Friday, February 13, 2015

Fish Report 2/13/15

Fish Report 2/13/15 
Too Cold In The Calms 
OC Reef Foundation at OC Boat Show 
New Recreational Policy & Hope 
& Hope 
& Hope

Have Opened Reservations For First Two Weeks Of Sea Bass Season. May 15th, 16th & 17th - Long Cbass - 6AM to 3:30PM - $125.00 - Thereafter Regular $110.00 Trips With Saturdays As Long Trips. These Trips Are Non-Refundable. Reschedule? Yes, of course, when owing to weather. Refund? Ahh, No. (That's the rules for the first two weeks.. Has to do more with credit card policy than how I'd prefer to run my business.) 

Now 10,958 Reef Blocks by the rail – 2,146 at Doug Ake's – 1,218 at Saint Ann's – 558 at Eagle Scout Reef - 557 at Lindsey's Isle of Wight Reef and 286 at the Brian Sauerzopf Memorial Reef.. 
Our block pile was reloaded courtesy of Potomac Valley Brick, Inc. of Salisbury. 
And reloaded again with monster 110 pound blocks from PVB too! Thanks!

Greetings All, 
Much as I'd enjoy telling you I'll be fishing the next 3 days.. 
Yeah, not. 
Even one day out of the holiday weekend? 
Um, no. 
How about next Tuesday when it'll be near flat? 
Forecasted temps are mid-20s by noon. 
Will go some more when this cold breaks. No Fishing For A Little While. 
Instead - Show Time! The Ocean City Boat Show runs Feb 13th to the 15th.
Too windy to fish. I'll be at the Convention Center - a lot. 
We have our new "I helped Build Sue's Reef" T-shirts, sweats, stickers; new 2015 charts, and an awesome Turner Sculpture of two spadefish to raffle. Man it's nice. Turner's work is all around the world - literally. We're truly fortunate to have their foundry down on the VA peninsula. You can have a chance to win this piece for $10.00 -- or 6 for $50.00.. 

We have a huge reef building project scheduled in March. I'm thinking we'll deploy a solid 80 truckloads of concrete from various yards. The materials are all donated - trucking isn't! (..and who could ever blame them.) We have a 103 X 30 foot heavy steel boat chartered from early March to early April. The Iron Lady can haul between 8 & 10 truckloads at a time. 

This is great reef building. We'll have pin-point accurate deployments of material that will last thru many generations of fishers. Never true of a steel boat or ship; it's entirely possible sea bass will be using our concrete reefs for more than 1,000 years.  
I still hold hope that a will purchase a load of boulder to deploy. There's some evidence that boulder can make good artificial reef, but it's mostly natural. Since no one's built rock/boulder reef off the DelMarVa coast, you'd have to be aware of the natural-rock reefs to suspect artificial placement of natural substrate might work. Since NOAA has never discovered our remaining natural reefs, they're unsure if natural rock would just create more of those bad "attracting" artificial reefs that aren't capable of natural reef "production". 
Written as a barb? Certainly. However, this is, sadly & truthfully, just about exactly where NOAA is on our reef building, but there's hope....

Lots of guys think writing & making comment is a useless endeavor. Very, very few can be bothered with such. Here's evidence commenting can influence policy. I know for a fact some readers commented on NOAA's new recreational fisheries policy. See if you can spot the influence our comments had. Go ahead. It's written in pretty plain language.   
My hope is this: The Bureau of Commercial Fisheries can now die in peace. 
Here's the very first section of NOAA's brand new Recreational Fisheries Policy..
1. Support ecosystem conservation and enhancement. NMFS recognizes a wide range of approaches to restore, maintain, and build diverse healthy marine ecosystems that are foundational to high quality recreational fisheries. Examples of strategies that NMFS supports include: 
  • Restoration and conservation of habitats that benefit recreational and other fish stocks 
  • Development and application of best practices to support anglers as stewards of a sustainable environment.  
  • Science-based habitat enhancement activities, including artificial reefs and natural habitats in accordance with Agency policy, which contribute to the conservation and management of recreational fisheries. 
Sure looks familiar. I believe, while not alone, we helped get that in there. 

