Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fish Report 12/29/09

Fish Report 12/29/09
I will be announcing winter tog trips based on weather via short-notice email. Sign-up - - Cheers!
Fish Report 12/29/09
Tog Soon.. Very Soon
A Christmas Sight
Sea Bass: Thoughts Today & From 2001
Holiday Greetings From the Coast,
I'd thought a New Year's tog trip would be in order this year.. hmm.. the forecast - call it like I see it - No Joy.
We will be going soon, just not on the Jan 1st re-opening. When the weather's right--on any day of the week--we shall.
Twelve will sell the boat out - Cabin is now heated - Crabs provided - I'll announce winter trips via email...
Coming across the RT 50/Severn River bridge on Sunday; saw 2 big barge/crane set-ups.. Almost a gift, better really: both barges are part of an Army Corps oyster restoration project. For the first time in Maryland's Chesapeake oyster restoration efforts they are allowed to use 'alternative substrates' - rock/concrete. 
The idea was first put forward by the founder of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, Dr. Truitt, in the early 1920s as a way to create oyster spawning sanctuaries: took a while to catch on.
You'd be hard pressed to figure out all the different agencies building this reef system in the Severn. If yours is -- my many thanks.
The river is closed to commercial oyster harvest. Though I'm not tight to the inside of this project, it seems as though there's a multi-agency/NGO focus to see if large scale reef building can have an effect on water quality..
Bet it works too.
I see a time when "Department of Study It" turns more "Department of Go Fix It"-- Those big barges but a glimpse -- a start..
I've never wet a line in the Chesapeake. Promise this though, it needs fixin. I think oysters are 1/4 or more of the solution - get 'em high off the bottom and put 'em to work.
Several centuries of oyster reef damage to repair -- in an estuary that was once able to filter itself twice a week..
Need a great big department of fix-it..
Need to fix some regulatory issues too.
Diving deeply into that below.
Further down still a comment I wrote in 2001: sobering in that I have not changed my tune; only refined it.
There is hope that the sea bass quota will be bumped up if a case can be made that the NOAA Regional Administrator finds credible. They are meeting again for this very purpose.  I try to explain it below.. Its an opportunity for bottom-up lobbying - where an email to your state's fisheries staff, particularly ASMFC & MAFMC reps, about quota & release mortality can be effective... 
Also saw an excellent letter on Senator Mikulski's website about the "Flexibility in Rebuilding Americas Fisheries Act." Googles easy.
Top down this: Probably at a hard time in life if you need an Act of Congress for any reason. Fishers are not in want of a bail-out, not a hand-out: Just let us fish -go to work- so we and all the many businesses tied to fishing won't need Disaster Relief Aid.. in the heart of the Great Recession.
The 'rebuilding' actions managers have recently taken is akin to helicoptering within feet of a mountain summit and, climbing some few feet further, thrusting a flag in its crest then claiming to have scaled it. There's the flag and the footprints, how could this accomplishment be called untrue? 
Closing data-poor fisheries will surely helicopter fish-stocks up...
"Yeah! We did it!"
Eh, might fool a few..
Rebuilding fisheries based purely on regulatory sleight-of-hand while throwing participants off the boat isn't going to look good long.
A foundation of sand..
A reasonable quota increase & a realistic release mortality figure would more than fix this particular dilemma - but not the problem.
These many closures, including the upcoming grouper closure, have similar characteristics. Its impossible to estimate reef-fish populations--create stock assessments--via trawl-nets that get stuck on reefs. And--managing a short/non-migratory species with spawning site fidelity as a 'single stock' over broad 'coast-wide' areas is, very clearly, a management approach that can not work.
I'm afraid this really is the greatest fisheries battle I've seen. Lose and it will be my last as a participant, as a fisher. A deep description of one small action in this East Coast and Gulf fight below..
A very brief "Going Fishing" announcement coming in a couple days I hope.
Capt. Monty Hawkins
Party Boat "Morning Star"
Reservation Line 410 520 2076
Comment on Black Sea Bass 12/29/09
Safe Quota
Release Mortality
A Management Plan That Can Not Work 
Regarding the impending sea bass fiasco, there is hope we'll recapture some quota when the Science and Statistical Committee & Joint Monitoring Committees meet.
Funny thing, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council--MAFMC--claims sea bass are rebuilt. Even the Blue Ocean Institute has mid-Atlantic sea bass doing fine, that they're not 'overfished'.
But we have to reduce catch by 66%?
I have it on very good authority that a much larger sea bass quota was recommended for 2010 by the joint Council/Commission monitoring committee. And that recommended quota was actually millions of pounds less than the maximum allowable quota. Now the Science and Statistical Committee's recommendation--which gets forced upon all under recent changes in the law--is millions of pounds less than even the monitoring committee's very safe quota recommendation.
