Monday, March 31, 2014

Fish Report 3/31/14

Fish Report 3/31/14 
Reef Dinner, Mugs & Charts 
Make It Blue!
Is It Science? 

Greetings All, 
I've still only opened the first week of sea bass season. All back-to-back long trips, it'll be a marathon. Selling May 19th to May 25th.. 
Be opening the rest of May & June to reservations before too long. 
Will stick our nose out front for some spring tog fishing after we get our chores done. Have a Coast Guard Inspection scheduled too.. 
Hauled the boat thinking it would be out for a couple days. All I wanted to do was change zincs & cutlass bearings, then paint the bottom.. Too cold, too much snow, too much rain – no just right weather. We'll be out a few more days. Haven't even had weather to non-skid the deck.. 
Meanwhile, there's time to lobby for sensibility in fisheries restoration and express my sincerest thoughts on recreational catch estimates.. 

OCRF will soon have tickets ready for our first-ever OC Reef Foundation Dinner at the Ocean City Marlin Club. Save the date – Sunday, May 4th – 4:30 to 7:30 – Lots Of Silent, Chinese and Live Auction Items & A Great Dinner! 
Our long-time reef secretary, Marta, has left for real work. We're trying to pick up the pieces and she's helping. Check out for an email sign-up and lots of great pictures. Our donation button has been reworked so donations of any size can be made. Your car/truck would look good with an OCRF sticker, become a reef T-shirt sponsor - get a ceramic mug.. More Coral, More Fish!

Re-Reefing the Mid-Atlantic's many types of hardbottom really is hugely important to fisheries restoration. Recently I've heard great things about the Harris Creek oyster restoration project; even tales of oysters growing on bulkheads. Primarily because they'd run out of shell, (which never restored a single reef in over a century) the Oyster Partnership used barges of rock in Harris Creek. While I'd prefer boulder, success is what counts. 
The MD Artificial Reef Initiative (MARI) will soon be building "Industrial BioFilters" made of concrete pipe and siting them at several reefs in an effort to maximize water filtration & fish habitat over a given footprint. 
NOAA may not realize the Mid-Atlantic Ocean has turned green over the last 50 years, but fishers do. There's green water clear to the canyons now. Oyster restoration in industrial scale is needed turn it blue again. 
If Harris Creek really is working, we'll see blue nearshore ocean water again in our lifetimes. . . 

Oyster restoration progress aside, we're restoring marine reef fish with no knowledge of reef & basing regulation on our "Best Available Science." But measures of statistical probability as loose as MRIP's recreational catch estimates are not science. MRIP's offerings are more similar to a child's "Magic Eight Ball" fortune predictor than science: "The Magic Eight Ball Answers Questions About Romance, Friendships, School, Work, And More." 
Can It Tell Us About Fishing? 
When conjecture's probability of being correct falls more in favor of error, "science" leaves the room. Because MRIP's catch estimates are more likely to be wrong, they're not science. . . 

One day fishery management of reef-fish will be based on expected production of each region's reef habitat. Managers will force fish to spawn for best effect and ensure a growing abundance of habitat to enhance survival of that spawn. 
We will, one day, manage reef & reef fish with science – not regulation based on the vapid conjectures of recreational catch estimates.  

Although no more than germination of a seed, I think that management era has begun. NOAA, at the urging of Vince Guida from the Sandy Hook Lab, did briefly examine DelMarVa's nearshore hardbottom reefs in the summer of 2013. 
That's a long way from "Discover what habitat once existed & put it back" that I hold as a basic tenant of fishery restoration, but it's a start. Before we can know what habitat has been lost, we must first discover what inventory remains. 

My understanding of sea bass production leads me to believe the single most telling statistic for their restoration is this: There were more sea bass landed commercially in the 1950s than in all decades since combined. 
Stories of habitat loss are uniform up the coast. Men who fished in the age of fishing's industrial revolution had no concept they were trawling-away the soft coral sea-whip meadows that made fishery production possible; however, tales of diminished fishery production following habitat loss are consistent & made plain in hindsight. 

