Saturday, January 25, 2014

Fish Report 1/25/14

Fish Report 1/25/14 
Went & Ain't Going Again Too Soon  
Test-Tube Protected Areas

Because I don't care for making-ice on deck while underway, nor winter-winds in excess of 20 knots, I have no trips to offer this week until Friday. 
We are breaking ice in the marina regularly so that we can get out when this weather pattern changes. The bay going toward the inlet is also frozen – That I cannot fix. 
But warmer winds can.  
Please know that what the fishing was like before this cold snap will not be what the fishing is like after. . . 

If we can get through the ice:
Tog Trip - Friday, January 31st – 6AM to 5PM - $150.00 - 16 Anglers Sells Out – Expect A Very Long Run.. 
I have a previous commitment Saturday, Feb 1st. 
Sunday I understand there's a football game on..  

Reservations For Tautog Trips at 410 - 520 - 2076 — They Answer 24/7. 
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.. 

We provide green crabs. You're welcome to bring any kind of crab you like – even lobster, even plastic. 


No Live Fish Leave The Boat - Dead & Bled - Period. (I Believe The Live-Fish Black Market Has Hurt The Tog Fishery, But Not As Much As Bad Sea Bass Regulations)
Agreed With Or Not, All Regulations Observed – Maryland: 4 Fish @ 16 Inches. 

Bring A (not terribly big) Fish Cooler With ICE (or fresh snow) For Your Party.. A 48 QT Cooler Is Good For 2 Guys. Even Now You Should ICE Fresh Fish.. 
Be A Half Hour Early - We Like To Leave Early.
Clients Arriving Late Will See The West End Of An East Bound Boat.. 

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!

8,316 "Oyster Castle" reef blocks by the rail – 2,438 at Jimmy's Reef – 1,588 at Ake's – 288 at Lindsey Power's Isle of Wight Reef.. 

See the Reef Foundation's Website  if you'd care to help fund our reef building. Or snailmail a check – any check!

Ocean City Reef Foundation
P.O. Box 1072
Ocean City, MD 21843 

My @mediacombb email address is a memory. Please use for correspondence. Yes, its a very old address and fills w/spam occasionally.. 

Greetings All, 
Got out two of three previously posted trips. On our "backyard" trip we were keeper skunked – tagged maybe 15 shorts. Too windy anyway, couldn't hardly access the backyard. When the bite slowed to a stop mid-day I threw in the towel and came home – gave clients a fat discount on their next trip. 
We came home early MLK Day too, but for exactly the opposite reason. 
Tautog fishing post "Arctic Vortex" is anyone's guess. I'm thinking a much tougher bite 
..if we can get out at all for ice.  


Writing this as easy as I'm able and illustrated via classroom experiment; Here's why our fishery managers really need to pay attention to what age sea bass begin spawning how much reef they have to spawn on.. 


I was listening to several lectures by Dr. Stephen Nowicki of Duke University on the structure of populations & population growth when I believe he highlighted a means of demonstrating my thinking on sea bass restoration via maximized production & habitat creation/restoration. 
My knowledge of population biology is paltry—my thinking forged more by observation than from study. However, time & again the Professor's lectures fit precisely the model of sea bass I've been trying to get managers to employ for years. 
There are many models of population growth. Population ecology/biology is an incredibly complex science. This is a simple attempt at illustrating enough science to bring general understanding of a real problem, a huge problem in sea bass restoration & perhaps illustrates a strategy useful in many fisheries. 

Some Quick Basics: 
First, population growth is always constrained at some point by availability one resource or another. The professor illustrated the rule with a bacterium able to reproduce so swiftly that it might fill a good part of our solar system in a week's time if not checked by resource restriction. "Exponential population growth" means a population doubles & doubles & doubles. That a bacterium, anything alive, can reproduce swiftly but is only able to achieve exponential growth for a short while is because of resource constraints which we might come to think of as 'habitat.' In his example rapidly multiplying bacteria run out of nutrients (or planet?) and cannot sustain continued doubling — The death rate overtakes the birth rate & its population declines.. 

In effort to illustrate how powerful 'doubling' is, Dr. Nowicki describes how, no matter how counter-intuitive, simply doubling the width of a piece of paper 50 times would result in 44 million miles of paper.. 
Doesn't work for me. I can't imagine it. I tried 1x2, x2, x2 .. When I hit the "=" key on my calculator for the 24th time.. Error. 
OK, doubling a fish population with a single spawn would be a big deal – not likely to happen many times in a row, if at all. 
But fish are prolific spawners and a population certainly need not double in order to increase.  
Yet I have seen our sea bass double amidst steady annual increases. 
Made for some good fishing.  
Our friends at NMFS saw it too but chalked it up, I suppose, to good luck – an accident. 
No accident: That cbass population increase was fishery management working.  

