Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fish Report 12/11/11

Fish Report 12/11/11
Fishing: Been & Going   
Course Correction
Hi All,
Calling for sun and 50 degrees Monday -- light winds.
Plenty of spots left for tomorrow's long trip, maybe because of those forecasted lows: Chilly.
Monday -- 12/12/11 -- 5:30 to 4 --  $125.00 -- Sea Bass with a possibility of a few blues and fewer still cod. Tog are closed.
I'm excited to tell you about forward motion in Maryland's Chesapeake reef building, but the fed's talking about a 10 fish cbass limit outside 3 miles.. I have spent the last 20 hours and two decades working on the comment below
..knowing it won't likely be read by the people who will decide fishers' fate this week.
Maybe you'll cut and paste it; forward it to your State representatives on the ASMFC & MAFMC.  
I'm certain fishery management can work.
What we're doing now ain't it. 
Below I describe how we can fix it. 
Capt. Monty Hawkins
Party Boat "Morning Star"
Reservation Line 410 520 2076
Course Correction: On Revitalizing the Mid-Atlantic's Recreational Black Sea Bass Fishery.

A Comment  
Capt. Monty Hawkins, December 11, 2011
Before it even began, I knew fishery management was going to work...
Hi Folks,
OK, its a long comment--a lifetime's worth, But management is leaving millions & millions of dollars off the table. Tightening catch restriction has now created a situation where the sea bass fishery's human-side withers, while black sea bass population growth in the Mid-Atlantic is flatlined.
We've moved beyond benefit to fish & fisher; are now causing harm to both.
I want to try to convince all concerned that age-at-maturity is a vital management tool in the black sea bass fishery; That management's present path creates dissonance, is inharmonious with fisheries science & biology; That management should examine regional fish population response to gain insights useful for true coastal restoration.
Black sea bass (BSB) are central to for-hire, commercial & recreational reef fishers along the DelMarVa coast.
Using published material from the late 1980s, Conversations with fisheries personnel and with the encouragement of the Nichols family; In 1992 I created and enforced a 9 inch limit on the 90 foot partyboat O.C Princess.
An ugly but worthwhile bit of business; I was searching people's coolers for sea bass under 9 inches 5 years before it became law.  
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. Research confirmed what I was already seeing at sea, that many cbass had indeed transitioned to male by 7 1/2 inches.
What we saw over the next few years carved it in stone -- Areas where we fished became much better despite heavy pressure. There were many more sea bass. Every artificial reef we built filled up with sea bass, tautog were returning in good number too.
Before it even began, I knew fishery management was going to work.
Despite catching sea bass with multiple hook-wounds, some clients still adhered to what we'd always been taught, "No use throwing any back, they just die anyway."
Enter the American Littoral Society's tagging program. After thousands of tags it was obvious to anyone that sea bass did indeed live when thrown back.
Soon it would also become obvious that, like the salmons, sea bass have a very strong habitat fidelity.
In 1998 I learned about catch statistics, about the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, MRFSS, when National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) first planned an August closure. The official estimate for Sept/Oct 1997 had New Jersey For-Hire fishers catching one million eight hundred thousand fish in 1997. Unencumbered by new regulation in the same period, the following year's estimate put those same party/charter fishers' catch at seven thousand.
To this day I can't imagine putting any faith in this catch data, let alone calling it science: Where verification is the hallmark of science, Inputting false data into scientific hypothesis or theory creates outcomes less predictable than a card game or slot machine.  
NMFS' response to my comments back then was for me to take my clients striped bass fishing. (Something I haven't been able to do since 1985 when Maryland first closed stripers; a closure cemented-shut when NOAA created a Marine Protected Area beyond three miles where we still --27 years later-- cannot recreationally catch striped bass.)
Instead, I took unnecessary risks with my clients in that first August sea bass closure to catch red hake, a reef fish further offshore and -even then- in much greater need of management's attention than sea bass.   
Since inception management has wanted a 7 to 10 fish cbass limit. This catch restriction is based on the broadest possible examination of landings. Managers fail to grasp the distinction between full-day and half-day (or shorter) for-hire trips: All participants are lumped together.  
Understanding the human-side of the fishery & how fish use habitat (habitat fidelity) makes plain how nearshore reefs receive fantastically more pressure than more distant reefs; How a great majority of for-hire trips are taken on 4 hour or less party boats--boats with many more people going twice or more times a day that fish a much smaller, much closer to home reef footprint: Its vastly different than 7-plus hour trips that go further and therefore have an incredibly larger reef footprint to choose from..