On paper we've gone from over 6 million pounds of sea bass quota during 2010 to 2 million.
We then have to split it with the commercial fishers.
I have--without question--seen sea bass populations skyrocket with over 6 million pound quotas in place..
Odd.. that was before creel limits, seasons, and with a much smaller size-limit -- Regionally, we were just fortunate.
Anyway, good, hard-working scientists thought they could very safely have a 4 million pound coastwide quota on sea bass in 2010: That was then cut in two based on some arbitrary 'hunch' to be safer still -- that is why we are facing the worst fishing restrictions ever.. A two month season where there were twelve.
It is clear to many that the quota could safely be loosened up, even doubled. That would give fishers a bit of breathing room. 
How about that 25% release mortality? Can that be an accurate scientific representation of the released fish that die?
Sakes no! Release-based fishery management would have failed catastrophically some twelve years ago were the release mortality anywhere near 25%.
Many of the sea bass we catch, especially in heavily targeted areas, have multiple hook-scars in their lip - sometimes even 4 or more. While those particular sea bass may not end up as Alpha spawners, if 25% of released fish actually died--and we kept catching on the remainder--pretty soon 'keeper' size limit regulations would result in an utterly collapsed fishery: Our first forays into management would have been a disaster. 
I was carrying 70 to 90 passengers a day when I mandated a 9 inch sea bass size limit in 1992. I had to prove to my clients that throwing fish back was going to make a difference. This was long before regulation happened.. Talk about some ugly scenes.. Making anglers throw back fish without real regulation was sometimes very tough - especially because back then everyone "knew" that any/every fish released died - - That's what we were all taught...
Lots and lots of tagging later---work I mostly paid for out-of-pocket---clients were willing to throw back sea bass. Its just obvious that it works, that they'll not only live to bite again, but do so right where we put them back.
Using Kahle hooks as I have since 1982, the only mortality on release is with special weather conditions or fairly unique predation - - Rare.
I'd be surprised if the real release mortality figure in the mid-Atlantic ocean is even 1% over the course of a year.
My observations, backed-up by scientists own observations, must now be proven some 18 years later - again.
Its reminiscent of something out a Monty Python sketch.. add your own British accent.
"But I saw it swim down."
"Right you did, and then it blew up."
"They don't blow up. We recapture them all the time."
"No data - no data whatsoever. 12.5% blow up and 12.5% turn into lobsters, therefore 25% die when you foolishly don't eat them. Its written on paper. We'll calculate you killed but didn't eat more than you killed and did eat. Do you fancy your lobster steamed, broiled or boiled? Eh? Eh?"
A reasonable quota increase & a realistic release mortality figure would more than fix this particular dilemma - but not the problem.
{bit of pleasant research -- YouTube search: "Monty Python- the witch scene" - in this scene substitute "overfishing fisher" for witch, the Monks go by fast. Believe me, there are direct correlations to witch hunting in this fisheries dilemma... and then there's the 'annoying peasant' clip too..}
Here's the problem.
Any who claim to possess a valid coastwide black sea bass stock assessment & restoration management plan without regional division/evaluation has on their desk before them a lie. 
Hmm.. Say Capt, that's rather coarse verbiage..
But if that statement is true, and it is--that's why they call it a data poor fishery--then from these many years of assessments have been built a paper palace of lies.
Deep down, under layers & layers of bad data; so many layers that they can not see the truth of the situation -- is the Science and Statistical Committee.
Emanating from this committee, and they alone, are quotas that may well doom many fishing businesses in 2010 - its the law.
The foundation of their Paper Palace - The black sea bass stock estimate - The estimated population of cbass alive in the mid-Atlantic - The BSIA - The Best Scientific Information Available - is gathered via a trawl-net survey. Works well for some species, but trawl-nets get stuck on these robust reefs where sea bass now live..
Reefs that were trawlable once thrived, but after half a century of fishing impacts--think scraped clear--those areas no longer serve as reef: though in some instances the substrates remain, possibly with some growth, leaving a door open for restoration. Only the most robust natural reefs remain ecologically functioning as they originally did. A growing amount of artificial reef and a decreasing amount of accidental shipwreck are bridging the loss of natural habitat.. This remaining reef habitat--where reef fish now live--is not suitable for stock assessment by trawl --- yet is the primary source for our BSIA - Best Scientific Information Available.