The professor's lectures described class room experiments on "Habitat Holding Capacity" with daphnia (water fleas) who's populations rise very swiftly in test tubes. 
A classroom Population Growth Experiment might be: Add daphnia to a test tube with nutrients and monitor the population. Create & note population estimates on a graph. 
The pattern usually seen in these class-room experiments is a gentle rise followed by exponential growth – where the population is doubling rapidly – then a sharp population decline occurs as holding capacity is exceeded followed by stabilization as it remains within the constraint of available resources. 
Dr. Nowicki lectures that 'exponential growth occurs in nature in newly colonized areas of habitat or after catastrophic population declines. Exponential growth is seen plotted on a graph as a large capitol J.' (On a graph the beginning population is represented by the lower left of the J hook followed by a nearly vertical rise forming the stem of the J as the population begins doubling..) 

This description of a J pattern resembles -precisely- Dr. Gary Shepherd's sea bass biomass chart from 1996 to early 2004. 
(included immediately below) (I theorize the left-side J from the mid 1970s is a result of LORAN-C electronic navigation becoming less expensive. With accuracy almost as good as GPS, it allowed the discovery and exploitation of micro-habitats such as shipwrecks in a time when large areas of natural live bottom were being lost to stern–towed gear damage. My personal history/experience with sea bass begins in 1980 – I remember what overfished wrecks/reefs looked like..) 

(Release ratios hovered between 20 & 50% during the period of rapid population growth. As the population decline began in 2004 release ratios ran to 70% - then 80% - then 83% & 85% in 2012/2013.)

We know exponential population growth occurs in nature; that many or all animals must be able to 'shift into high gear' to capitalize on newly available habitat or recapture habitat lost after a sharp population decline. We also know populations decline sharply if they outpace available resources; that no population can be held above "Habitat Holding Capacity." Instinctual reproductive acceleration/deceleration is often seen in higher order animals as their habitat varies. Happens in songbirds, deer 

I wonder. 
What if a school offered a prize to the student who could raise the most daphnia. Add daphnia to a test tube with nutrients and monitor the population. Create & note population estimates on a graph. . . 
(this is NOT from Dr. Nowicki's lecture..) 
One student keeps taking daphnia out while putting nutrients into his test-tube. Over-harvested & Over-nutrified, his water becomes an anoxic dead zone. With no life present he comes in last. 

Another chains herself to the test tube rack declaring a Test Tube Protected Area and threatens to sue anyone who might dare touch her experiment. Unfortunately, her daphnia were counted while in the 'crash' segment of their population cycle and she placed second to last.   

Several other students band together and vow to prevent more Test Tube Protected Areas, (at least within 3 miles of school where they like to experiment) and also demand more accurate daphnia estimates. Too busy with legislation & meeting w/school administration to actually consider methods of increasing test-tube populations; these students do poorly as productionists also. 
Others fare better. One guy who already has an agri-business degree is trying to time removal of his daphnia when they're in their exponential growth phase so rapid population growth may continue. His test tube population is not outpacing resources because daphnia are being extracted & counted before they've exceeded habitat capacity. Population not crashing, his totals are much, much higher than unmanaged test tube 'habitats.' 

He's beaten by a gal though who uses the same approach of extracting animals while they're at their fastest population growth. However, she added "habitat" in the form of more test tubes while using surplus production from previous populations to seed these new 'habitats.' By managing new populations in new habitats for exponential growth, her daphnia total breaks all previous records. 


Today's guiding managerial philosophy: "BOFFF & MPAs Will Save The Day." BOFFF = Big Old Fecund Female Fish (lots of eggs) & MPA = Marine Protected Area (where a fish species is fully protected.) 

Back At Sea: Because sea bass have demonstrated habitat fidelity in the real world (they return to the same reef after a short winter migration) and because reef habitat offers 'clumped' populations—not fish spread equally throughout our waters; A reef might easily be seen as one of these test tube populations—isolated by habitat rather than glass. 

Amidst many supporters of BOFFF & MPAs in management; I instead believe increasing sea bass populations requires a smaller inshore size limit & steady, heavy fishing pressure. 
It's not a popular idea. 
It's the exact opposite of BOFF/MPA thinking. 
But I see truth of it everywhere in science. 