So too is the oyster's loss a factor. With such an incredible footprint of prime juvenile sea bass habitat lost in the well-documented destruction of Mid-Atlantic oyster reefs; it's plain that to restore fisheries we must repair both our marine & estuarine reefs. 

Reef habitat & managed sea bass production have never been on the agenda; Not on an ASMFC agenda, nor an MAFMC agenda. 
No government body has considered the following: Recreational Sea Bass Extraction Has Been Reduced By Over 80% Since 2003. Anticipated & Corresponding Increases In The Sea Bass Population Expected From Greater Regulation Have Failed To Materialize. Furthermore, Despite Adding Tens-of-Thousands Of Square-Miles Of New Rocky Habitat In Slightly Warmer New England Waters, The Combined Mid-Atlantic & Southern New England Sea Bass Population Is Substantially Lower Than Its 2003 Peak. 

We're removing between one-fifth & one-eighth the number of sea bass we did just a decade ago – yet the sea bass population shrinks. 
When we were catching more, the population grew. Now we catch far fewer & the population is in decline. 

That's never been discussed. 
What has been on their agenda, & forced there by MuRFSS/MRIP's fantastic assertions of catch that could never have occurred: Recreational Private Boats Have Been Taking Far More Than Their Allotted Quota. How Much More Regulation Must We Apply? 
That's what ALWAYS on the agenda. 

Management does not see a reduction in recreational sea bass landings. They do not see recreational effort coming in far below quota – They see 18 to 25 foot boats blasting through every regulation to continually set new record-high catches. They see Private Boats, plain as day, from one state or another, in one month or another, taking far more than their share.. Private Boat increases popping up anywhere ..while For-Hire skippers watch idly, always catching fewer & fewer sea bass as increased regulation would predict. 

It's not true. Private Boats do not catch what MRIP asserts. 
The For-Hire catch estimates offer a better, more realistic picture. Not yet perfect; we did lobby for repair of Party/Charter For-Hire estimates. That repair occurred in 2004. It's plain to see a reduction in catch at every regulatory tightening in the For-Hire estimates. From For-Hire estimates we ought to be able to create a testable measure of recreational catch using "percentage of the fishery" theory.  

My point with all this work on recreational estimates over the years is to show how the illusion of enormous catches by Private Boat is so distracting that management has no grasp of their true task in sea bass restoration. Their focus is so tight on MRIP recreational catch estimates that real scientific truth can't get a word in edgewise.. 

I'm certain there's been no repair to our recreational catch estimates, especially not in the Private Boat mode. I find assertions of catch everywhere in MRIP that are worse, not better, than in the old MuRFSS catch estimating system. 

Catch estimates have driven recreational sea bass regulation with no other consideration. 
In my 3/16/14 Fish Report I detail year-by-year how a tiny fraction of estimates have created all regulatory tightening. 
In this essay I want to give readers a feel of just how far wrong some estimates are, and how we might ascertain the breadth of those errors.. 

MRIP's estimate troubles are not just in sea bass. I have it on very good authority that Massachusetts's For-Hire boats catch over 90% of that state's recreationally caught cod during the March/April period. This huge percentage diminishes as water & air temperatures increase; perhaps even becomes weighted toward Private Boats in high-summer, but in March/April the For-Hire skippers reign.   
When we consult the estimates for March/April we see Massachusetts For-Hire as having generally landed 100 to 300 thousand pounds of cod in the period over the last 15 years or so. 
In 2008 those late-winter/early-spring For-Hire estimates taper below 100 thousand pounds and only reach 120 thousand once more in 2011. 

Knowing the For-Hire fleet has to surrender a Vessel Trip Report (VTR) for each trip they fish, one would hope MRIP is portraying an accurate picture of the Massachusetts For-Hire catch. Surely Massachusetts, birthplace of US Fisheries Science, has their arms around For-Hire cod landings and would argue bitterly any discrepancy in the estimates. 

Even along Maryland's more-southern coast, in March/April few Private Boats are ready to fish in the ocean, nor is the weather fit for them to fish. It must be that Private Boats are even less-ready to our north.  