Still: If "conservation" implies knowledge of inventory--of remaining habitat that can be 'conserved' for the future; then "restoration" conveys the impression NOAA knows what's been lost, is aware of how much habitat is in need of 'restoration.' 

Well, OK. So they'll begin their new "Recreational Fisheries Policy" with a blank slate. They certainly aren't suddenly 'up to speed' on our nearshore hardbottom reefs. 
Never know though, they might find what's left & ponder the question: "Were these reefs ever any bigger?" Then it might just follow, "If they were once bigger, wouldn't restoration be logical?"  
Perhaps instead they'll come at it from this angle; "Where did all the sea bass live before these guys came up with the crazy idea of building artificial reefs?"
I could learn to like their new Recreational Policy

Here's NOAA's own summary: Consistent with, and in furtherance of, the purposes of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) and other applicable federal statutes, the goals of this policy are to: 1) support and maintain sustainable saltwater recreational fisheries resources, including healthy marine and estuarine habitats; 2) promote saltwater recreational fishing for the social, cultural, and economic benefit of the nation; and, 3) enable enduring participation in, and enjoyment of, saltwater recreational fisheries through science-based conservation and management. 

Like so many times before,however, there's really only HopeLike last March when we were told there would be a scientific literature search to investigate shifting age at maturity in sea bass. Today's sea bass, you see, are just beginning to spawn when they would have already been great-grandparents, or even great-great grandparents, prior to 2001; prior to the 12 inch regulation.. 
That hope died. The old "literature search" delay.. It's there. Lengths scientists witnessed sea bass spawning/maturing to male at two decades ago & more were much shorter than today's. 
I had hope.. 

A fifty million dollar research boat searching perfect reef coordinates I had given NOAA - Hope. 
"Nothing but sand waves.."   
And that hope died. 

Congress ordered repair of the MRFSS recreational catch estimating program - HOPE! 
What a waste of money. 

When I learned Congress had ordered NOAA to start paying attention to marine habitat with the Essential Fish Habitat clause of the Magnuson-Steven Act in 2001 - Hope. 
Eh, not yet. Lot of years now. They really might catch on though. Say they're going to.

When NOAA says, "Science-based habitat enhancement activities, including artificial reefs and natural habitats in accordance with Agency policy, which contribute to the conservation and management of recreational fisheries." I do have some Hope. A little. 
But honestly; not much.

Before reef-fish management began in 1997 we'd had boat limits for years, "Kitchen Table" limits we hashed-out among ourselves with what was then-known about reef-fish biology and our own view of actual catch. 
Tautog & sea bass populations grew & grew with our kitchen table regulations.. 
When management came I thought, "Finally!
Hope Rewarded!
Sea bass & tautog numbers rose swiftly when everyone had to follow the rules in the late 1990s. It was wonderful to see such amazing population increases
..but management brought something else too besides enforcement; they brought MRFSS recreational catch estimates. 

Instead of using brains & experience to manage fish, they used statistics. 
Bad statistics. 
Those statistics have now very nearly destroyed the sea bass fishery. 
I ought to be done with hope..

I doubt we'll get offshore with reef building. Not soon. Maybe one day. I Hope. Especially given reef buildings potential usefulness in colonizing & reseeding cold-water corals to new locations. 
If we did build reef offshore, I guarantee blueline tile populations could be taken sky-high. It might be too that golden tiles thrive amid an enormous pile of concrete pipe. Maybe black-bellied rosefish can be made to flourish with the right kind of reef..
Lots of critters would come along for that ride. Who would complain about lobster traps in deep water? 
No one I know. 
Lobster production, Blueline production, Coldwater Coral production; Safe haven for corals, and sea bass & fluke in winter: Who could guess the potential?  
Maybe someone should try boulders off in the deep. 
Why, I bet we could find some flat rock that's been scrapped clean of reef-growth for decades. Then, taking a lesson-learned from nearshore reef building: when adding any little bit of rugosity to an already hard, but featureless bottom, Life Explodes. 
Should we hope? Dare we? 