Unlike tautog, whose reef population holding capacity is absolutely tied to food produced at a reef; tied to prey growing on-site such as mussels, crab & lobster; Sea bass instead often feed high above a reef on whatever plankton drift by. Big–eyed krill form a large part of our region's cbass diet. (think of small shrimp – maybe 15 on your thumbnail) Our sea bass also consume a lot of jellies —yes, jellyfish— little ones. 
Sea bass will switch behaviors from hovering far above a reef and feeding on plankton to holding tightly to a reef so as to ambush schools of sand eel, butterfish & squid when they are available. 
My Point: A reef's holding capacity of sea bass is much higher than the sum of food available directly from reef production. 

Because a sea bass spawning off Massachusetts this year is no more likely to spawn the following year off Maryland than a cbass living off Cape Canaveral, Florida will spawn the following year off Tampa; managers looking at too large a geographic area miss regulatory-caused responses seen in smaller, habitat-isolated, spawning populations. 

Management of sea bass should only be regional, by habitat-isolated spawning populations. 

Our current situation with sea bass stems from a twist unforeseen by anyone. As illustrated in Dr. Shepherd's graph, we had a low-left population bottom in the early/mid 1990s at the close of unregulated fisheries. Although locally we'd already had a significant population increase owing to self management, it is not apparent in this coast-wide graph. When federal regulation began, however, the J curve swiftly turned up. Our sea bass population doubled several times while every fish was in the spawning population. 
The J seen on the right side of Dr. Shepherd's graph is the exact same J-shape common to exponential growth charts. 
No closed season, no bag limit; For most of the accelerated population growth period the size limit was below 11 inches. 
I believe it was when we advanced the size limit to 12, then 12.5 inches that production slowed.. 
Early in management sea bass population growth was not slowed at all by catches much higher than today's. Early population growth was exponential while we were catching the heck out of sea bass: Spawning production was accelerated by extraction. 

I'll explain..

Where in early management scientists held "All sea bass have spawned by 9 inches, some twice" most sea bass along DelMarVa have spawned by 12.5 or 13 inches.. 
Where during early management's formative period scientists wrongly believed spawning sea bass of 7.5 inches were "two to three years old" fishery scientists use ages from early literature while ignoring the lengths associated with those ages. 
The science of aging fish has advanced. We know for certain that 7/8/9 inch sea bass are solidly age one today. 
Scientist's ability to measure fish, however, is unchanged. Reported lengths at maturity from early works should be used today – not age at maturity: Choosing to quote age from earlier literature is a convenience to suit today's observation - scientific method is abandoned. 

In early/pre management scientists held that every 9 inch sea bass had spawned once, some twice. Because sea bass change sex from female to male, and because it is very simple to spot a male 'blue head' or 'knot head' - it was plainly evident in the early years that we were releasing hundreds & hundreds, even a thousand, 9 inch & under male sea bass daily — DAILY. 
Those blue-headed one year olds were plainly lit-up in spawning color. 
There were many more females of similar size.. 

In all of 2013 my crew & I saw three (3) under 9 inch male sea bass. 
Blue headed males today are all over 12 inches – many over 12.5 — Age 3. 
12.5 inches makes them legal.. 

Would regulating a fish so that they spawn later - and just as they become legal - make a population decline? 
Looks like it to me. 

Here from Art Kendall's May 1977 Sandy Hook Lab "Technical Series #7" work..
While much of this work remains accurate, its claim that "nearly all sea bass over 10 inches are male and therefore catches of large fish will be all males" is absolutely preposterous today 
..but I'm certain it was true when he did his research. 
Today a catch of 10 inch, even 11 inch, sea bass would almost positively be ALL female. They'd be called "shorts" and thrown back. 
I've scrutinized pre-management science extensively. It should SCREAM at management for examination of my thesis that we have shifted age at maturity from 7-8 months to 3 years. 

My assertion that recreational size limit regulation has forced "age at maturity" (when fish begin spawning) up in sea bass by at least two years is strongly supported in the scientific literature. (if using lengths) 
My assertion that we experienced exponential population growth early in management and now have a population behaving as though they have exceeded holding capacity is strongly supported by data other than recreational catch estimate. (and even somewhat by that muck)
Dr. Nowicki's explanation that exponential population growth occurs after collapse (e.g. real over-fishing of yesteryear) and also in newly colonized habitat is well-evidenced in sea bass data of the last 20 years. 
Southern New England (SNE) waters have warmed so much that Mercer's 1977 observation, 'the sea bass fishery tapered sharply at Montauk' is now obsolete. SNE waters have warmed to suit sea bass spawning just fine: Exponential Population Growth Has Occurred In This Newly Colonized Habitat ..just like when we build new artificial reef, except there's far more rocky habitat in SNE than we could ever afford to bring in by barge. 
The real twist in sea bass management is that the commonly held theory of species self-regulating population owing to a sense of "being too crowded" is not true of sea bass: In sea bass reproductive slowing is not a result of Population Density. Rather, it is simply the size of fish around them that prevent young fish from spawning — a couple 3 & 4 year old sea bass on a reef will keep all 1 & 2 year olds 'out of production.' 