Fishers use habitat fidelity every single day, every single trip, to determine where they might have luck: Where fishing pressure is a measurement inextricably tied to a physical measure of reef, to a reef's size--where Bigger Reefs Can Stand More Pressure, it always remains Less Pressure = Better Catch. 
With the 9 inch limit, populations grew despite fishing pressure. That was new to me. I knew then we could leave this ocean far better than we found it.
Often times when management believes there is an otherwise inexplicable increase in recreational catch they assert it is "because commercial fishers left them there" -- that the 'other team' didn't take them. I myself am quite sure decreasing trap/pot commercial pressure as IFQ effort from traditional trap fishers shifts to offshore winter trawl is allowing increased recreational catch over some nearshore corals: Less traps because they used their quota offshore, more fish on those specific inshore reefs to recreational fishers.
For now, please accept that I witnessed incredible growth of the cbass population off the DelMarVa coast with only a 9 inch limit, That I saw management's benefit clearly even before any state or federal regulation; And accept habitat fidelity is crucial to understanding the fishery. 
Population Biology is rife with examples of changing age-at-maturity. Fisheries contain many examples too. Dr. Targett's work with weakfish has the mature stock of the 1970s spawning at age 4 while today's fish spawn at age 1.
Here's where management's disconnect comes in. Science has been thrown askew from implausible MRFSS spikes. We now have 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, private boats are calculated to have crushed all sea bass catch records despite increasing regulatory constraints & far less discretionary income to fishers. Covered in greater depth below, These assertions of overfishing have triggered management actions to raise the size limit multiple times, and are often accompanied by emergency and routine closures.
I believe since 2002 the recreational size limit has lowered spawning production. 
Management might ask, "Well, what does that matter so long as we're applying more & more catch restriction? Doesn't taking less result in more?"
Well, No.
It isn't.
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 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; their spawning behavior is: SLOW DOWN, there's too many of us..
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 (O'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 at the new size limit, at 12 to 13 inches and only rarely at 9 inches. 
I believe we're still using the same science, but where emphasis was once on length, now age is quoted from those same early works.
There was a bad growth curve back then.. 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 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 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 was a result of more young fish spawning or young fish learning to spawn earlier makes no difference: Spawning Was Accelerated, Fish & Fisher 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, 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 -- Now we're 5 million cbass to the good annually.
Sea bass live about 12 years..
That would be 35 million cbass having escaped harvest just since 2004. 
These many fish escaping harvest via management should offer an incredible increase in spawning capacity..
We have nicer fish--bigger fish, 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 with larger & larger size limits--are using natural biology to reduce the spawning stock size & 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.
In 2002 a creel limit was created -25 fish- we saw the stock blossom. We experienced cbass fishing as it must have been "in the old days."
From my Fish Report 11/7 (2003) Habitat Fidelity, : "If a subset of a coastal stock were targeted, though unintentional, with heavy pressure (in winter), then fishers on that stock in the other parts of the year would see greatly reduced landings."
Come February & March of 2004 trawlers were hailing trap fishers, conch fishers; anyone who had a sea bass permit to come get their overage, their bycatch: From directed effort & summer flounder bycatch, there were a lot of sea bass caught.
There are no live discards in deep-water trawl.
Using my For-Hire Vessel Trip Reports (VTR) the recreational sea bass catch along DelMarVa was halved in 2004 and has restabilized at a lower population since.
This event even shows up in the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey (MRFSS) and was also shown to me in personal communication as a spike in trawl effort in NMFS chart area 626 -- the region where many DelMarVa cbass overwinter.
Where mid-management often explains away spikes in recreational catch via reduced commercial pressure; Here they should have no trouble understanding how a convergence of winter trawl on one region's stock could leave inshore fishers with locally reduced opportunity come spring..  
Having already noted an increasing age at maturity in sea bass; In 2004 I believed it was absolute numbers of fish that dictated when sea bass would begin spawning--that crowding lowered the number of spawners. I believed the spike in directed winter trawl & summer flounder bycatch was certainly more than an inconvenience, but that we'd soon see an increase in spawning productivity and our regional stock would re-right itself.
Spawning size regression never occurred. Small fish remain predominantly absent the spawning population.
I now believe it is visual cues that drive spawning urge; That larger fish's 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 third of the stock engage in spawning.
