Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Fish Report 5/31/16

Fish Report 5/31/16 
Sea Bass Bite Still OK(ish)
Our Larger Task

Opening July! Now taking flounder/sea bass reservations for July. Honestly - If you book July there's no way to know whether fluke or sea bass will bite better on any day. I absolutely couldn't guess; but I do know my crew & I will be trying our best to make everyday a success. 

Sailing Daily For June Sea Bass Weather Permitting - Saturday's 6:30 to 3:30 - $125.00 – Otherwise 7 to 3 at $110.00.. Saving Sundays In July For Research - For Now..

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. With a limited number of reserved spots, I do not refund because you over-slept or had a flat..

Dramamine Is Cheap Insurance! (Meclizine's Better!) 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! (Wockenfuss Candies sells crystalized ginger locally - We usually have some aboard - Better is Nuts.Com.. Chewable Meclizine is a good pharmaceutical, there's also a "less drowsy" meclizine pill that a lot of clients like; Scopolamine Patches are the gold standard.)

Honestly - If you get to go on the ocean once month, once a year, or even less; why risk chumming all day? Similarly, if you howl at the moon all night, chances are good you'll howl into a bucket all day.  

Bring A Cooler With Ice For Your Fish – A 48 Quart Is Fine For A Few People. 
No Galley! BYO Sandwiches & Soft Drinks. A few beers in cans is fine. (bottles break at bad times)

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! 

12,966 Reef Blocks Deployed at numerous sites: Doug Ake's Reef 2,455 - St. Ann's 1,483 - Al Giles Barge 785 - Eagle Scout Reef 780 - Sue's Block Drop 72 - Nichols' Concrete 578 - Capt. Bob's Block Drop 48 

Support the Ocean City Reef Foundation!
We're Nowhere Near Reef Building's True Potential. 
Thank You! 
Two tiny sea bass shelter amid steel, moon snails & starfish. Current science has these 2 to 3 inch October sea bass, here on a tug boat artificial reef about 12 miles offshore, as 'throw aways' -- fish that cannot survive winter. NOAA thinks only sea bass in estuaries survive. It's another reason NOAA needn't worry about marine seafloor habitat in the Mid-Atlantic. From NOAA's current mind-set, habitat's only important if it's juvenile habitat..

So: the smallest sea bass don't survive winter because the water gets too cold. The largest sea bass have all left our region because it's too warm. 
Guess we'd better give up..

But Wait! In a part of the ocean where even basic ecology languishes, where even our corals have yet to receive any scientific scrutiny, perhaps NOAA's assertions of a perfect understanding of sea bass growth & reproduction are simply bluster; an Oz behind the curtain picking only 'best available scientific information' that supports management's inaction..
Because it was caught 25 miles from Ocean City in May, this 4 inch sea bass was not spawned in 2016. I doubt it's ever seen an estuary either. The rocks where it was caught support dense growth that, anywhere else, would be called reef.
"Scientifically" we know nothing about our region's reef ecology. So far as I know, & I'm fairly close with it, the corals closest to Washington, DC are not known to function in fisheries ecology at all. 

I believe we have perhaps 15% of our original hardbottom reef habitat; that our hardbottom has mostly gone-missing owing to gear impacts dating back even 75 years. 
NOAA believes, or at least current fisheries restoration actions would demonstrate, all our fisheries can be restored through catch restriction. 

As a fisher, I can promise their restoration strategy isn't working: catch restriction cannot offer stand-alone repair of Mid-Atlantic fisheries. 
As a temperate reef advocate, and a reef restoration advocate, I assure readers there is no 'best available scientific information' where habitat production of our reef species is concerned. NOAA is not even winging it. They're just ignoring our reefs as they never possibly could along, say, Florida. . . . 

Greetings All, 
Sea bass fishing has held it's own. We've had some limits since my 5/24 report, if fewer. We also had several days where the counting curse set in; where some clients would get to 13 or 14 & hit a wall.. 
Even if just 7 or 8 sea bass, they make a nice mess in a big pan. Tasty. 
We did have one go 5 pounds, but he was far larger than the norm. 

What's really amazing, and you'd have to be a regular reader to agree, is all the 9 & 10 inch male sea bass we're seeing. We've even had two males at 8.5 inches. Last year we saw just one 9 inch male all year. 
Capt. Rick up in Lewes wrote to tell me his observations of small spawning male sea bass off the Delaware coast as well. 
I tell you - this is new. We've not seen sub-nine inch male sea bass in number for 15 years. I think last year's spawning stock was at an incredible all-time historical low; that these fish are acting to fill the void.. 
With importance to many species's restorations & bioeconomic stability in fisheries, managers must learn to harness "age at maturity" as a tool. When almost all sea bass along DelMarVa were part of the spawning population, their numbers grew incredibly. When very few (only the oldest) sea bass were engaged in spawning, their total population plummeted. 