Put aside fish counting a moment: Consider the fact that the natural footprint of reef is nearly gone, destroyed; yet that has failed to pop-up in the Best Science Information Available either...
But Wait! We not only use trawl-netting to count the live fish where we can not trawl: We use MRFSS, the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, to count the fish recreational fishers caught - killed both by release and iced in a cooler..
But Wait! MRFSS is a Dead Man Walking, sent to hang-by-the-neck-until-dead by the guvmint for failing to provide good data. No use writing about its failures. Replacing it is the Marine Recreational Information Program. MRIP offers a better way of counting fish that were caught. It kicks in January 1st, 2010.
Just before being led to the gallows though, MRFSS asked one final wish: To take as many recreational fishers with it as possible. That wish appears to have been granted....
As I've said, a reasonable quota increase & a realistic release mortality figure would more than fix this particular dilemma - but not the problem..

Reef dwelling species need a new form of management based on controlling effort over discreet spawning sub-stocks within their range - - and protecting and enhancing fish habitat. (which, though ignored, is in another part of the Magnusson Act, but apparently not as iron-clad as quota controls.)
My Argument: A fishery comprised of local, isolated--not intermingling--spawning components can not be well regulated with coastwide controls: That not having regional or some fine-scale geographic control leaves the successful restoration of such a species only to good fortune--luck: That species such as sea bass have been shown to respond extremely well to localized controls and that if these controls were put in place over broad areas, but with fine-scale management, then their restoration would exceed any present calculation.   
And will when management can be coerced into trying it.
These benefits to all fishers would be enhanced by protecting habitat from physical damage. The restoration of natural sea floor habitat can be accelerated by strategic artificial reefing which would further hasten recovery of fish populations. It is here that habitat engineering can be put to greatest use: Management can exceed any historical reef-fish population estimate given more habitat to work with.
Not just sea bass..
I was amazed at the article I read over the holiday in the February 2009 Journal of Fishery Management - "....Spatially Complex Population Structure for Gulf of Maine Atlantic Cod" - Reich & DeAlteris.
Their simulation has remarkable similarity to my sea bass thesis: That managing cod, who apparently also have specific spawning site fidelity, can not be accomplished well using broad management areas. Unfortunately for them, their study is based on fisher's observations - lots of them. They actually use the word "Anecdotal".. pure poison in scientific circles.
Still, I wonder if red snapper & grouper behave somewhat similarly - maybe lots and lots of species do..
From Texas to Maine fish with similar characteristics are giving everyone trouble...
Rebuilding fish can be accomplished without closing fisheries. What we experienced with sea bass populations up until 2003 was proof enough. That example of explosive population growth is readily seen in the Vessel Trip Reports -- but not MRFSS, the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey. Its no coincidence that it is partially from MRFSS that The Paper-Palace is built..
With the Marine Recreational Information Program & Vessel Trip Reports offering better insight to actual catch, management might soon be ready to step outside The Palace and have a look/listen.
They need to give us some breathing room first - open that quota.
More reading? Seriously? The 'comment' below is from 2001.. Even if you just read the first few sentences..
Here's to an industrial artificial reef project near you & a pan full of sea bass 12 months a year.
Or a tog this winter..
Capt. Monty Hawkins
Party Boat "Morning Star"
Reservation Line 410 520 2076

Concerning the 2002 Recreational Management Measures for Black Sea Bass


Capt. Monty Hawkins, Ocean City, Maryland



For the next 2 years recreational management of black sea bass should be no more restrictive than a creel limit of 25 at 11 inches with no closed season.

This would give scientists and managers time to develop a management plan based on "regions" as the life cycle of sea bass clearly calls for. Because these fish exhibit a strong area fidelity*, that is, they return to very specific places or areas after an unclear winter migration, they can not be managed well when considered to be a single stock from Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod. Seasonal closures are impossible to fairly execute as the southern states shoulder the burden of spring closures, while other ports lose deep water winter trips.(*Habitat Fidelity assertion based on *Able and Fahey "First Year in the Life of Estuarine Fishes in the Middle Atlantic Bight", Essential Fish Habitat Source Document "Black Sea Bass" and personal tag returns. See also David Dobbs "The Great Gulf" for codfish stock assessments / divisions and difficulties created for managers and stakeholders.)


A  2 year freeze on regulations would prevent further "fishing down" of the '97 and '98 year classes** while allowing fishing to begin on the '99 year class which was one of the finest on record. If not, then the fastest growing fish will continue to be culled from the spawning stock as size limits are increased, creating a stock that has been selected for slower growth.*** This has strong potential for negative long term economic repercussions. (**Year class estimates based on Able and Fahey "First Year in the Life of Estuarine Fishes in the Middle Atlantic Bight", Essential Fish Habitat Source Document "Black Sea Bass" and personal tag returns.)(***Edley and Law, 1988; Law and Grey,1989 from Jennings, Kaiser, Reynolds "Marine Fisheries Ecology")