We know from men with a lifetime of fishing experience that Party/Charter is doing most of the cod catching--about 90 to 95% in March/April. It's generous to give Massachusetts Private Boats 10% of For-Hire landings in that late-winter period. Ten-percent of Massachusetts Party/Charter catch-estimates should create a remarkably firm "Private Boat Estimate" - an overestimate really. Owing to daily catch paperwork surrendered by For-Hire skippers, and from their knowledge of the two user-group's landings, we can see a somewhat clear measure of Private Boat catch. 
From MRIP's For-Hire estimates then we would anticipate seeing Massachusetts Private Boat landings of 10 to 30 thousand pounds of cod each March/April followed by a suddenly diminishing trend in 2008. 

But of course not! 
In 2003 Massachusetts For-Hire landed 247,000 pounds of cod. Ten percent would be about 25-thousand pounds. Instead, MRIP credits Private Boats with landing 1.5 million pounds – or 60X their anticipated "percentage of the fishery."  In 2004, just one year later, that same fleet of Private Boats is credited with just one-thousand pounds, or less than 1% of the For-Hire estimate. 

Think about that. In 2003 the Private Boat estimate, a "scientific" number, our "Best Scientific Information Available," is 1.5 million pounds. In 2004 it's 0.001 million..  

In 2010 when For-Hire landed just Fifty-Two Thousand pounds, MRIP has Massachusetts Private Boats landing Seven-Hundred Seventy-Eight Thousand pounds. That's 150X higher than a "percentage of the fishery" calculation would indicate..  

Readers might also consider an example of an MRIP underestimate. Maryland benefitted from such an estimate not long ago when Private Boats, who factually catch more summer flounder than the For-Hire fleet in May/June, were estimated as catching zero flounder in 2012. 
Season was open. Size limit wasn't ridiculous. For-Hire skippers landed about 1,200. Private Boat anglers were allowed 3 apiece. The weather was often fine & anglers were taking fish home to fry. 
Estimate said zero flounder were caught and so we came in far under quota. 

The precise opposite happened when we suffered an Emergency Flounder Closure in 2008. 

If management has any enhanced sense of what's real from our "New & Improved" MRIP catch estimates, its not to be found in the estimates themselves. 

To illustrate our plight with sea bass consider this: In 1986 New Jersey's party/charter boats are estimated to have caught a high of 8 million sea bass. Sure, we should label that estimate a spike. But, give or take a few million, its safe to think New Jersey's For-Hire fleet caught a lot of cbass. Over the years, up until 2003 at least, that state's For-Hire fleet would average roughly 1.5 million sea bass annually. 
It's crucial that readers comprehend those New Jersey sea bass were then combined with other states catches to create landings in the millions; Millions of sea bass landed between Cape Hatteras & Cape Cod, Millions of sea bass caught & kept at the bitter end of an era with no regulation whatever. 
At the bottom of over-harvest, in fishing history's darkest hour, we were still catching millions of sea bass. 
That's because sea bass were all spawning by age one, sometimes even in the first 7 or 8 months of life. Sea Bass were instinctually switched into high-gear because their population was stressed. 

It's important that readers get a feel of the weight, the numbers of fish that were not only being extracted, but produced during early management. 
The period of early sea bass management offered far better fishing than we had at the end of unregulated fishing. Despite high recreational & commercial removals, the sea bass population grew amazingly. 
No one can catch fish that haven't been spawned. Spawning production is the most central aspect of fishing success ..acorns before oaks. 
Sea bass were spawning to replenish their number even in fishing's darkest hour. More & more cbass spawned in that same "stressed population" response as management began. 
From 1997 to 2001 we had no bag limit & no closed season; only a very small size limit of 9 to 11 inches. We were landing even more fish than in pre-management because there were more sea bass than we'd ever seen.
The sea bass population grew from 14 million pounds to 38 million pounds while we were taking millions annually. 
There was a lot of spawning going on. 
To illustrate, here's an email I sent in 2003: 

Subject: Just for kicks...
Date: Wed, 28 May 2003 17:18:18 -0400

Hi All,
Fishing for sea bass is as good as I've ever seen.
As an indicator, today (5/28/03) at my first stop I did not allow any bait for the first few drops. We caught lots of doubles some of which were darn fine fish. That's right, fish were biting bare hooks. After we passed bait around some folks were getting such a kick out of it that they still didn't bait up! Well, it was just for kicks. But it worked.
Thought you might find that interesting,

Capt. Monty Hawkins
Party Boat "Morning Star"
410 520 2076 Advance Ticket and Info line

Wasn't long after the beginning of regulation that I thought sea bass fishing was the best I'd ever seen. The recreational fleet was catching 3 to 4 million sea bass annually, most of which were thought to be from the For-Hire fleet. I honestly thought sea bass in our region were at habitat capacity.  

