Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fish Report 11/30/11

Fish Report 11/30/11
More Cbassin'
Deadline Past 
Habitat Constant
Losing Faith
Going cbassing again. Looks like a good weather window on Sunday, December 4th -- Leave at 5:30 AM, Return 4(ish) -- $125.00 -- Reservations Required @ 410 520 2076
Hi All,
Recent sea bass trips varied from OK to unreal; From steady doubles on hammered jig/Clark Spoon rigs, Lots of keeper doubles & Lots of limited clients.. to another day "Blackjack" was the best we could do -- High man had 21 keeper cbass.
Very curiously, we also caught a black grouper (little fellow) and a huge pinfish--southern reef species both: Same reef, same day, we tagged 2 cod and had a 25 inch keeper..
Going cbassing again while its open in December. There are spots I need to fish.
Finished tog season with decent fishing. Over Sunday & Monday we had fish to about 10 pounds, lots of 4 fish limits. Wasn't stellar; Plenty OK though.
Tagged lots of keepers. Almost always do.
Saw more small tog than I've ever seen before too: Acorns before oaks..
Season reopens January 1st.
I think.
I hope.
More on that below.
There's a Tautog meeting Thursday night, 12/1/11. I expect twenty or so anglers will participate in a discussion of how-best to divvy our gruel, how to work out management measures with our mandated 49% reduction in catch.
Accused again of overfishing by MRFSS catch estimate data, We'll be offered some season/size limit options and be told why our ideas won't work.
We'll absolutely have an impact on which exact path management takes and that, at least, is a good thing: Much better than decades past..
Complaints of poor catch data, however, will be met with requests to stay on subject; that MRFSS catch data can't be changed at all and especially not here, not at this meeting: We'll need to stay within parameters set by MRFSS data..
I've spent my life fishing the ocean side of the Chesapeake Bay State. Things are better than ever where DNR's red-headed illegitimate marine step-child is concerned
..but I know Maryland isn't going to suddenly pour money into reef fish management. We'll soon have more "can-not" served up from management's soup kitchen. Disappointing where a little "can-do" would offer so much benefit to fish & fisher.
I positively welcome a marine size limit increase. However, if it goes the way I think it will, men who have retired here to fish will find their least expensive fishery taken from them.
That fellow sitting on a bucket fishing a back-bay bulkhead is not the source of tautog overfishing.. A size limit jump from 14 to 16 inches in the back-bays ensures some fishery participants will pass away without ever catching another legal tog.
We should find a way to raise the size limit more slowly in the back-bays; Half an inch a year would have real, positive effect without destroying the human side of the fishery; Jumping to 16 inches in the ocean will have real effect too, even though tautog fishing pressure is tapering.  
Now, an ecology student or other outside observer might think our reefiest-reef fish restoration would have a habitat component, Might think 'fishery restoration' involves discovering what's missing and putting it back, Might ponder why a fish you could readily call "oyster wrasse" has never had benefit of habitat restoration.
I would point out Maryland's oyster restoration has never been about fish habitat, just the raw-bar. 
I would also point out that since 1999 I have communicated concern of our nearshore coral habitat to federal & state management.
Fortunately, tautog have benefitted handsomely from many man-made constructions; have managed to thrive despite ecological science remaining unused in marine fishery restoration; have provided countless hours of recreation--fed participants too: Yet we haven't a clue how many tautog there were before oyster reefs were leveled beginning in the 1800s..
Employing what we now call the Hubble Constant & building upon  Einstein, Lemaitre & Slipher's work, Edwin Hubble determined that our universe was expanding through red-shift. 
Doppler red-shift is not dissimilar to the sound a train would make as it first approached you and then sped past. You can shut your eyes and tell if the train's coming or going (but not while standing on the track!) Similarly, scientific instruments can deduce if distant objects in the universe are coming or going: Blue shift is coming--contracting, red shift going--expanding.
I believe there is a similar Habitat rule, a red-shift/blue-shift, a Doppler effect with accompanying Hubble Constant that must be applied to reef-fish restorations. 
Below I intend to show how management's failure to recognize habitat's importance is stifling fishery restoration work and how single-focus 'overfishing' models are dragging recreational reef fisheries backward.
No Habitat, No Biology; Its just been logical-luck that reducing fishing effort helps fish.
Luck can only carry restoration so far
..which means recreational fisher's luck is toast.  
First of all, its not as though there are 1.37 tautog in every sq meter of salt water; That nearby reef "Attracts" nearby fish.
Tog have a very specific ecological niche in which they can thrive. Only the most complex natural reef composed of boulder/large stone and nearly any man-made reef mimic or artificial reef will have tautog on it. A thousand acres of sand bottom will have no tog at all.
In fact, when an angler drops just a few feet from structure he'll quickly discover some adjustment is necessary to catch these fish -- There Has To Be Structure.  
Habitat Constant: If catch over time remains steady while habitat is expanding, then a fish population must be -has to be- expanding, growing; multiplying. Conversely, if catch increases while habitat is in decline then a fish population will diminish rapidly.
The goal of modern reef fish management should be to stabilize catch while expanding habitat and thereby positively increase fish populations.
During the 1950s, 60s & 70s our region's low-lying sea whip habitat was in swift decline as improved electronic navigation allowed closer approach to hangs & obstructions with stern towed commercial fishing gear. Soon, discovery of shipwrecks & robust boulders was necessitated for reef fishers to continue any level of catch because broad sea whip meadows were now lost.
