Friday, July 04, 2014

Fish Report 7/4/14

Fish Report 7/4/14 
Summer Catching - But Not Flounder, Not Yet 
Eagle Scout Reef  
Regulatory Lag 
An East Coast (not West Coast) Baurotrauma Event 

Taking Reservations for July & August "Whatever's Biting On The Reef Trips" - Think Sea Bass & Flounder! (Flounder Soon?) 

Sailing Daily For Sea Bass. Saturday's 6:00 to 3:30 - $125.00 – Otherwise 7 to 3 at $110.00..
Reservations Required at 410 520 2076 - 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..  
Be a half hour early! We always leave early! 
..except when someone shows up right on time. 
Clients arriving late will see the west end of an east bound boat. 

Dramamine Is Cheap Insurance! Crystalized Ginger Works Great Too. It's Simple To Prevent Motion Sickness, Difficult To Cure.  If You Suffer Mal-de-Mer In A Car You Should Experiment On Shorter Half-Day Trips First! 

Bring A Cooler With Ice For Your Fish – A 48 Quart Cooler Is Fine For A Few People. 

9,758 "Oyster Castle" reef blocks by the rail – 2,692 at Jimmy's Reef – 2,010 at Ake's – 480 at Lindsey Power's – 524 at Patrick's Eagle Scout Reef - & 946 at Saint Ann's. 

We'll soon need another truckload of Oyster Castles.. 
Donate - Please Sponsor Reef Building At – Thank You! 

Greetings All, 
Lessons of Freedom in David McCullough's "1776" come to mind this 4th of July. The tale of Fort Ticonderoga's cannons coming to Boston and how they forced the British to evacuate is especially fascinating. That the actions of individual men decide a nation's fate is plain to see. 

Hurricane Arthur rolling up the coast. Modern forecasting allows all who will heed sound advice to seek safe harbor. 
The report at Frying Pan Shoal, NC, was very nearly 100 mile-per-hour just before dark on the 3rd. We'll not know the wind speed at the weather buoy just offshore of Fenwick Shoal because it hasn't worked in nearly a year. 

Hurricane soon past, readers will want to know there's been a pretty good summer-bite of sea bass. I don't anticipate Arthur will change that. Still seeing an occasional limit. It is unusual beyond belief to have better cbass fishing from late June into early July than in mid/late May. 
Contrary to trendy fisheries theory, I think cold-water along the bottom from ice melt is a greater factor than warmer surface waters. I think there was a cold-water 'block' this spring..
I do expect to see some cod, and we are. 
I do not expect to see red snapper, and we are not. 
I would, however, anticipate seeing more nearshore pelagics, the spadefish, barracuda, jacks & triggers in warmer surface waters. 
We are not. More on that below.  
Warming's generally anticipated effect, that it's just "warmer," fails to recognize the Labrador Current's cold water delivery system to the lower Mid-Atlantic. 

I'm sending folks home with dinner. Every once in a while we'll get a few of today's limits. Even had "One Stop Shopping" a couple days back. That's when we hit one spot, then go home. Very good fishing.. 
Flounder are just bycatch for now. Not many on our reefs – Not Yet. 
Soon I think. 

Took Eagle Scout applicant Patrick and his trusty band of compadres out on their 3rd reef building trip last Sunday. I calculate these youngsters have deployed 12.75 tons of concrete in Oyster Castles & concrete planks. Part of the Eagle Scout project is a raffle.. What a raffle! We're fortunate to have Turner Sculpture just down the peninsula. Jaw-dropping, their art is on display around the world. Raffle Tickets are $100.00 for a $12,000.00 credit at Turner Sculpture. Second prize is an overnighter aboard the Fugitive w/capt. Tony Battista... 
Only 250 tickets will be sold. Shoot me an email at if you're interested in raffle tickets. Capt Tony will also have tickets at most of the upcoming tournaments. . . 