In 2013 we are estimated to have caught just 1,220,000 sea bass across the entire management area. Of those sea bass in 2013's estimate, only 246,000 are estimated from the entire For-Hire fleet. The new MRIP recreational catch estimating system has Private Boats catching 4X that number. It's far more likely that, at best, Private Boats caught equal-to or slightly fewer sea bass than the For-Hire boats. 
Therefore, recreational fishers actually caught approximately half-a-million sea bass total.  

Management is aware the sea bass population began a steady decline in 2003. Recreational catch estimates point directly at small Private Boats as unregulatable, as solely responsible for overfishing the sea bass population – The Estimates Show Grady Whites & Boston Whalers As A Greater Force Than For-Hire & Commercial Effort Combined. That's why management believes sea bass are in decline.

What a bunch of horse feathers. 
True Statement: My Clients Landed Fewer Sea Bass In Five Summer/Fall Months Of 2013 Than They Often Landed PER-DAY In Pre & Early Regulation. 
To be fair, a lot of that is because we're targeting summer flounder on the very same reefs & wrecks that once held such fantastic numbers of sea bass. Flounder fishing is good. 
Sea bass fishing, however, except in the estimates, isn't anywhere near what it might be.  
Along Maryland's coast it is very likely that my party boat alone, and with my lowest sea bass landings ever, still exceeded Maryland's Private Boat landings. 

I surely hope there are trawlers working offshore in winter that caught more sea bass In One Tow than my boat and all MD Private Boats combined caught all year.. 

It's never been on the agenda, a Council/Commision agenda; not last year or any year before.. Recreational Sea Bass Extraction Has Been Reduced By Over 80% Since 2003 – Anticipated & Corresponding Increases In The Sea Bass Population Owing To Greater Regulation/Effort Reduction Have Failed To Materialize. Despite Adding Tens-of-Thousands Of Square Miles Of New Rocky Habitat In Slightly Warmer New England Waters, The Sea Bass Population Is Substantially Lower Than Its 2003 Peak. 
That's never been discussed. 
Management can't possibly discuss a decline in spawning production because their "Best Scientific Information Available" has them hunting evil-overfishers in small plastic boats.
They're not looking for what's real. They are, by law, focused on MRIP's illusion of 'Best Scientific Information Available." 

Science.. There's been an astounding amount of thought given to what constitutes "science." 
When you send a text it's not because early developers of radio used estimates with 100% margin of error. 
If you mix two bottles of bleach there's no possibility one of them is really ammonia. 
When you flip a switch in your house you're not going to get 760 Kilo-Volts.. 
Testable, Repeatable, Verifiable & Falsifiable – That's Science. 

If our understanding of sun/moon/earth gravitational coupling were suddenly undone; if the tide charts were trending away, even by a tiny bit, from perfect accuracy – Science Would Demand Answers That Were Again Testable & Repeatable.. 
When a catch estimate comes through that couldn't possibly be true, however, no test is given nor is any consideration of its veracity made. 

If a planet were predicted to be in a certain location and was not, astronomers would instantly want to know why. 
If a pair of molecules were predicted to bond & did not, chemists would instantly begin to find out why. 
That's What Science Looks Like. 
If fishery managers see a recreational sea bass estimate that looks strangely out of the ordinary, they want to know when discussion of the scallop fishery begins. 
They have no tools to argue the estimates and, regardless, are quite accustomed to increased catch restriction offering an almost instant uplifting of a targeted fishery's population. 

Now years & years of bad estimates have accumulated. Soon we'll need to know, "How Can Managers Make Good Decisions With Bad Estimates?" 