Although building new blueline tile habitat would doubtless bolster blueline production; as management soon gets more vigorous we will see no shred of habitat in their blueline 'restoration plan,' only more catch restriction. 

NOAA's first test of their new Recreational Policy will come from blueline tilefish. 
I have no hope at all that they'll pass that test. I doubt habitat will be factored into blueline management in any fashion.
. . . . . . 

A big difference between NOAA's and fishers' comprehension of reef fishing realities---judging at least by regulators' abject absence of concern over reef-fish reef habitat---is that they, collectively, haven't a grasp of habitat's key roles in determining catch. 
For-Hire fishers know where sea bass, bluelines, & red snapper are; we know when they're there; we know how many we might catch in any given time frame; and we know how many we did catch in a historical context. 
When we're wrong about any of these, we can suddenly seem quite unprofessional - and sometimes do. Get it wrong often enough & a skipper's future will be in another line of work. 

The regulatory world has many types of data, but there's one kind they're never allowed to consider implausible, never allowed to question - at least not publicly: MRIP recreational catch estimates are always treated as perfect. "Wrong" does not exist in today's regulatory use of catch estimates.. 

Recreational for-hire fishers need real fish, caught on real reef, to suit real clients--that's our boat payment/insurance/wharfage/fuel/bait/paint/haul-out/home mortgage/electric/gas/grocery store reality. 
Managers, however, need whatever catch-estimate data is upon their computer screen to fit "turn of the crank" regulatory policy in order to maintain a paycheck - that's their grocery store reality. 
Consider: What happens when you see someone in government who bucks the system? ..they end up elsewhere, Fast.
We all need to go grocery shopping, we all have payments..
It is my belief, based on the strongest of evidence, that NOAA Fisheries truly has no problem believing any MRIP catch estimate. 
Any estimate can be logically supported even if that logic's foundation is only from other catch estimates, any catch can be seen as "plausible." We've all heard about those great days of fishing. What if a lot of those days happened in a row? 
The very thing scientists most dislike about fishermen is our "anecdotal evidence," and especially our thought trains that support conclusions based on stories we tell or remember hearing---our anecdotes; yet anecdotes falling from a scientists lips are "scientific".. 
It is precisely these scientific anecdotes that are propping up MRIP's accusations of our going way over-quota on sea bass. 
"There's a lot of sea bass and a lot of private boats Of course the Massachusetts Private Boats could have caught more sea bass the the entire US For-Hire fleet."
That's actually what they think.. 

This past year's MRIP data-fields show twice where just one state's Private Boats caught more sea bass than all US professional effort in a given two-month period. 
I now believe NOAA/NMFS regulators truly have no problem accepting those estimates. They see red snapper & black sea bass For-Hire/Party/Charter catch plummet in tightening regulation to it's lowest catches ever, while Private Boat catch shoots to the sky, and see nothing out of the ordinary. What we fishers plainly see as wildly incorrect, they see as normal fluctuation. Our catch is NEVER rational or predictable if your perception sources only from catch estimates. I used to hear it at every single meeting: "Recreational Effort Is Hard To Predict." 

It's not that hard. Really. What's impossible to predict is MRIP catch-estimates. 
We need management to see there is a method of getting closer to the truth, of bettering their estimates; a way to make meeting both of our grocery budgets easier. 

Here's a method of testing an MRIP estimate against Party/Charter landings. 

