Following up on last week’s blog… and what anglers really want
A lot of feedback from my last blog. You can read it here: AND WE CONTINUE DOWN THAT ROAD. Yes, perhaps that blog was more of a rant than anything else, but I stand completely behind the substance of the piece; there are too many boats killing too many bass, and some of those boats were, and probably still are, doing it illegally in the EEZ. I think there are a tremendous amount of people out there, who are passionate about the striped bass fishery, and who that feel the same way. Many/most of the comments here and elsewhere support that contention.
I received more comment on the blog than I usually do (both here and elsewhere) including one very long, sarcastic post from a pinhooker (i.e., a commercial fisherman who uses hook and line) in New York Bight. I received enough comment that I thought that it might be worthwhile to respond to some of it in this follow-up (you can read the entire comment thread under the blog itself).
First, one of the intended and to some extent, unintended consequences of the blog was a tremendous amount of mail/email to state managers. Apparently, managers heard en masse from those of us concerned about what appears to be excessive striped bass mortality and the need to lower fishing mortality across the board. This is indeed a good thing. But a lot of that correspondence was misdirected and accusatory. So, I want to point out here that most state managers, and certainly the ones from New York, are good people who genuinely want to do the right thing for the resource. Their departments are generally underfunded (to a large extent because, at least in the case of NJ and NY, a small fringe element within the fishing community was able to defeat a saltwater license that would have provided a significant source of funding so that these folks could successfully do their respective jobs), they work very hard and have to deal with a wide array of stakeholders. Unfortunately, the loudest stakeholders appear to be the ones who want to kill more fish. But like I said, state managers are indeed good people, doing the best they can with the resources they have. They certainly don’t deserve directed criticism that they aren’t doing their jobs, because they are, I believe to the best of their ability.
Moving on… Let me try and address some of the comments.
First, I was accused of lying about the frequent presence of party boats fishing for bass outside of the 3 mile limit, and asked if I’d stand by the statements I made in the blog if a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request were filed for the Vessel Trip Report data from the for-hire fleet. Well… that’s pretty darn silly. I wouldn’t think that anyone (charter or partyboat) would be stupid enough to fill in a location and species that was, well, illegal. That would be self-incriminating. So no I would not expect to find that data on the VTR reports. But having seen it with my own two eyes, I most certainly stand by those statements.
I was also asked to identify the party boats that I saw out there, and asked whether I have photo documentation. Well, actually I do. But a few things here. First of all, I’m not in the business of ratting people out on the Internet; it’s law enforcement’s responsibility to curtail this, and from what I’ve heard, they plan to do so. Although I’m not aware of any for-hire boats having been written up yet, the Coast Guard recently bagged some violators in the EEZ off Fire Island. Second, whatever photos I, or others may have likely do not show location. I really doubt anyone out there has a camera with GPS capabilities, but perhaps someone should get one. At any rate, from a policy standpoint, it doesn’t matter which boats are out there; the fact that any professional captains are seeking bass in the EEZ is a problem that needs to be fixed. Boats are simply doing what they have been able to get away with for years. If anyone is claiming that fishing in the EEZ simply doesn’t happen, or rarely happens, they’re just wrong.
One commenter—the pinhooker–claimed that no one would really ever even think about going to the Old Ambrose Light area to fish for bass. I don’t want to say that he’s intentionally trying to mislead people, but it seems pretty startling that anyone operating in the New York Bight doesn’t know that during the last five seasons there has been a serious aggregation of fish in this area, usually starting in Mid April, lasting weeks, sometimes over a month. I suppose that it’s possible that he somehow didn’t pick up on it, but without-a-doubt, the bass—and the boats–have been there.
What made that comment even more interesting is that the pinhooker claims that for four decades he has been “working on boats, pin hooking, working in an “on the water marine law enforcement unit””. I have also worked in law enforcement—as a Coast Guardsman right there in New York Bight—and I learned pretty quickly that the area supports a community of poachers engaged in the illegal sale of just about anything that swims, including striped bass, not to mention widespread violations of recreational regulations (you don’t have to take my word for this; the violations are well-documented in the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s Law Enforcement Reports, which may be found at http://www.somas.stonybrook.edu/community/MRAC/index.html.) Now, please let me be perfectly clear about this—I am not suggesting that the pinhooker, or anyone else who has commented on my blog, is guilty of violating any fisheries laws or regulations, and I have no evidence to suggest that is so. However, I have to wonder how anyone could be in marine law enforcement for decades, zealously enforcing the fisheries laws of the State of New York, while simultaneously being accepted as a member of the recreational and commercial fishing industries in that region. In my opinion, given the various characters involved, it must have been a very challenging and interesting experience.
I was further accused of attacking party and private boats for catching limits of striped bass. That was not my intent. As I mentioned in the blog and then the clarification, I don’t blame the party boats, the owners/captains, or the anglers on them. They are just following the rules. What I intended to attack were the rules that allow such excessive harvest to take place. Those rules need to be fixed, by reducing fishing mortality until striped bass abundance starts showing an upward trend again.
