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At Mid Atlantic Council’s June 2018 Meeting, Here’s What Went Down

Photo by Angelo Peluso

The Council met this week, here’s what you should know

By Capt. John McMurray

There were really only three agenda items during this meeting that are of importance to anglers. Although before getting to those, we want to point out that during the Law Enforcement Committee report on Tuesday, a NOAA Law Enforcement Officer reported writing over 40 violations this spring for anglers fishing for striped bass in federal waters off of New Jersey.

As readers of Fissues likely know, striper fishing outside of three miles is prohibited under federal regulation. That prohibition was put into place 30 years ago, to protect strong year classes entering the population and to promote rebuilding of a once overfished population. Today it serves as a badly needed protection zone for those larger older striped bass.

The point is this: The Exclusive Economic Zone (that area from 3 miles from the shore out to 200 miles) is off limits. It is clearly marked on GPS units, so ignorance is not an excuse. Keep your striped bass fishing inside of it. Because Law Enforcement is indeed enforcing it, as they should be.

Moving on, the first noteworthy item on the agenda was mackerel. We covered the mackerel situation back in April: WELL OF COURSE MACKEREL ARE OVERFISHED, but the short version is that almost the entire mackerel quota—90% of it—was caught by the commercial fleet by the end of February. That put the mackerel landings limit to 20,000 pounds per boat. If, or should we say, “when” the mackerel quota is reached—and that is forecasted to happen this fall—commercial boats will be prohibited from landing ANY mackerel in federal waters

That made the big midwater trawlers in New England, which target herring on a grand scale, quite nervous, as they catch mackerel in large quantities while targeting Atlantic herring.

So, in response to such concern, the Council developed alternatives for a bycatch allowance to keep the herring fleet in business. At this meeting they ultimately agreed on a five-thousand-pound limit.

Yes, there were a lot of folks who were thinking they would simply shut that fishery down as an avoidance measure. And that likely would have been a good thing for anglers up there who thrive on those time and area aggregations of herring, which bring in bluefin, striped bass etc. But, we’ve been in this business long enough to know that wasn’t going to happen.

Why is this important? Well, mackerel are indeed becoming more abundant, which is due to a single strong year class spawned in 2015. That is of course a good thing, but the Council is gearing up to allow a greater amount of pressure on them, when they really should be trying to protect the first good year class we’ve seen in an awful long time. We’ll stay on top of this. And there WILL be opportunities for anglers to weigh in. Stay tuned.

The next important agenda item was chub mackerel. For a brief history on Chub, and how we got to where we are now, check out Fissues’ chub mackerel species description and history.

Chub are important to the offshore community, because in recent years they have driven significant time and area bites for billfish, bluefin, yellowfin, and mahi. But a few boats in the squid fishery really started ramping up effort on them a few years ago. They went from almost no landings to 5 million pounds in just a few years.

The Council reacted to that increase by capping the fishery at the most recent 3 year average, as part of the Council’s Unmanaged Forage Amendment. But that was intended to be an interim measure. In 2021, that cap sunsets. The intent was to give the Council time to develop long-term, science-based catch limits, which accounted for chub’s role as an important prey source for tunas and billfish.

Yet, the Council has since been struggling to figure out a way to manage them. An amendment was initiated just about year ago to include them as a stock in the Squid, Mackerel, Butterfish Fishery Management Plan. But moving forward with this has been problematic, mostly due to a clear lack of data on the species, and what eats it. It is very difficult to develop reference points (i.e overfishing limits, biomass targets, etc) when you don’t have the science.

Furthermore, while everyone spends any real time offshore knows, tuna and billfish eat the crap out of those things (larger mahi do, too), there is very little non-anecdotal data to support such a contention. And as you can imagine, industry says such angler contention is BS.

So at this meeting, we received a presentation on where we are now. Efforts are underway to collect data, but they are lacking to say the least. According to Council staff, a tuna/billfish stomach contents survey (from Maine to New Jersey) will take place during this summer and next. But there are a few problems here. One, chub aggregations are episodic. One year they are supper abundant in large tightly-packed schools and tuna are crashing though them. The following year they are around, but dispersed and not tightly packed. And then the following two or 3 years, they may not show up at all. So, while everyone knows that tunas and billfish eat chub in large quantities when they are around, they won’t show up in the stomach contents surveys if they aren’t around, and it’s entirely possible that they won’t be around over the next couple of seasons. If that happens, well then industry will just push that chub are not a significant food source for tunas and billfish, and claim they should be able to knock the crap outta them without consequence.

We can tell you with certainty though, chub drive time and area bites for billfish and tuna. I’ve personally taken part in them.

Another issue with such a survey is that, sure they can look in tuna stomachs, but they sure as hell aren’t gonna survey many billfish stomachs, because few people kill them. I supposed a few dead ones come to the dock, but it isn’t many. So how they plan to account for billfish diets is a big question mark.

Lastly, the Council doesn’t expect to have the results of the survey until early 2020. Given the sunset date on the current cap, and the timeline of the Amendment, the Council won’t be able to use the results to make decisions on alternatives. And that is a huge bummer.

What the Council is talking about now is delaying any effort to address things like localized depletion and splitting that off into a possible/uncertain future action. Given the Council’s proclivity to delay important conservation action, and what could be a rapidly escalating fishery, that makes us nervous. Stay tuned on this issue.

On the brighter side, the Council did approve a strong set of goals and objectives for the Amendment. After some wordsmithing, such objectives clearly stated the Council’s intent have a sustainable fishery, and to account for chub’s role in the marine ecosystem.

The only hitch there was the inclusion of “to the extent practicable” language. In our eyes, what that effectively does is give the Council an out, if they decide they don’t have enough data, or it’s just too hard. And that would be unacceptable. There was an attempt to remove that language, but it failed, because the Regional Administrator felt that it bound them to what may not be an accomplishable task.

All this said, the intent of the Council to account for chubs’ role as prey was made clear, on the record. So there’s that.

Lastly, there was a public hearing on an Atlantic Herring Amendment 8 on Tuesday. This Amendment, which seeks to move forward with managing herring as prey, and address localized depletion of the herring resource by the midwater trawl fleet, could be a huge step in the right direction as far as ecosystem based fishery management goes. The comment period extends to June 25th, and we’re currently writing a full piece on this, in hopes to generate letters from anglers, so keep an eye out for that.

The 30 or so people who showed up spoke clearly, in favor of buffer zones off of Long Island and New England. By buffer zones, we mean areas where large mid-water trawls targeting herring won’t be allowed to fish.

Attendees also spoke in favor of adopting a “forage-based control rule”. Support for “Alternative 2” was unanimous because it maintains a higher biomass target, in order to account for herring’s role in the ecosystem; and temporarily cuts off all fishing when a low biomass threshold is reached.

We’re keeping an eye on Amendment 8 and will provide updates here as we get them.

The above discussed items are really the only one that warrant attention from anglers this go around.

Stay tuned as these issues develop. We’ll keep you up to date @ Fissues.org.

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