I believe the size limit should be lowered by half inch increments until a strong uptick in spawning participation is seen -- probably at eleven inches. 
Because I have sometimes seen larger tagged fish not swim down when all other 'undersize' fish were, I thought --and still believe-- there is a correlation between length and barotrauma's effects, That very small sea bass make it back down with relative ease while larger fish have a longer float time.
In those rare weather windows of flat calm & very hot air temps we can experience a high discard mortality. This is corrected by fishing in < 90 feet of water or venting. My many experiments with deep drop release techniques have proven too slow for the pace of succesful partyboat fishing.
In most instances, even out to 155 feet of water, sea bass will reacclimate their air bladder and swim back down. It is hyper-thermia that kills; Belly-up to the sun without wave-wash to cool raises the fish's body temperature too high.  
I believe there should be separate regulations for the highly pressured "half-day" inshore reefs, the more distant "all-day" reefs, and, because barotrauma is seemingly irreversible at great depths; a simple but high creel limit, where every fish caught is kept by fishers in greater than 35 fathoms.
Regulate by hours in a trip? Big can of can't coming up.  
Habitat fidelity demands we find a way.
In 2003 I also thought, and wrote, that I believed we were at holding capacity, that we could not possibly have a larger sea bass population here -- That the habitat 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: 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. ( ) & ( 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. 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.
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 are tools which must be grasped for quota assignment & size limits that maximize spawning potential employed.
Sodium explodes if exposed to water, Chlorine a poisonous gas: Together sodium chloride become a beneficial mineral, table salt.
Having the Science and Statistical Committees dictate management measures without far more accurate catch data keeps the volatility of its components unmixed, explosive, poisonous to fishers..
Now Accountability Measures & Annual Catch Limits demand even finer measures, better catch estimates.
We were supposed to have the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey (MRFSS) replaced by 2009.
Hasn't happened. Below I have just a few recent samples of this Bad Science.
No one's even looking for truth that I'm aware of.
Where truth is the the foundation of science, MRFSS erodes fishers' faith in management with each wave.
The MRFSS data should be frozen in 5 to 7 year averages until it has been sieved & repaired. I was there in the bad-old-days; Fish will be fine.
It is absolutely true that using MRFSS catch-estimate data as a precise measure --especially from two-month wave data to decide seasonal adjustments in a third-tier fishery-- is unreasonable for regulation's purpose.
While I can not speak directly to estimates from outside my region, I recently had several Massachusetts for-hire fishers laugh out loud when I showed them the MA private boat estimates for wave 3, 2010 -- one of several wave spikes that have created the illusion of recent over fishing.
Just five data sets follow.
A very poor excuse for science.
Species: BLACK SEA BASS - Massachusetts - Wave 3 - May/June - Private Boat
2003 16,282 36.6
2004 17,177 46.7
2005 53,349 32.3
2007 28,281 85.3
2008 65,376 29.1
2009 26,827 38.9
2010 221,028 31.3
2011 70,305 31.6
Species: BLACK SEA BASS - Rhode Island - Wave 3 - May/June - Private Boat
2003 1,745 46.9
2004 5,686 29.4
2005 6,160 57.2
2006 1,975 70.4
2007 3,601 43
2008 0 0
2009 989 90.4
2010 36,182 50.7
2011 0 0
Species: BLACK SEA BASS - Massachusetts - Wave 4 - July/Aug - Private Boat
2003 39,289 36.7
2004 33,003 35.5
2005 43,478 42.6
2006 27,518 44.1
2007 13,062 71.3
2008 13,548 69.4
2009 164,483 25.6
2010 138,748 35.1
2011 31,565 29.3
Species: BLACK SEA BASS - New York - Wave 5 - Sept/Oct - Private Boat
2003 101,350 31.7
2004 29,863 49.2
2005 7,749 50.3
2006 58,398 32.7
2007 42,352 25.7
2008 54,352 34.7
2009 105,256 45.1
2010 325,074 24.4
Species: BLACK SEA BASS - New Jersey - Wave 5 - Sept/Oct - Private Boat  
2003 238,830 22.1
2004 350,981 28.3
2005 73,860 43.6
2006 97,767 44
2007 18,116 69.4
2008 160,799 35.8
2009 32,815 34.6
2010 234,150 44
Just these 5 data sets, wildly divergent from the mean & incredibly divergent from the historical trend of for-hire fishers catching more sea bass than the private boat fleet; These few sets alone account 812,000 fish above the mean, a substantial part of the modern recreational quota. Just this difference is more than twice as many sea bass as the entire Mid-Atlantic party/charter fleet is said to have caught in all of 2010.