Back in the mid-1990s I began to publish an annual brochure with "recommendations" along with actual regulations. New regulations were being created, but no method existed in coastal Maryland to get anglers informed. Having already seen fishery management's benefit in the still-unregulated sea bass fishery, I was anxious to get going and saw to it that brochures were published. 
Interestingly, this is part of the reason why only the center-point of MRIP/MRFSS catch estimates are used today. Various state & private groups such as myself were trying to go to print, but regulators were haggling over catch data – especially for summer flounder. Using center–point only of MRFSS catch estimates, and allowing no argument at all, sped up the process so that regulation could be fashioned in a timely manner. 
In hindsight, this use of catch data would later cause the undoing of sea bass restoration & hammer our splendidly rebuilt tautog. 
Digression aside, I'd gather $100.00 from each local tackle shop & print as many size-limit brochures as possible. The three-fold would list 'recommendations' such as 2 spadefish @ 14 inches - 5 triggerfish @ 12 inches – 2 cod @ 21 inches - 30 sea bass @ 9 inches, plus real regulation such as striper/flounder/bluefish limits & sizes.. 

Talked to one of the hot-shots at MD DNR last week about finally regulating these warm-water species, trigger & spadefish. 
Despite sincere effort of the Ocean City Reef Foundation to create reef habitat specifically for spadefish & triggers, there remains no regulation. If one boat finds a reef's fish chewing and has a mind to kill every single fish – so be it. 
During the conversation with this upper-level manager I was told, "If there's 30 spadefish in a school you'll catch every one of them." 
Clearly an anecdotal account told to management, perhaps even by a biologist; this notion of a spadefish "school" comprised of 30 fish is now at the fore of management's thinking. 
In my youth, however, you would never have counted all the spadefish in a school. Schools at Fenwick and Winter Quarter Shoal were measured by the acre.. 
Recreational hook & line removals were nowhere near as large as commercial spearfishing. Sadly, now a school of 30 spadefish really would be pretty spectacular.
Again & again "Generation Shift" moves restoration targets lower. What is remembered becomes the restoration target no matter what existed 2 or 3 generations previously. 
Weakfish/sea trout will be called 'rebuilt' when they've reached population levels of 1981. Dern sure a whole lot better than today; 1981 saw sea trout numbers in DE Bay well-diminished from the mid-1970s. 
Sea bass are very clearly seen as incredibly more numerous in the 1950s during the post-WWII rise of industrial fishing; more so than in all decades since combined. But our restoration target has already been reached. Sea bass are officially considered "rebuilt." 
Hooray? We did it? 

It is true that if you took a summer cbass fisher from 1984 and showed them today's fishing they'd be amazed. 
I just hope there's enough of us who also witnessed the early 2000s to help management find cause for self-improvement. 

I will gather historical spadefish accounts from witnesses and try to change management's thinking. I will do this work, as always, for free. But I fight to cure regulatory lag with the hope, as always, that one day the many paid staff of various fisheries departments at state & federal agencies will grasp the necessity of gathering fishing's history into a restoration blueprint.
My fringe ideas of restoration's measure: Is the ocean more blue? Is there an increasing seafloor reef footprint? Are species being returned to their full historic range? Have we examined fishing's history to glean a truer measure of restoration's many tasks? These ideas remain unaccounted & unfunded; they remain ideas & not action. 
So too does regulation of our once incredibly more numerous warm-water visitors, the exact same species warm water cheerleaders should find on the increase.. 

Here's another anecdotal measure, this one of our greening sea. 
I recently spoke with Capt. Jeremiah of the OC Dive Boat. He's been very helpful since I became Pres of the OC Reef Foundation with all things electronic. Where I speak of white marlin just three to five miles offshore in the 1930s, and how greener seas have pushed them farther & farther offshore in each successive decade; A young man, Jeremiah spoke of running many dive trips to Russell's Reef just 5 miles out – but now must go at least 8 miles because visibility has been lost inshore. 

While managers wring their hands over how to create dredgable oyster reefs, a wholly different type of reef than those that once filtered all our estuarine waters many times over annually, the ocean grows greener & greener. 
That's the real fight. Lose the fight for water quality and no other battles for fishery restoration will have mattered. . . 

