On bluefin, do we really need to kill another schoolie?

A new temporary rule implemented by NOAA Fisheries last week says we do

A.J. Lapsley with a bluefin - photo by Capt. John McMurray

A.J. Lapsley with a bluefin – photo by Capt. John McMurray

For the last several years, the bluefin tuna bag limit for the private angler, which has a highly migratory species (HMS) permit, was one fish between 28 inches and 73 inches per boat (not per angler). The boat also is allowed one trophy – 73 inches or more – per year. The charter/party fleet could kill two fish per boat per trip: an “over” and an “under” – one fish from 28 inches to 47 inches (the “under”) and one fish from 47 to 73 inches (the “over”) – and also the one 73 inches-plus trophy fish per year.

I note here that for most, at least in my region, the “trophy” fish is largely irrelevant, because we don’t really have access to those fish. Sure, decades ago there was a legitimate giant fishery that occurred at mid-shore spots like the Mud Hole, and Monster Ledge got its name for a reason. But that dissipated with the decline of the bluefin population. Although some claim it had more to do with the small mesh net fleet that frequently works the area, that may have wiped out the whiting, which drew those giant bluefin to those areas in the fall.

I wouldn’t say those large fish don’t come to or at least pass by our region. They do. It’s not really a secret any more that there’s a “large-medium” (73 to 81 inch) fishery in the early winter at the Hudson Canyon. Sure it’s prosecuted by some, but that fishery isn’t really accessible to 99 percent of bluefin fishermen. I know that I’m not willing to run my 33-foot Contender 70/80-miles offshore in December/January. For one, the weather forecasts are too unreliable that time of the year. But assuming we did get a flat day, given the distance and shorter periods of daylight, the run would have to be in the dark both ways. If I hit a submerged piling and my boat went down, given the water temps I probably wouldn’t survive long enough for the Coast Guard to get there. Not to mention that an 80-mile run in a center console in 40-degree weather isn’t very fun. Most of the guys with big sport fishers are soft and have put away their boats by then. For these reasons, that fishery is largely prosecuted by the commercial tuna fleet, along with a few resolute anglers with large sturdy boats and cabin heaters.

Last season the commercial guys could kill five fish (per boat) more than 73 inches. The prior year it was only three fish. I should note that if you have a party/charter HMS permit you theoretically qualify to fish in the commercial category. That means you can catch and sell your five 73-inch fish every time you go out. An important caveat here is that while this permit allows you to fish both commercially and recreationally, you are not supposed to do both the same day.

Now that we’ve got last season’s regulations covered, let’s talk about the new ones. Last week NOAA Fisheries instituted a “temporary rule,” which added a school fish (yes, we get to kill another baby bluefin) to the party/charter and angling category and a second fish for the angling category.

The private angler regulations allow the retention of one school fish (between 28 and 47 inches) and one large school/small medium fish (between 47 to 73 inches). In the unlikely circumstance you manage to come across some large fish (more than 73 inches) and assuming you have the gear capable of landing one of those fish, you may keep one, BUT ONLY if you are north of Great Egg Inlet in New Jersey. They closed the trophy fishery south of there.

The new party/charter regulations allow two school fish (between 28 and 47 inches), one large school/small medium fish (between 47 to 73 inches) and of course that irrelevant trophy fish 73 inches and up (north of Great Egg Inlet).

So in case you didn’t get that, in both angling and party/charter categories we get to kill an extra fish this year. Is this a good or a bad thing? My gut reaction is that it’s bad for a few reasons. But before I get to them I suppose we should talk about the rationale for such a decision.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

First, there were a few charter boat captains on the HMS Advisory Panel who had requested an increase in the school bluefin bag limit. The argument, as I understand it, is that in some regions – in this case I think Rhode Island – they haven’t been getting those “overs” (47 to 73 inch fish). Almost all of their fish were “unders” in the 28 to 47 inch class. And so they were having a hard time justifying a trip in which as many as six clients had to share a small fish.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the intergovernmental organization responsible for the management of bluefin in the Atlantic and adjacent seas, currently allows the U.S. to use no more than 10 percent of its quota on school fish. And the best available science indicates we don’t appear to be harvesting even close to that. According to the survey, the 2011-2012 average was 6.3 percent, and the preliminary 2013 estimate is 3.3 percent. So, there is some justification here, even though personally I don’t really agree that it’s a particularly smart thing to do biologically.

First, I have a hard time believing those numbers. Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time on the bluefin grounds in the last several years knows that the availability of these school fish is pretty darn high. In fact there appeared to be more of these school fish than any other size-class in the time period described above. I mean, in 2012 you couldn’t put a couple of spreader bars out before getting covered up by school bluefin. Guys were bragging about 50- or even 100-fish days on the forums … and most fish were in the 40 pound range. It wasn’t as crazy last year, and there appeared to be more small-mediums around than the prior year, but still, there were a ton of school fish around.