Clearly the recovery of this fishery is ahead of the management plan. Further restrictions on the recreational industry are not needed. It could never have been the intention of any congressman or senator to bring economic harm to the participants in a biologically thriving fishery. Throughout the recreational industry there is unanimity that stocks are highly resurgent. Throughout the scientific community these stocks are recognized as improving very well with a trend of record setting biomass surveys. In the commercial industry there are no doubts that the stock is fine, but because of permitting and quota problems, long time participants are still unable to benefit from any recovery in localized stocks. The number of sea bass that were released on the party boat I captain almost doubled over the last year. In 2000 we released 99,241 sea bass and in 2001 we released 196,425. This year's (2001) catch (landings & releases) is far and away the largest number of sea bass that I've ever seen. Make no mistake, there can still be a many fold increase in the stock size, given the anecdotal evidence that I have heard from people that were fishing during the late 50s and 60s. Personal observations while fishing and video tapes made of unfished natural reef-like substrates indicate that heavily fished natural, accidental and artificial habitats hold far fewer sea bass than unfished habitats. However, since the dramatic improvement now seen is a result of smaller size limits and no possession limit; it stands to reason that the stock size will continue to expand ahead of schedule under the far more stringent management now in place.

The goal of the 2002 recreational management measures is to reduce recreational landings by 17%. A worthy goal indeed considering the likelihood of lawsuit by commercial interests. Can it be reasonable to cause economic hardship within an industry based on statistics with such a large percentage of error? Problems with data plague many fisheries. Witness the recent worldwide statistics revision caused by China's falsified data. Often times the MRFSS, despite their best efforts, are very far wrong too. For instance, can it be true that Rhode Island's nearshore sea bass landings jumped from an average of less than 20 thousand pounds to well over a quarter of a million pounds in 2000? I have to assume this is an error. It would only take 1 more error of this magnitude to show that recreational fishermen were within the guidance of the present management plan.  


In 1992 I was very likely the first partyboat captain to place a 9 inch limit on sea bass. I did that based on the obvious need for action to restore the stock and scientific observations that spawning had occurred, even twice, by 9 inches. That was 5 years in front of the Fed., 6 before MD. I actively sought creel and size limits on sea bass at the federal level. Having been so closely involved with the paradigm shift of "over the rail, into the pail" (nothing was ever released!) to a fishery that now hovers around a 75% release ratio; I can, with absolute confidence, assert that the MRFSS release figures for Maryland partyboats in the EEZ from 1981 to 1992 are complete fantasy.


The fruits of these management measures are now being enjoyed throughout the mid-Atlantic. Sea bass stocks along the coast of DelMarVa have increased nearly a thousand fold when compared  the early to mid 1980s. No, MRFSS data does not bear this out. However, memories of working the deck of a partyboat in August and knowing before you left the dock that you wouldn't catch enough sea bass for your clients dinner are hard to erase. By comparison, catches, mostly releases, for August 2001 frequently numbered over 4000 fish and sometimes double even that!


Although I have not found anyone that would share it with me there must be a dead discard hook mortality figure that is used in calculating the recreational impact on sea bass. What is alarming to me is the recent discovery that scientists are quoting research done in the Gulf of Mexico on sea bass that shows high mortality rates when released in depths greater than 70 feet. This same study indicates that anglers should only release sea bass caught at greater than 70 feet after puncturing the air bladder. Nothing could be further from the truth in the cooler waters and air of the mid-Atlantic (implied from personal observation of temperature/depth effects on sea bass compared to Lukacovic/ Md. D.N.R. rockfish mortality study). Our release mortality does not begin until a depth of 115 feet and then only if there is predation by gulls or bluefish as the fish reacclimate their air bladder. I thought that this issue would have been put to bed by now, but apparently not. (personal observation and over 50 tag returns from fish released in greater than 90 feet of water)


Additional savings to the stock could be had by requiring directed sea bass fishers to use hook types that are demonstrated to reduce deep hooking mortality.(implied from personal observation of effects on sea bass of various hooks compared to Lukacovic/ Md. D.N.R. rockfish mortality study {great similarity}) This would be especially advantageous to anglers that seek action in heavily fished areas as I believe sea bass are very unlikely to leave an area during prime fishing season.

If we absolutely must have 17%, it can be made up in release mortality and found in statistical error.

Although it may never be proven to be right or wrong, I believe habitat increases, both natural and artificial, have also been important to the robust increases in our local stocks of sea bass. Anyone can pick up a newspaper and read of artificial reef improvements off their coast. It is the resurgence of our natural reef-like bottom areas that are the key to improving settlement. Any modern text on fisheries biology has at least a chapter on commercial gear impacts to less robust substrates and their associated communities. As trawl and clamming effort has decreased in this part of the mid-Atlantic so have areas of mussels, corals and the many other species that make up a healthy benthic population begun to rebuild. Sea bass larvae have been shown to settle, not just in our estuarine systems, but also on suitable areas of our nearshore continental shelf*.  When the art and science of fisheries management can exploit the relationship between habitat, fidelity and stock size, many species will again flourish.


Thanks for your time,

Capt. Monty Hawkins                                    

P.S. Has anyone seen a red hake lately?

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