seems well thought out in other biological studies.
Given our present knowledge on the natural sequestration ~biofiltering~ of nutrients in estuaries, it seems likely that large areas of hardbottom in a mature state of growth would contribute to water quality in a similar fashion.
The many sets of coordinates that follow contain a variety of natural substrates including cobble, large rocks, boulder, hard clay and sandstone flats and ledges. The tubeworm colonies that I'm familiar with inhabit mud substrates and are not included here except in one overlapping area. Every attempt has been made to avoid including accidental shipwreck and artificial reef. Verification of habitat type was accomplished by underwater video camera. Each area has been assigned a value that indicates the ease with which reports of habitat loss because of gear impact could be found ~ in as much as fishers can document loss. A (1) means many reports are possible on a sliding scale to (5) where reports would be more difficult, but not impossible, to locate.
More simply, scientifically acceptable identification of habitat type in conjunction with known values of gear impact should be all that's needed.
Let the study begin...

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