At times it would have appeared fishing was "better than ever" as catch may have increased even though habitat was in decline: Owing to its greater three-dimensional complexity, a newly discovered shipwreck will be many times more productive than an equal footprint of low-profile natural reef.
Even today -- last week -- anchoring over concentrated reef can be more productive than drifting loose patches of whip.
However, where we lost square miles of natural reef, we've only put back square yards.
Habitat blue-shift; This shrinking, contracting habitat-loss while industrial gears from around the world searched out remaining virgin bottoms to harvest then-abundant reef fish; Where men working deck sorted through bottom growth & fish with every tow; Where increasing numbers of surf-clam boats went further & further to sea, a broken shell desert left behind: While fishing effort increased at industrial scales mid-century, habitat decreased.
The resultant decline in fisheries production soon became a world-wide issue.
Because habitat contraction is inextricably tied to fishing's decline, we'll need habitat expansion to create restoration.
Locally, an accidental artificial reef built in the mid/late 90s has become a tog hotspot, a place many boats now fish where none did before; A place that could not have existed naturally now holds a large population of fish: The rock rip-rap seawall around the neighborhood west of the Ocean City, MD inlet, around Martha's Landing, has become first-class tautog habitat.
Steep & deep, a lot of rock wraps around the many-acre point. Makes a lot of reef.
I've seen as many as 8 boats fishing tog there; Prior to 2000 none did.
During the early 1980s Army Corps put bargeload after bargeload of rock under the Rt. 50 bridge in Ocean City, MD.
Tog live there too.
We built artificial reef along the rip-rap armored bulkhead at 3rd & 4th street.
In the ocean we've created a several thousand-fold increase in suitable tog habitat with artificial reef.
Pier pilings, stone jetties, rip-rap & artificial reef: Combined they make a tautog factory where sand existed before.
Tagging reveals these coastal Ocean City fish will never migrate to Delaware or Chesapeake oyster reef restorations, even if they were taken up in earnest.
Management has steadfastly refused to investigate loss of nearshore corals in the Mid-Atlantic; Any discussion of habitat loss' effect on reef-fish populations will remain sidelined until the habitat is discovered.  
Fish thriving on man-made reef constitute very nearly all of tautog's restoration..  
To me its as though a vast field of winter wheat lay before us while forestry officials claimed the turkey farm off to the right had restored ecological balance to this non-existent woodland, "..they're free-range!"
Fishery restoration without a habitat component is unlikely to succeed.  
..but what really mucks things up are management decisions based, often in large part, on our recreational catch estimating system, MRFSS.
The National Research Council's report on the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey - MRFSS - was devastatingly concise: Redesign It.
Congress, Senate & President Bush agreed in legal statute when they wrote into the Magnuson re-write of 2006: "Do what the NRC said & get it done by January 1st, 2009." [ see 16 USC § 1881 (g)(3)(D) and surrounding paragraphs]
It's late 2011 and we're still being held to MRFSS conclusions as if they were perfect. It really isn't going so well..
Management was supposed to submit a report on how final disarming of MRFSS went almost a year ago.   
Still, MRFSS is used by management as ever it was. The resultant smokescreen camouflages all manner of fishery ills while casting recreational anglers deeper and deeper into regulatory purgatory.
Our current tautog dilemma sources from 2007 & 2010 catch estimates. That's where "Recreational Overfishing" of tog comes from, not a back-bay bulkhead..
MRFSS has Maryland's total tog catch rising nearly ten-fold from 14,000 in 2006 to 107,000 in 2007 And from 44,000 to 84,000 in 2009/2010.
Many states and many fisheries experienced their highest catches ever--EVER--during 2007
..on a computer screen.  
The comparisons are endemic in the data. Delaware shore fishers tog catch, for instance, is said to have increased from 616 in 2009 to 21,331 in 2010..
The Maryland for-hire estimate is 6,058 for March & April 2004. Since I was the only boat fishing I'm confident the actual number caught was 672.
Its absolutely, positively ten times too high. MRFSS data is frequently off by an order of magnitude.
MRFSS data averaged in 7 year periods would stop this nonsense while the new program, MRIP, came on-line.
Meanwhile, negative consequences of MRFSS-only recreational management lie all around us in diminished economic return, closed fisheries & lost fishery production opportunities where management has refused to help bolster habitat.
I have no faith whatever in MRFSS recreational catch estimates.
I have no faith whatever in reef fish stock/population assessments.
I have no faith in management driven solely by Overfishing--Where no alarm sounds when very low catch estimates occur, but emergency fishery closures have become routine using the same data..
What faith is inspired by regulators who ignore all of Magnuson's Essential Fish Habitat provisions; Who ignore Congressionally mandated deadlines to replace a vital catch statistic program yet now squander recreational fishing's vitality with the very data they were told to be rid of.  
Some of today's managers --even at the highest levels-- have inherited this mess and want to know what's wrong: I sincerely hope that state & federal resource agencies are trying hard to push past this regulatory illness borne of bad data, This time when progress in fishery restoration was accidental as often as purposeful, This time when a dead-but-breathing statistical catch estimating program created a regulatory black hole from which logic could not escape..
Temporarily averaging MRFSS data in 7 year periods would stop a lot of this nonsense.
Reef Restoration Makes Fishery Restoration Simple.  
Capt. Monty Hawkins
Party Boat "Morning Star"
Reservation Line 410 520 2076 

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