Bacon held "Truth is the daughter of time." 
Fishery restoration is a young science. So young it hasn't learned to recognize the difference between conjecture & fact, between distant probability & certainty; so young that it embraces any information as its best available scientific information; so young that recreational estimates are used 'as is' even when universally held to be untrue. 

Anything can be assigned a statistical likelihood, even Maryland's Private Boat flounder fishers catching zero flounder in May/June can be expressed in a probability. That MRIP offers managers a zero-catch no one could possibly believe reveals science's absence; there is no "Certainty Gained By Testing & Verification" in MRIP's estimates: Science Cannot Exist Where No Test Of Veracity Is Made.  

Truthfully, we ought nevermind outlandish thoughts of MRIP's catch estimates being "science." Even in its proper role as a measure of probability, MRIP fails. 

I hold that recreational regulation (always shoved higher by catch estimate claims of being over-quota) has pushed sea bass's age at maturity out by two years, sometimes three. 
I was recently shown a work out of Dr. Olaf Jensen's lab at Rutgers where Masters candidate, Mikaela Provost, describes sea bass as having '..changed sex between 11.4 and 14.6 inches..' (conversion from metric MH) 
This is absolutely the most recent work I've heard of. Compare her recent measurements to earlier works.. 
Here from May 1977 - Art Kendall - Centropristis striate - Sandy Hook Technical Series #7.. Kendall's claim that nearly all sea bass over 10 inches are male and therefore "catches of large fish will be all males" is preposterous today, but I'm certain it was true when he did his research. 
Today a catch of 10 inch, even 11.5 inch sea bass would almost positively be all female. They'd be called "shorts" and thrown back. 
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).

Because earlier studies had yet to work the kinks out of aging sea bass, it sometimes seems confusing. Those early works did not suffer lack of measurement though. Where a 7.5 inch sea bass is asserted to be "2 to 3 years of age" - that's a result of bad aging. 7 to 9 inch sea bass are solidly age one. 
Mikaela's measurements of transitioning from female to male, however, are from sea bass age two to age four, maybe even age five. 

Where early in management every sea bass that had left an estuary was an ocean spawner; when "Every Nine-Inch Sea Bass Has Spawned Once, Some Twice," when production was heightened in the bottom of fishing's history; Now our size limit tricks them into spawning years later. 
'Slow Down On The Spawning Already! We're Surrounded By Big Fish And Will Starve!' By whatever mechanism, sea bass have delayed their maturity as though a species at habitat capacity. 

Recreational anglers are accused of overfishing. Not the guys who go everyday for a living, not the skippers who've spent a lifetime throwing anchors in exactly the right spot. No, the recreational fishers accused of driving our combined landings beyond quota get to practice anchoring a couple times a year, they catch some sea bass while fluking or scup fishing.. They may run offshore & stop on the way in for a sea bass dinner. A few Private Boaters truly are skilled in reef fishing, but even they'd admit they're in the minority. 
The increase in Private Boat landings that corresponds so neatly with the 2004 diminishment of For-Hire estimates is fake. It's an illusion of probability leaving real-science in such dim light that few can see any path forward save further catch restriction. 
The sea bass population grows smaller as recreational landings diminish to new lows because fewer & fewer sea bass are entering the spawning population. 

Today management must grapple the fact THEY are at fault. In their zeal to pursue policies of catch restriction based on fantastically unlikely statistical assertions of recreational catch, they've prevented discovery of what the sciences of population biology & habitat ecology would predict as highly probable outcomes.. 

I Am Positive Sea Bass In The Early Period Were All Spawning By Age One. The Stock Flourished. That's The Reason We Self-Regulated Prior To Any Management – To LET THEM SPAWN.
Now Most Sea Bass Spawn By Age Three, Some Later Still. The Stock Is Not Flourishing. Size Limit Regulation Has Undone The Early Spawning Instinct. Size Limit Regulation Is Destroying Industry While Driving The Sea Bass Population Lower & Lower.. 

That's What Needs To Get On The Agenda. 
It's easily fixed. 
But not if management remains joined at the hip with MRIP. 

My Regards,

Capt. Monty Hawkins 
Partyboat Morning Star
Ocean City, MD

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