Consider the 2014 May/June MRIP catch-estimate of 207,800 sea bass caught by Massachusetts Private Boats in May/June vs 19,200 sea bass landed by Charters during the same period. 
I've asked & asked: even on Memorial Day Weekend no one I've spoken with, or corresponded with, has reported vast fleets of Private Boats fishing over Massachusetts's reefs. 
Yet if MRIP estimates were even remotely correct, then there would have be about 18 MA Private Boats fishing (& catching like crazy) for each MA Charter Boat fishing a reef. 
One charter boat, eighteen private boats. That's irrevocably how MRIP paints it.
Because weekends are the true pressure point for Private Boats, we should actually expect to see several hundred Private Boats wherever a small fleet of 3 or 4 Charters were fishing on a Saturday. 
If the estimates are treated as real catch to create real regulation, then there ought to have been real fleets of Private Boats savagely beating the reefs to death while leaving charter skippers tied to the dock with cobwebs between their antennas.. 
But that's not what happened. It's much more likely that Party/Charter caught more sea bass than Private Boats; it's much more like that MRIP's estimate is wildly incorrect.  
I have many clients that fish with MA professionals for scup & sea bass. I always ask: "How many Private Boats & For-Hire boats did you see?
Usually the For-Hires outnumber Private Boats - and certainly have more anglers aboard. . . 
I hear of very few Private Boats. What has been reported to me is, in fact, that For-Hire boats on a reef usually outnumber the Private Boats.

The Math. Take 19,200 bsb/5 anglers/8 fish = 480 Charter Trips -- Then take 207,800 bsb/3 anglers/8 fish = 8,658 Private Trips. 8,658 divided by 480 = 18 Private Boat trips {if they all limited out} per Charter trip. Since all those Private Boat trips do not happen regularly--because effort spikes on weekends while remaining more consistent for well-established charters, there would be roughly triple the Private Boat effort on any Saturday while Charter remained constant. So: 18 Private Boats as an average X 3.4 greater effort on Saturday = 61.2 private boats per-Charter. If just 3 Charters were on a Massachusetts reef, in order for MRIP to be correct there would have to be 180+ private boats catching there as well. 
If some guys are not limiting out, the number of Private Boats climbs much higher.  

For MRIP's estimates to be real there must be real fishing effort. 
But there isn't. 
Real regulation from catch estimates that aren't real is bad regulation. 
Plenty of really bad regulation..

Because we fishers know bsb are not spread over an infinite area; and, even though rock-bottoms are more vast in Southern New England, we also know there must be clustering of effort (it is the very nature of private boats to fish in a fleet), wherever a few charters and a party boat are fishing, that small fleet of professional For-Hire effort will draw Private Boats like a magnet. 

For MRIP to be correct there would have been some truly memorable fleets over MA's rocky reefs. Some readers will recall sea trout fleets in and just outside of Delaware Bay back in the 1970s. Back then I even witnessed boats having to shove-off from each other. A gathering of several hundred Private & For-Hire boats was a daily occurrence. You can't forget it. 

With a Party Boat & two Charters fishing for sea bass as portrayed by MRIP, and taken as Gospel by regulators, you should have a positively HUGE fleet of private boats - A HUGE FLEET WOULD HAVE TO EXIST IN ORDER TO SUPPORT THE ESTIMATES. 

But that's not what fishers see. 
They see some Private Boats, but no fleets. . . 

In NY's 2014 summer catch-estimate we see a similar pattern as in MA's spring sea bass estimate. In summer---the very period when professionals have more difficulty catching sea bass--MRIP has NY's Private Boats catching phenomenally well. 
Managers then seize upon MRIP's assertions to take the whole Mid-Atlantic fantastically over quota. 

Odd that such huge sea bass catches occur lately, especially given that NY now has their strictest regulations ever. 
New York's Private Boat July/Aug catch-estimates for 1982, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 99, 01, 02, 03, 04, 06, 07, 08 & 2011, All Added Up & All Together, are thought to have been 958,706 pounds---that's less than 2013 & 2014's July/August total. 
Today: Tight Regulation. Eight Fish - 13 Inches. Record setting catches.  
Yet more than half of that earlier catch, that lesser catch for all those years combined, those fewer sea bass were landed with no bag or size limits of any kind in pre-regulation. Only in 2011 was there less than a 25 fish bag limit. 