Recently, Dr. Chris Moore, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, sent out a letter to recreational participants at a conference. He concluded by stating data sent in by For-Hire operators, Vessel Trip Report data--catch forms filled out every day ..that our fears are unfounded because VTRs are used to fact-check recreational catch estimates, at least for party/charter.
Um, well,
The Official Estimate for Maryland Party/Charter sea bass in May/June 2010 is Zero. I officially reported --and WOULD NOT have received fishing permits the following year had I not-- 2,026 cbass in just the first week of season. 
In 2011 I reported 848 cbass for the first 4 days I fished in May. The official MRFSS estimate for all Maryland party/charter sea bass for all of May/June is 713.
There are other boats sending this data in.
"Can't change it."  
"Not Our Fault."
"Just Following Orders."
This has to get fixed. Accountability should run both ways
The single most important aspect of VTR truthing --just a concept of mine-- is the ability to determine percentages or, via participant research, "mode-share" of catch based off VTR-verified data...
For instance, there's NO WAY Maryland private boats (here "private boat mode") EVER took more sea bass than MD partyboats -- EVER.
We could determine private boat effort accounts < 20% of MD sea bass catch and raise a red flag for closer scrutiny if that 20% is exceeded.
There's NO WAY that NJ's shore anglers caught ALL the mid-Atlantic's shore-based tog in March/April 2010 -- There's NO WAY those same NJ shore anglers caught 67,376 more tog that spring than ALL the party & charter boats in ALL the Mid-Atlantic.. In fact, the MRFSS estimate for those poor guys sitting on buckets at every Jersey jetty that spring --who typically have no noticeable catch then-- is higher than the whole year's for-hire tog/blackfish estimate for the whole coast.
That is exactly what the catch data claims.
I don't care who you are, that's dumb.
Managers, who mostly don't fish, shrug their shoulders, "Angler effort sure is hard to predict."
MRFSS is a cancer eating fisheries science from the inside.
Every state has different percentages -- Find out what they are and use the VTRs to calculate if MRFSS is even in the ballpark.
Finding the truth of catch is vital to righting our restoration strategies.
MRIP's recreational registration should be available soon. That will be an even greater tool in determining the truth of catch.  
Regulation based on data this loose creates a tremendous waste of economic potential. It scarcely does the fish any good either because alarms are ONLY raised when OVERFISHING has occurred: That's ALL management has been trained to care about.
In a better management system there would be many other considerations & attempts at truth: In a better management system the klaxon would have sounded when NJ's private boats caught 0 tautog in '07; Would have blared like an Air-Raid Horn when Maryland partyboats caught "zero" sea bass in early summer 2010.
Management needs to get real information about catch, Needs real information about habitat too; They need to look hard at physiology, age at maturity.
From a knowledge of habitat we could base a true picture of where our restoration lies based on present-day holding capacity. With knowledge of spawning-biology, philopatry (homing/natal fidelity) & engineered/protected habitat expansion we can take the Mid-Atlantic's reef fish populations higher than any historical number.
Able & Kaiser (1994) "..habitat degradation has as important an effect on fisheries as overfishing."
Bell 2005 "The basic steps needed to repair severely damaged fisheries are now well recognized; the quality and area of supporting habitats must be improved and fishing effort must be reduced."
Roberts 2007: "Disregarding the ecosystems in which target fish live is perhaps the most egregious failure of fisheries management."
Our ability to destroy habitat always precedes our learning how to restore it. Fishery "restoration" implies an understanding of what's been lost -- we're really nowhere near that level of competency; have yet to begin even the most basic habitat research.
With increases in habitat & management focused on maximizing spawning potential, many reef species can be made more prolific than ever.
I believe we are in marine fishery management's infancy, a time when fishery restoration was thought to simply be a matter of catch restriction. Regulation will always be central, but so too is learning how to make more fish..
It can begin now by lowering the size limit on sea bass a half inch; By recognizing that MRFSS is not science and should be frozen until repaired;  By recognizing management's need to discover Magnuson's Essential Fish Habitat provisions..
Management is squandering millions of dollars, perhaps tens of millions in its unexaminined zeal to prevent overfishing.
Its time now to strike a new course and reinvigorate the recreational reef fisheries. 
Capt. Monty Hawkins
Party Boat "Morning Star"
Ocean City, Maryland

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