Which brings us to the ASMFC and my “objective to try to influence fishery managers at the upcoming ASMFC meeting to adopt a unmerited 50% reduction on the for-hire/recreational sector.” Yep, that observation is pretty much spot on, save for the “unmerited” part.
The assertion of some members of the for-hire and commercial fishing industries still make, that everything is okay with striped bass, is flat out wrong. Yes, the striped bass stock is currently neither over fished, nor is over fishing occurring. I never argued otherwise. (Please see prior blog: CCA MD HAS IT RIGHT ON STRIPED BASS, and THE STRAIGHT DOPE ON STRIPED BASS blogs). That said, there are very few serious striped bass anglers left who don’t agree the striped bass population has declined precipitously. That view has been validated by the 2013 Benchmark stock assessment, which was just peer-reviewed by independent fisheries experts and will be discussed extensively at this week’s ASMFC meeting. That assessment shows just such a decline since 2006, says that without any reduction in fishing mortality, overfishing is a virtual certainty in 2014, and notes there is an increased chance of an overfished stock by 2015/2016. That stock assessment, recommends that the fishing mortality reference points be reduced from the current fishing mortality target of 0.30 and fishing mortality threshold of 0.34 to a fishing mortality target of 0.180 and a fishing mortality threshold 0.219. Maybe that’s not the 50% reduction in fishing mortality that precaution would dictate but it’s a very significant reduction nonetheless. Thus, anyone who says that there is no science to support a harvest reduction, or that any such reduction is “unmerited” doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and is probably doing nothing more than misrepresenting the health of the stock in order to preserve his or her own short-term economic interests.
However, I agree with those who argue that there are environmental factors that are affecting “natural mortality”, and that these factors could have a greater impact on striped bass mortality than what is likely perpetuated in federal waters. But fishermen who use such an argument in opposition to conservation measures either don’t understand how fish population dynamics work, or they simply choose not to acknowledge it. They say, in effect, that “it’s not our fault so we should be able to just continue to beat on a declining stock”. The fact of the matter is that natural mortality, plus fishing mortality equals total mortality, and it’s total mortality that matters. So if higher levels of natural mortality are now occurring in tidal estuaries and on the spawning grounds, it means that it is even more important to reduce fishing mortality not only because of its own impact on the stock, but to compensate for higher levels of natural mortality as well. Fish killed in federal waters, which certainly contribute to fishing mortality, become a greater, and not a lesser, problem given the inshore problems referenced in the comment.
Commenters questioned my remarks about building a business and lifestyle around striped bass, and noted that there are others (party/charter guys) who have built a business around striped bass as well. I wish them all well; they deserve to maintain and enjoy that lifestyle and business as much as I do, but not at the expense of the long-term sustainability of the resource. My business model is built around catching and safely releasing most striped bass caught; although my fares do keep a bass from time to time, that’s not essential to my success. But too many boat owners built their business model around killing as many fish as possible, conditioning their customers to believe that their goal should be a “striped bass slaughter” and the boat being “limited out.” That paints them into a very small corner at a time when the number of people living near the coast is increasing rapidly, and the stresses on all fish, including striped bass, are increasing as a result. If the ASMFC decides to reduce fishing mortality (implement the lower fishing mortality reference points as advised by the stock assessment) and the party/charter fleet loses their second fish, I don’t for a minute believe that will have “severe and immediate economic consequences” to their operations. Yet if it does, they have only themselves to blame, for actively perpetuating the attitude that success can be measured only in dead fish. Still, I believe that, without that second fish, most anglers will likely keep coming back. Because really, they aren’t coming back simply to put meat in the cooler; most are likely fishing for the experience (even so, one 20-pound fish is enough meat for an awful long while).
This became pretty clear to me last week after reviewing the results of a recent NMFS survey of more than 9,000 saltwater anglers. The survey asked anglers what made a good fishing experience, what they thought of fisheries management, what issues were most important to them, etc. The single most important issue for anglers was not killing a limit, or being able to take more and smaller fish, as many of the so-called “anglers’ rights” or “angler advocacy” groups so often claim. The issue that had fully 95% of those surveyed saying was either extremely or somewhat important was assuring that future generations have a quality fishing experience. Just catching fish was important to 83%. About 40% wanted to catch a lot of fish to take home, and maybe about a third said that it was important to kill a limit of fish. So when you hear the industry voices saying that people have to kill a lot of fish or they won’t go fishing, and opposing conservation measures as a result, I’m pretty sure it’s those guys who are out of step.
In the end, what we’re all talking about here is a public resource. The public’s reaction to the legal “limiting out”, and all the photos of dead stripers was pretty clear. The vast majority of the fishing public doesn’t seem to want this continued mortality during what is so obviously a downturn in the striped bass population. ASMFC should be taking note, not only to this, but to the clear fact that the stock assessment as well as the striped bass technical committee is recommending a clear reduction in fishing mortality. Whether the Commissioners heed this remains to be seen. We will know soon enough.