Where in early management we forced our region's sea bass to spawn early in life; now size-limit regulation tricks them into a delayed maturity: "Don't spawn yet, the habitat's full." 

Years ago I thought population density was pushing back age at maturity in sea bass too. Having limited-out clients more often than not in 2003; During February/March 2004 there was an incredible bycatch event where offshore trawlers targeting fluke were calling anyone who had a permit to come get sea bass — on VHF radio in the clear, unscrambled: Please Come Get These Fish. 
Trap boats, conch boats; they came. But there weren't enough. Cbass were shoveled overboard I'm told, sometime in large numbers. 

That spring, May 2004, my clients' catch was very nearly halved. 
The bycatch event was a big deal. 
I thought then, as most still do, that with population density so suddenly reduced more small sea bass would swiftly transition to male and bolster spawning production as they had done just a few years previously. 
As of 2013's spawning season that still hasn't happened. 

It remains that there are no age one or two sea bass spawning. 
Sea bass spawning behavior is not keyed to population density — at all. 
It's the size of surrounding fish that triggers maturity. 

Unrestrained by any closed season at all, or any recreational bag limit at all; with only a 9 to 11 inch size limit for regulation, our sea bass population climbed straight up. 
Now we're looking at 6 months of closed season and another drop in the bag limit Our sea bass population remains steady, but far below where we once had it. 


Managing fish for Optimum Yield is called for in the Magnuson Stevens Act, the same law cited when fisheries are restricted or closed.    

Fishing pressure must again be increased on our most inshore reefs. We must lower the size limit - somehow – for anglers targeting inshore reefs. I think an 11 inch size limit (vs 12.5 inches today) should reinvigorate younger year class spawning behavior. 

If managers would simply allow half day boats below mid-Jersey to have a lower creel & bag limit of, say, 5 or 10 fish at 11 inches, they'll see smaller & smaller males transitioned from female & returning to the spawning stock in a few weeks or months at nearshore reefs those boats target.  
For-hire boats fishing longer trips on more distant reefs should be left to a longer size limit with a larger bag limit, say 20 fish @ 12 inches. 
Trick the inshore fish into spawning young – we'll let the offshore fish grow older. 
Although fishery participants easily grasp the relevant extractive pressures of different for-hire sectors; the management community is under a catch estimate-induced impression that private/rental boat fishing pressure is wildly out of control. 

Catch Estimates. What baloney. 

When fishing pressure and success rates were high on nearshore and well-known reefs, all cbass at those locations were spawning. At more distant reefs, even among resident fish at canyon's edge, relaxed fishing pressure allowed those fish to  grow into old-age. 
The exact opposite of MPA theory.  
Coming from the severest levels of unregulated overfishing before management began, there were incredibly many more jumbo sea bass sourced from 9 inch size limit protection – Fish of 3 pounds weren't even noteworthy in the early 2000s, they had to be 4 pounds or better for fish-pool consideration. 

Its absolutely vital management understands their task in sea bass restoration. Soon recreational catch estimates will have so disrupted the for-hire fisheries that no one will remember early management. Generational shift will set the bar lower; "good fishing" will be a handful of keepers. This lower sea bass population, including new regions of reef as waters warm to our north, will satisfy computer programs that "restoration" has been achieved. 
No further management action will occur once a stable population of fish with a complacent population of anglers exists. 

What a pleasure it was to see management working so wonderfully a decade and more ago, to have clients catching limits of sea bass where just three decades before good catches were infrequent. 
What an economic disaster it is today owing to ill-considered regulation crafted from the centerpoints of estimates no one believes.

If fishery management were working perfectly; If a population of reef-fish were as numerous as possible—a population at habitat capacity with only excess production extracted: The only way to improve such a reef-fishery's yield would be to increase habitat and manage that habitat's production equally well. 

I think management needs to take a hard look at the sciences of population & habitat ecology; needs to do it soon. 
Perhaps even invite Dr. Nowicki to lecture. 
This moment is slipping away. 

I hope management will seek true methods of habitat restoration & stock enhancement. 

My Regards,

Capt. Monty Hawkins 
Partyboat Morning Star
Ocean City, MD  

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