On black seabass and the Wave 1 (January/February) Fishery

Why giving the charter/party fleet exclusive access during the winter doesn’t work for the rest of us

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Okay, so guess what: I’m not gonna write about striped bass this time around, although I suspect I’ll mention it a few times.  This week I’d like to answer comments that can be found in my last post here: Where we are with striped bass.

Yeah, I thought it odd that the commenter went into such detail on my recent comments (on the public record) regarding black seabass in response to a post I had written exclusively about striped bass. But I do get it. The contention is that I’m often taking “unwarranted pot shots at the for-hire industry” when they argue they have the right to kill more fish, which is, um, most of the time. In fact, I can’t think of a recent instance when they advocated for conservation. So I dunno, maybe those occasional “pot shots” are warranted, because usually such demands are at the expense of the rest of the fishing public and/or the resource itself. That does appear to be the case with both black seabass and striped bass.

Let me start by answering a few of the commenter’s specific questions. My comments about a charter/party fleet, which seems to be generally unwilling to accept conservation measures in the striped bass fishery (in other words, they don’t want to have to go from a two fish bag limit to a single fish,)being louder than the average recreational angler (who generally appears to want a reduction in striped bass fishing mortality right now) were pretty self evident. Still, the commenter asked, “Louder in what sense?” So I’ll try and clarify.

In the case of striped bass (note: in my blog I was referring to the Maryland/Virginia for-hire industry, but it kinda applies everywhere), yes, what appears to be the majority of the party/charter (for-hire) fleet is indeed more vocal and “louder.” They frequently demand private meetings with their fishery managers. They push hard to convince local legislators to advocate for pro-harvest/“pro-business” positions that help the industry in the short term but often run counter to the long-term interests of the average angler and, for that matter, the general public.

Do anglers do that? Not really, man. They can, but in the real world, they just don’t. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, by definition, recreational fishing is “recreational.” It’s supposed to be fun. Sure, anglers really care about the resource and in many cases are some of the most passionate advocates. But hey, they all have jobs and families to tend to. Just doing the reading required to make intelligent arguments to fisheries managers and other decision-makers is very time-consuming, and it’s not very much “fun” at all.

Thus, your average Joe Fisherman, who needs an abundance of fish to be successful, from the beach or his “puddle-jumping” boat, and who really wants striped bass managed for abundance rather than maximum exploitation, isn’t as loud as the guy who makes money from the exploitation of a public resource. In fact, there’s a very good chance that he won’t speak out at a meeting at all, for the very simple reason that for a lot of folks, public speaking of any sort is a very unpleasant experience, particularly in a hostile environment. (Just take a look at the tone taken by the person who commented on my blog; multiply it by a of dozen or so boatmen who are sometimes physically present in a meeting room, radiating evident hostility to anyone disagreeing with their position, then ask yourself how comfortable you would be when speaking your mind.)

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

The truth is that, yeah, the pro-harvest, for-hire and, of course, the commercial industry always has and probably always will be louder and more aggressive than those folks who want conservation and want fisheries managed for abundance. So, yeah, louder in that “sense” is what I meant in my last post. It’s a bummer, but it’s true.

This is pretty damn apparent when it comes to black seabass, as well. In June of this year, the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council initiated a framework to open the Wave 1 (read January/February) fishery in federal waters, strictly for the for-hire industry (charter/party boats). The “strictly for-hire” part is, for the most part, irrelevant as there are very few if any anglers who will take their “puddle jumpers” out to 30 fathoms (generally a long, long run) in the dead of winter. But nonetheless, the fishery the MAFMC is talking about would be exclusive to the charter/party fleet, mostly because that’s the only way they might possibly account for the landings (more on this later).

Black seabass in federal waters is generally open to the public from May 15 to Sept. 18. Then it closes for a month and opens mid-October to the end of December (although state regulations, as a practical matter, may prohibit anglers from landing fish for part of that season). Yes, it’s been open during Wave 1/January and February before. In fact it was generally open for much of the last decade and before. However ridiculous this may sound, the rationale for keeping the season open was that there was no reporting from that period (no sampling occurs in Wave 1); therefore, there were no reported landings, meaning that the boats could knock the shit out them for two months with no consequences.

It looks like Wave 1 was open from 2006 to 2009, closed from 2010 to 2012, then open in 2013 and closed in 2014. Anecdotally when the Wave 1 fishery was open, anglers report fewer and smaller black seabass during the regular season. I know that’s what I’ve seen personally, on the water and at the dock, and other anglers I’ve spoken with share the same observations.