MRIP claims Catch Happens, and management unfailingly salutes on their way to the grocery store. 
NY's Private Boats nearly surpassed their highest catches EVER post-Sandy,  and with made that catch with far greater regulation, while Party/Charter caught very nearly at historic lows. . . 

The Mid-Atlantic sea bass population factually climbed to a 50 year high in 2003 just a few years into management. There was virtually no closed season & no bag limit at all until 2002. 

Management, 100% guided by false catch estimates, has steered US reef fisheries up on the rocks. 

We used to be worried about foreign factory ships. 
Then we were worried about US trawlers: 
Now, even while Private Boats complain bitterly about commercial sea bass traps & party boats, NOAA & NMFS reaction is "Little Plastic Boats Are Overfishing!! KILL OVERFISHING!!!

While catch does change, the percentage splits between For-Hire & Private Boat are more slow in coming -- If Party/Charter caught 60% of a region's sea bass in 2012, they probably caught about 60% of that region's fish in 2014 too. If Private Boats caught 80% of a State's sea bass in 2008, they probably still catch most of that state's sea bass. 
The percentages remain fairly constant. They do shift, but slowly; and never-ever in the herky-jerky fashion portrayed by MRIP or MRFSS before it..
VTRs or 'vessel trip reports' are mandatory data sheets filled out daily by the For-Hire industry. The three data sets on this graph should march almost in unison because percentage of catch is fairly constant. That's not to say "they should be the same," but the rise & fall of these 3 lines should only reflect sea bass abundance. 

Who would believe Private Boats might catch incredibly better than ever before while For-Hire caught fewer. 
In the real ocean, with real reefs & real fish: when abundance is up, so is catch - for everyone. 
A spike in catch & effort often has more to do with another fishery closing. Take, for instance, the spike in tog effort after the 2009 emergency sea bass closure that still continues. But again; where there's a shift in catch, it's for everyone. 
If NOAA knew what percentage of catch was Private/For-Hire, they could do away with their damnably incorrect statistics altogether for the reef fisheries. 
We tell them what we caught - almost exactly. The lines on this graph should train-track. Where they do not -- Trouble. 

We need to get back to what worked. 

I believe our region's sea bass were at, or very nearly at, habitat capacity in 2003. Our reefs couldn't have held many more cbass. Even half-day party boats would sometimes limit-out at 25 fish per-person, and that was when a limit, any bag limit, was brand new. 
But all those three year-old 12 inch sea bass back then were already great-grandparents. Today most 12 inch sea bass haven't yet spawned, not even once. 

We have reef-fish management with no consideration of population biology or reef ecology; we have fisheries management that welcomes incredibly wrong statistical catch estimates into it's calculations; we have a system whose scientific philosophy is "Ignore Success, it's just an illusion" while holding tightly to the fantasy of infallible MRIP estimates. Today we have a complete failure of reef fish management, a failure so absolute it's driving many businesses into failure while losing sea bass population gains of earlier work. 

We need to fix that. 
We need to write, to comment when asked; and comment to our political representatives whether asked or not. 

Consider this about habitat:  
If there were absolutely perfect management, if we could create no further increase for any given reef fish population via regulation; at that point the only possible way to again increase that population of reef-fish would be to increase that species' reef habitat. 
Given absolutely perfect management & a necessary period of time, that habitat too would become "at capacity."

In today's regulatory scheme we fight for economic survival; we fight against management that's incapable of detecting horrible catch data, we fight against management unwilling to recognize blatant success from earlier regulation, we fight against management unable to recognize habitat production's importance to the reef fisheries. 

Perhaps NOAA's new Recreational Policy will now steer us toward a different fight. I'd like to one day fight alongside management in making the greatest populations of fish to ever exist. 
We could do it with sea bass in under 10 years. Maybe 5. I'm positive we could take our sea bass population higher than we've ever known  ..but not while we constantly battle for fair regulation. 

Capt. Monty Hawkins 
Partyboat Morning Star
Ocean City, MD

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