Where bauro = pressure, & trauma = injury, baurotrauma is the injury and sometimes mortality associated with reeling fish up from the deep. Where a diver can get "bent" if he surfaces too swiftly; fish suffer a burst air bladder from an internal volume of gas suddenly many times larger.. 
One element managers consider, if only briefly, for estimating recreational catch's effect on fish populations is Recreational Discard Mortality. 
For a long while recreational fishers were 'credited' with 25% release mortality in the sea bass fishery. If we threw back 100 cbass, it was thought only 75 lived. 
I think that number is lower now due in part to work I did with MAFMC & MD DNR staff on release mortality. I took statisticians & biologists offshore and TRIED to get a result, Tried to get a measure of release mortality from baurotrauma. 
We couldn't get a cbass to go belly-up. After 2 days of fishing in 125 feet with no evident mortality, perhaps they thought 25% excessive.. 

What I've long noted and tried to get management to account for in size limit regulation is this: The larger sea bass are when we put them back, the harder it is for them to reacclimate and resubmerge. I saw it back in the 1990s while tagging sea bass. Little guys, 9 or 10 inches, would swim off straight-away while bigger fish had to float awhile before going back down. Really large sea bass, fish over 16 inches, often didn't make it back down at all. 
When its very hot and very calm, these effects are more pronounced – baurotrauma's effects carry to smaller & smaller cbass when its hot & calm.. 
Biologist friend now retired, Rudy theorized the circulatory system was responsible for removing excess gas. Because there's a lot more now-expanded gas to be rid of in larger fish w/o a corresponding increase in circulatory flow, larger fish take longer to reacclimate and resubmerge. 
A high mortality event occurs on our nearshore reefs when its Hot and Calm. The extra float-time larger cbass have with their internal organs belly-up to the sun becomes hyperthermia. Their body temp might spike from the lower/mid fifties to ninety degrees or more given a few minutes of float time. A cbass can't take that sort of temperature rise. They die. "Release Mortality" can approach 100% in these conditions.  
If there's a light breeze, however, then wavelet overwash keeps them cool. Kept cool, Release Survival Rises To 100% least in waters to 150 feet or so where we commonly fish. 

We had a day last week where there was no wind for several hours. During that period I would have once picked-up anchor and run inshore to shallower water, in to less than 90 feet to prevent a waste of sea bass I know will return to that same reef the following year. 
Discovered in the Gulf I believe, for the last five years or so we've had a new tool. Rather than moving inshore when conditions turn sour, now we "vent" sea bass – actually puncture the belly with a hollow stainless needle and vent excess gas which allows them to swim back down straight-away. 
Many times I've held sea bass with an obvious venting scar. It works. 

It happens that during our last calm spell, smaller sea bass of 11 inches or less were swimming back down on their own just fine; that only larger fish were in danger of hyperthermia – we only had to vent the larger 11 to 12.5 inch throwbacks. 

Release mortality cannot be predicted by weather reports; it's not that simple. How deep a reef is and where cbass are feeding in the water column is also critical to predicting release mortality. 
Sea bass have different feeding behaviors. They can be feeding on plankton fifty feet above a reef in 130 feet of water. With their air bladders thusly adjusted, reeling these krill/plankton feeding sea bass in gives it the same measure of injury/swelling as reeling one up from 80 feet of water that's been holding tight to the bottom in ambush for sand eel/butterfish. 
I've never observed any release mortality in 80 feet of water. They all swim back down.   

Most boats in these parts aren't fishing as deep as I do in summer. Overall, release mortality really isn't much of a factor in the sea bass population. 
It is important to keep mortality as low as possible, however, in local-scale because of habitat fidelity. Every cbass we put back alive is a fish that can spawn, a fish that can be caught again.. 

For NOAA to suddenly decide East Coast baurotrauma is a big deal is poppycock. Consider how the sea bass population grew from approximately 13 million pounds from the 1997 dawn of cbass regulation to almost 40 million pounds by 2003. During that time no one I know had ever heard of a venting needle.. 

There's also release mortality associated with hook injury. Short-shank J hooks gag many a sea bass. That's why we always try to get clients to use our wide-gap or "Kahle" hooks. 
With performance almost identical to a circle hook, Kahle hooks should be required for sea bass & flounder. 
Tautog, however, are almost always hooked in the lip no matter the hook type. 