Almost all sea bass start as female, then a few switch to male according to their need in balancing the spawning stock. Only the largest female(s) in a group changes to male. It's very common in reef fish around the world; an evolutionary trait to ensure spawning success -- even when populations are spread widely-apart in disconnected habitats.

Evolution never counted on a size limit though.. Our sea bass population was doubling during early management despite much higher recreational & commercial landings because smaller size limits forced younger sea bass to spawn. Because on highly pressured nearshore reefs there were no old fish (or very few) sea bass would mature & begin spawning by 7.5 inches or so. 
When MRFSS catch-estimates "witnessed" Massachusetts' Private Boats catching more sea bass than all Party/Charter from Cape Hatteras north, regulations created to stop recreational "overfishing" soon upended a wonderful fishery restoration: once the size limit hit 12.5 inches, every reef had large spawners (as seen by a small sea bass!)  

All Mid & North Atlantic Coast Party/Charter - Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod For-Hire (including MA)
Estimate StatusYearCommon NameTotal Harvest (A+B1)PSEHarvest (A+B1) Total
Weight (lb)
FINAL2007BLACK SEA BASS895,91110.81,293,69711.9
FINAL2008BLACK SEA BASS466,27914.2734,17216.3
FINAL2009BLACK SEA BASS417,42711.6544,38212.3
FINAL2010BLACK SEA BASS454,64213.1578,98112.8
Just Massachusetts Private Boats. 
Estimate StatusYearCommon NameTotal Harvest (A+B1)PSEHarvest (A+B1) Total
Weight (lb)
FINAL2007BLACK SEA BASS117,96537.0131,01636.2
FINAL2008BLACK SEA BASS135,94338.0203,51139.1
FINAL2009BLACK SEA BASS368,27328.3538,20326.2
FINAL2010BLACK SEA BASS622,21350.7935,35050.8
In 2007 MRIP's recreational catch estimates had Massachusetts catching less than 10% of Party/Charter's annual landings. I doubt it was ever actually that high. In fact, from 1992 to 2001, MRFSS has Massachusetts Private Boats landing just 87,000 pounds of sea bass during the entire 10 year span. Party/Charter from Cape Hatteras north through the same 10 years is estimated at 24 million pounds. 
So, in the computer driven world where at-sea observation rarely counts--in NOAA's world--it's perfectly plausible that a single state/single estimate mode (MA. Private Boat) could rise from 0.36% of Party/Charter's decade-long sea bass landings, to outfishing the entire For-Hire sector in a few weeks. 

On the one day this year where I saw more Private Boats than Party/Charter vessels cbassing off Maryland, those Private Boat anglers--all added together--did not equal the anglers on my boat. There were a lot more people on the other Party Boat than on mine. 
NOAA's MRIP catch program thinks because there are a LOT more private boats in total - they must be catching far more than Party/Charter. Simple fact is there's less people who can afford a boat (or have better sense!) and many more who can afford a nearshore Charter or Party Boat ticket. Then too, all those registered boats have innumerable reasons to be on the water..
The divergence between boat owners/non boat owners is vast. This misunderstanding by those who know statistics incredibly well - but not fishing - is brutalizing fisheries science & especially the For-Hire reef fisheries. Since 2003 Private Boat catch estimates have risen incredibly, so much so that accusations of recreational overfishing are only an illusion.
For instance; for MRIP sea bass catch estimates to be true (where Private Boat outfishes Party/Charter by incredible numbers) it would often times require even 200 Private Boats with 4 anglers each for every party/charter vessel in a fleet. If there are three Charters & two Party Boats out fishing a reef, then for MRIP's catch estimate to be true there must be 1,000 Private Boats..

I tell you, recreational catch statistics today are more like Jim Jones kool-aid to our fisheries restorations than science. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Jones for you youngsters & other innocents)
When management is forced to drink MRIP's statistical poison, science leaves the room. 
Congress demanded a repair of catch estimates by 2009. In 2012 NOAA tried with MRIP - and failed. 
East Coast & Gulf For-Hire fisheries are hardest hit.. 

A few trips back I had 90 sea bass on the boat. Some clients were limited, all had fun with a light rail. I got thinking.. back in 2003 four guys with 90 sea bass might well have been mad, really irritated, because they were 10 fish short a limit. Oh yes - sometimes very upset. 
Before there were limits (started in 2002) those same guys would have been thrilled with full coolers  ..then the bar was set. Twenty-five became 'the goal' instead of having fun & catching dinner. 
We went from overfishing's true darkness in the 1980s, to our own regulations's obvious success in the 1990s, followed by Fed & State regs in 1997/98 leading to an amazing sea bass population - to now a purgatory-like half recovery with economically disruptive closures at it's core; where management is starved for biology & ecology while force-fed statistics. 