At the last council meeting I asked for an analysis of recreational black seabass landings during the regular season for the last decade or so, for years when the Wave 1 fishery is open vs. the years that the fishery was closed. I don’t know if I’ll get it, but if I do, I suspect it will show this very trend. I mean, it’s intuitive. If the guys fishing in January/February are pulling all the big black seabass off of the offshore wrecks, there will be fewer for us to catch come spring. Add this to the fact that the party boats that bought RSA (Research Set Aside) quota, which gave them more exclusive access to the resource, cleaned off the inshore reefs in the spring, so that by the time the season opens for us regular fishermen (aka “puddle jumpers”) the inshore reefs certainly weren’t “teeming” with black seabass.

But let me get back on track here. One of the big reasons the council initiated this framework is that we need to begin accounting for this fishery if we are to have it open. From a fisheries management perspective, that’s how it should be. We should absolutely know what sort of fishing mortality takes place with that winter fishery. Yes, I understand that black seabass rebuilt even with a Wave 1 fishery open during much of that time. And, in fact, it rebuilt when the bag limits were higher than they are now. But those statements don’t take into account the number of private-boat anglers who have shifted effort from other species onto black sea bass over the past 10 years.

In 2004, in the entire area between Maine and North Carolina, there were a little over 90,000 private boat trips targeting black sea bass; by 2009 that number was over 250,000, and it rose above 300,000 in 2010. It has fallen back a little more recently as tighter restriction in the northeastern states, where most of the fish are landed, make long trips to the most productive bottom less attractive and relaxed summer flounder rules may have shifted some of the effort back onto fluke. However, in both of the last two years, private boat anglers have made more than 150,000 targeted black sea bass trips, and the number is trending upward once again.

That sort of increased effort, combined with the best available science on what acceptable harvest limits should be, render anything that happened more than about five years ago, which was when most of the rebuilding took place, largely irrelevant.

We also have no real understanding of what sort of discard mortality takes place in the winter fishery. I have caught black-seabass in 150 feet of water incidentally while jigging for tuna, and they all come up with their stomachs blown out of their mouths. If you try to toss them back, they just float away on the surface. In other words, not many, if any, survive a release. The Wave 1 fishery takes place in even deeper water, and as my critical commentator points out, decompression tools that reduce the impact of such barotrauma neither are used nor deemed practical. That means that discard mortality is almost certainly high, both in the case of undersized fish and in the case of any small but technically legal black sea bass that might be “highgraded” in favor of larger individuals.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

The accounting for the Wave 1 fishery would be done mainly though Vessel Trip Reports (VTRs). And that’s an entire can of worms in itself. The problem is there’s no practical way to verify them. And, well, newsflash, fishermen sometimes lie. For example, there was a big bust in New Jersey a couple of years ago, in which more than 800 illegal black sea bass were taken. Do ya think those fish woulda shown up on a VTR? It’s hard not to think that the bust wasn’t just the tip of the iceberg.

But all that stuff aside, the big issue here is that opening such a fishery, and actually having the landings accounted for as they should be, would result in an estimated 6 to 9-percent reduction taken off the regular season. That translates to a 10 to 15 day cut for the 95 percent or more of anglers that don’t go on party boats and freeze their asses off in the dead of winter.

So what we’d essentially be doing here by opening that fishery is providing a special harvest privilege for the for-hire fishing sector – and making Joe Fisherman shoulder the lion’s share of the conservation burden, not only in terms of shorter seasons but maybe even smaller and less abundant black sea bass during the regular season. In my mind, that’s just not fair.

Contrary to what the above referenced commentator might have you believe, it wasn’t just me who felt that way. The motion to open the black seabass Wave 1 fishery failed by a 12 to six vote. So I guess all those council members who voted against the opening are “anti-industry” also.

Getting back to the point of anglers not being “loud” and engaged in the process: I don’t believe the average black seabass anglers are even aware of what they stood to lose if we were to open the Wave 1 fishery next year, because they aren’t engaged in the fisheries management process and few if any of the organizations or publications out there made much of an effort to tell them what was going on. And the few recreational people who are loud, well, it’s easy to just call them/us anti-industry, but the truth is we are trying to look out for the average angler and the industry they support, which stands to get screwed a lot of the time.


After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

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