While preventing mortality due to hook type can also be important in local scale; we must again consider the magnificent rise in sea bass population a decade and more ago. 
When I wrote, "On the Recent Improvements of Live Bottom Habitats in the DelMarVa Region of the Mid-Atlantic Bight" in 2001, our sea bass population was climbing straight up. Venting, a bag limit, long season closures: They did not exist. While size limits remained 9 to 11 inches our sea bass population flourished. At 12 inches population growth ceased and began to regress to a lower, but stable number. When the size limit was raised to 12.5 inches in 2009, population regression resumed and, I believe, has now stabilized again at a lower number. 

We've lost a lot of that habitat I wrote about in 2001. It shrank after trawlers towed over rocky bottoms that they'd already fished for decades but left alone during summer flounder's lowest quotas of the mid to late 1990s. 
See bare rock footage in this video I made for what stern towed gear damage looks like - – that's all off the coast of Maryland. We've lost many of these inshore reefs, once-regrown, that had crazy sea bass populations. 
My worst mistake was not filming the soft-bottom 'reefs' that also grew during that same period. Sometimes vast colonies of tubeworms that sea bass used precisely as hardbottom reefs, the large areas of growth trawl skippers despise as "spaghetti mud" are all gone. It would feel as though your sinker dropped on a pillow. All that habitat is lost. I do not know of any remaining tube worm colonies. 
While I am certain trawl impacts occurred & that substrate loss equals reef lost; It's possible that water quality is as big or bigger a player in hard & soft reef growth. 

The same law that allows management to tighten catch restriction every time MRIP offers a hint of overfishing; Magnuson also has provisions for EFH, or Essential Fish Habitat. Where MRIP's catch estimates handily pop up on a computer screen & are easily fed into fisheries formulas, our Atlantic Coastal Coral Habitats awaits 'scientific' discovery and cannot factor into fisheries restoration in any fashion..  
Even today there are places NOAA should be studying to gain an understanding of newly regrown seafloor habitat's importance to reef fish production. Places that haven't been trawled in years & years have some restored growth. 
One day, but not soon, NOAA will explore sea bass restoration from angles beyond catch restriction. 
Anchoring precisely over remnant hardbottoms of fossilized shale, I recently thought about tales I've heard from skippers who drifted for miles—catching--through that very same area. 
I believe sandstone that breaks apart easily in the hand has been lost permanently from decades of stern-towed impacts. 
The hardest part of reef-fish restoration is ignorance.  It's easy to roll rocks off a barge. 

Still, even accounting habitat expansion/contraction & regulatory release mortality associated with larger fish going back; I think age at maturity shift is the single greatest cause of our region's cbass decline. 
We've already seen three under-9 inch sea bass this year. That's as many as all last year. 
Used to be we'd see hundreds of under 9 inch male sea bass every day. 
Size limit regulation is forcing sea bass to spawn later. That's what I think is the problem with DelMarVa sea bass. 

Just as NOAA/NMFS now teaches our region's clients they're not welcome to fish any more during spring & fall – so too are they forcing sea bass to spawn later. 
A lot later. 
"Gee, where'd production go?"

Nevermind past population performance, it must be baurotrauma. 
Warm water enthusiasts think sea bass are "moving north" despite robust sea bass fisheries in Georgia, Florida & even Florida's West Coast to some extent. 
Most give sea bass no thought whatever but are focused on the high-value species. 
For fishery science to be of use it must have truth at it's foundation. Because catch estimates are the only crutch managers have grasped thus far, our recreational sea bass fishery is falling flat on its face. 

How simple it would be to lower the size limit on sea bass and reinvigorate spawning. 
But computer screens full of catch data that could not possibly be true would protest. 

Ignorant of fishing's history, ignorant of habitat, ignorant of recreational discard's effect on population, ignorant of age at maturity shift, ignorant of hook selection's importance; an adamant refusal to acknowledge exponential population growth seen plainly during early management coupled with a willingness to embrace any remotely plausible excuse for population decline provided there's any measure of "science" in the data's credentials: Management's method of sea bass restoration relies solely upon insane claims of catch from a gravely mistaken catch-estimating program.  

What a fantastic waste of fishery management's potential we're living. 


Capt. Monty Hawkins 
Partyboat Morning Star
Ocean City, MD

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