By Law - catch estimates are of singular importance in today's management style. 
That's the problem..

According to NOAA, management is not responsible for declining numbers of sea bass in the central & lower Mid-Atlantic because the species has fled north. Although at higher population than any can remember just 13 years ago, they suddenly left a few years ago "because the water's too warm." 
Florida's sea bass are doing fine; while Mid-Atlantic sea bass find the maybe/maybe not average bottom temp change so significant they've nearly all left.. 

Yes, according to NOAA, Mid-Atlantic sea bass have functionally become refugees from the heat.  

Really. That's precisely our "Best Available Scientific Information." We even have a paper showing how Mid-Atlantic cbass are genetically different from absolutely identical sea bass below Cape Hatteras. (Mitochondrial DNA differentiation between populations of black sea bass (Centropristis striata) across Cape Hatteras, North Carolina - McCartney et al 2013

I promise any who will read - management's belief that genetic variation & climate change has lead to an enormous population shift (in a temperate reef species still thriving in points much further south) is more blather than science. 
In 13 years we went from our greatest abundance of sea bass in memory, to our lowest. Climate change, while inescapable, is NOT occurring at that pace. 
I believe tautog are more temperature sensitive than sea bass; where's their shift? 
Seals have now recolonized historical habitat along Cape Cod. They didn't abandon it - they recolonized it.

Changes in management--in regulation, while not understood by the very people tasked with fisheries restorations, are what have so-altered sea bass populations up and down the Mid-Atlantic. 
Yes, a small area of coast beneath Cape Cod is capturing wind-blown warmer surface waters. Buzzards Bay & waters around the Elizabethan Islands have warmed to suit sea bass just fine. 
However, in the lower & central Mid-Atlantic, cold Labrador current waters are a strong influence. 
What happens to ice melt? It comes south in the Labrador Current - even to our region.

It is difficult to express how vexing it is to have your fishery crushed while those undoing past successes testify as expert witnesses on their own behalf; 
"Sorry, sub-bottom profilers have no possible effect on fish."
"Sea bass illustrate perfectly how changing sea temperatures can alter fish populations. Sea bass have declined in the central & lower Mid-Atlantic while exploding in southern New England." 
'Genetically isolated, sea bass in the Mid-Atlantic prefer much cooler water than their absolutely identical cousins from Cape Hatteras to Alabama.'
NOAA knows some things aren't important -- things like corals in the MAB nearshore, or greener & greener ocean water.. 
They have no time for "age at maturity shift."
I even think we have a For-Hire Party/Charter fishery for sea bass off DelMarVa. 
Sheesh! Anyone in management can look at MRIP's catch data & see that's not true! Why, Maryland Party/Charter didn't even catch 100 pounds of sea bass all last year!! (True. MRIP's catch estimate for MD Party/Charter is 49 pounds all year. They were all from Charter. MD Party Boats had zero sea bass last year despite all ocean Party Boat operators reporting daily sea bass catches..)

That is, honestly, the present state of our "best available scientific information."

Fishery management's task is not to choke off the economic well-being of waterfronts, but to enliven them. While some might want to seize commercial or recreational quota to bolster one group's economic outlook at the other's expense; and others might wall-off vast areas with MPAs (the Marine Protected Areas that never seem to satisfy computers but are forever touted as the singular means of restoring fish,) we've already seen where smaller/younger sea bass in the spawning population created astounding population growth

..yet we ignore past success in favor of simple plausibility. We allow unreasoned simplicity to stop the pursuit of science dead in it's tracks. 
From MRFSS/MRIP's ludicrous assertions of catch, & the abject absence of any seafloor habitat understanding in the Mid-Atlantic; to regulation having no effect on sea bass populations--No, it's only climate change that moves a population: we ignore wonderful success early in management to bolster favored programs and sources of funding. 

If NOAA would pause to consider what is truly their best available science - not conjecture, not statistical absurdity - but honest marine & fisheries science based on biology & ecology, we'd soon see Magnuson/Steven's stated purpose being fulfilled. 

Today, in science's absence, we see fisheries withering & the ocean growing more green. 
Our larger task is to turn the ocean blue & fill it with fish.. 
With a new re-write of Magnuson-Stevens coming up, there's no better time to let your DC representatives know your thoughts. Let Federal & State fisheries, plus State Representatives  know as well.
Theirs is a marine world seen through computers & catch estimates - it's not real. Sometimes not even vaguely. 

And go fishing! 

Capt. Monty Hawkins 
Partyboat Morning Star
Ocean City, MD

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