While it’s probably a little unpopular to say it, I think we have a major data problem with recreational bluefin fisheries. Personally, given what I see and hear about on the water, I think recreational effort and recreational fishing mortality is largely underestimated. I talked a little bit about this in a prior blog: Report Your Bluefin.

Each year I’m seeing more and more bluefin. Yeah, this is anecdotal, but it’s pretty hard not to notice the reports from Nova Scotia to North Carolina. But it doesn’t appear to be showing up in the assessments. I think I know why. Every angler and charter/party boat captain who catches a bluefin is required by law to report it within 24 hours, but very few of us actually do. NOAA believes that compliance with recreational bluefin reporting requirements is a mere 20 percent. I’d suggest that it’s even lower.

Of course, all anglers targeting bluefin must first obtain an HMS permit every year. Most anglers think this is just another unneeded $20 tax, but it isn’t. NOAA Fisheries uses that list to gauge fishing effort. By calling permit holders, they can estimate effort/vessel trips, and then use dockside surveys (and reported harvest) to calculate catch-rate info. The dockside surveys include the Large Pelagics Survey and Marine Recreational Information Program. But really, how many intercepts do they do on offshore trips that leave at 4 a.m. and don’t get back till 5 p.m. or later? I’m guessing it ain’t many. The point is, I really doubt it’s a representative sample.

Personally, when the bluefin bite is on, what I see is well over 100 boats on spots like the Coimbra Wreck or Chicken Canyon, or (fill in the blank). Once the word gets out that someone caught fish in one spot or another, it’s crazy, man – like a flock of birds descending on bait. Guys trolling, guys jigging, guys chunking, people yelling at each other on the radio. A lot of fish are caught and killed wherever and whenever those gaggles occur. Depending on the year, most of those fish are unders. It just doesn’t make sense to me that we are under quota.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Even if we were, biologically it doesn’t it make sense to me. I am fairly certain that we don’t “need” to kill more pre-spawn fish than we’re already allowed to do. Despite the perceived increase in abundance over the last decade, few would argue that the fishery is a shadow of what it was in the 70s. Because these fish are prized in the sushi markets, they have suffered from decades of overfishing, exacerbated by incidental catch from commercial surface longline fishing in their spawning grounds and elsewhere.

Yes, there’s been a definitive increase in abundance, but the Western and Eastern Atlantic stocks still are overfished. NOAA has formally designated both as species of concern under the Endangered Species Act. A couple of recent studies by NOAA Fisheries and Stanford University (one published in February, the other in March) show conclusively that the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which happened almost exactly four years ago, had adverse impacts on Western Atlantic bluefin tuna fry. The spill ultimately covered approximately 20 percent of the tuna’s only known spawning area and persisted through the peak of its spawning season. This will likely affect reproductive potential of the bluefin for decades.

The point of all of this is that even though we technically can justify killing more juvies, is it really prudent to do so? In my opinion, it isn’t.

It’s interesting seeing/listening to the reaction to all of this on Facebook etc. Maybe it’s just the company I keep, but it certainly seems like most people don’t want this. From my perspective – and I actually do a considerable amount of bluefin trips each year – I don’t want or need that extra fish. You catch one 100-pound medium, and, assuming I have four guys on board, everyone goes home with more meat than they can possibly eat. In the rare cases I’m asked to kill an “over” and “under,” it’s just way too much, and I suspect most of it goes to waste. Thus, I really try and discourage it. The reality is that once you freeze that stuff, it thaws out an ugly brown color (although I heard if you shoot it with carbon dioxide it turns red again).

I guess this might help the handful of guys in a region that hasn’t produced many “overs” in the last few years, but what I really see it doing is perpetuating the back door, black market fishery that’s already rampant in certain regions. And that’s unfortunate. But here we are nonetheless. It will be interesting to see whether anglers and party/charter guys take advantage of this extra fish. I’d like to think that people will just take what they need, but I’m not that naive anymore.

In the last decade, we’ve come an awful long way with bluefin tuna. In fact, I count on the recent abundance for a good portion of my summer income. I hope this loosening of the regulations doesn’t set us back, but I can’t help but think it has the potential to do just that.

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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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One comment on “On bluefin, do we really need to kill another schoolie?
  1. avatar Jeff says:

    John good analysis.

    How much weight/tonnage do you think will actually be taken with this new temporary reg?

    As you point out there is a black market on BF in place anyway. This change will not impact those anglers.

    For those who are hearty conservationists this will have no impact either on their catch keep.

    For the law abiding angler this will likely increase the catch keep but then again how much will it really add to the overall
    quota?

    I think the moderate and watchful approach to all fisheries has done wonders. Working the numbers and allowing some flexibility in our favor temporarily is a good idea. Keeping at it and still giving anglers a shot at catching and keeping what we catch is an important part of our sporting life.

    Thx for your viewpoint. Tight lines.

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