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IN VIRGINA BEACH, BIG DECISIONS WITH BLUEFISH AND MACKEREL

The Council and Commission met in August, here’s what went down

By John McMurray

The Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council met jointly with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission August 13 to August 15th.  As is usually the case, quite a few things happened.  But for this summary, we will try and focus on those subjects that are of immediate interest to anglers.

The first on that list is bluefish. 

On Wednesday the Commission’s Bluefish Board met with the Council to do specifications for the 2019 fishing year, but also to review the Bluefish Allocation Amendment scoping comments.  That amendment was initiated in order to review the Fishery Management Plan’s (FMP) goals and objectives, commercial/recreational allocations, commercial allocations to the states, the quota transfer processes, plus any other issues that might arise during scoping.

Before we get to that though, let’s cover the specs, because what went down illustrates the need for the sort of reform that should be a part of the Bluefish Allocation Amendment.

First, the Bluefish Board and Council were presented with a Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) Meeting Report, which was somewhat sobering.  According the Chair of the SSC, bluefish numbers are headed downward.  There is a clear lack of recruitment, and we may very well be faced with more constraining measures in the coming years.

Next, we received a bluefish “data update” for 2018.  Without getting too much into the weeds, it indicated recreational landings were way down in 2017.  Why that might be the case is of course a guessing game, but there was some comment about lack of availability, a clear indication of stock decline.  But there was also some speculation about the increasing conservation trend in the bluefish fishery to release fish, rather than keep them.

Regardless of the cause, what this meant was simply that more fish could be transferred to the commercial side.  That’s because the current Bluefish FMP starts out by giving the recreational side approximately 80% of the bluefish quota, but any part of that quota that isn’t harvested by anglers can and does get transferred to the commercial sector.  Because we didn’t land a lot of fish in 2017, a lot were available to transfer to the commercial side. If the entire transfer happened per the monitoring committee’s recommendation, the commercial sector would have actually gotten MORE quota than the recreational side for the first time since such a transfer system was put in place.

After a long discussion and a few motions/substitute motions, the Council and Commission agreed to transfer considerably less than what the monitoring committee recommended.  Reasons for that were many, but one of the big ones was the uncertainty in the bluefish fishery.  If there were suddenly a lot of fish around, the recreational sector would almost certainly exceed their allocation.  Given the SSC report, there were also concerns about the health of the bluefish stock in general.

The bigger issue in all of this, however, is the fact that unharvested bluefish – fish that anglers don’t land because in many cases they chose to release them – can and are transferred to the commercial side.  And, well, that kind of defeats the entire purpose of catch and release.  This is problematic given that the recreational fishery is in large part a release fishery.  In other words, it’s done for sport.  And releases are done, so that fish remain in the water, and we can catch them again.

Segueing into the Bluefish Allocation Amendment, we are hoping, and in fact are pushing, for some sort of accounting for the value of that release fishery.  In other words, the recreational fishery is valued for the experience of catching fish, rather than simply for putting fish in the cooler.  Part of the recreational quota should take the form of fish left in the water to support a catch-and-release fishery.  This is a proposal that we are trying very hard to have included as an alternative in the Bluefish Allocation Amendment.

The danger in all of this is that during this process, managers may look at declining bluefish landings and increasing commercial landings, and allocate way more fish to the commercial side.  Given the importance of bluefish to anglers, particularly us light tackle guides, that would be bad.  Very bad.  Stay tuned as this develops, because we WILL need your help with this.

Mackerel

The Council’s Atlantic Mackerel Committee met on Monday.  The results of that meeting were, well, unfortunate.

A mackerel stock assessment was recently completed, and is awaiting peer review. It shows what we all already knew.  Mackerel are overfished and overfishing is occurring.  As such the Council is required to rebuild the mackerel resource in as short a time as possible, not to exceed 10 years.

At this meeting the Council was presented with rebuilding alternatives.  Alternatives ranged from plans that would rebuild the mackerel stock in 10 years and plans that actually would rebuild it in three years.

The caveat to all of this is that there is one good/abundant year class (2015) coming through the ranks.  And so, to rebuild in 10 or even 5 years, the Council could actually increase harvest.  The three-year option, the “shortest amount of time possible” alternative, would actually constrain the fishery, though.

Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, the Council chose the less conservative 5-year option, to avoid constraining the industrial small-mesh-net mid-water trawl fishery, and by association the Atlantic herring fishery.

Obviously, the Council chose not to rebuild mackerel in “as short amount of time possible.”  NOAA fisheries made clear that the 5-year rebuilding alternative wasn’t the shortest amount of time possible, and they voted against the 5-year alternative motion.  Still, it passed.  Whether it’s even legal or not needs to be determined.  It’s entirely possible that NOAA Fisheries may overrule the Council on this one. Stay tuned.

Another real bummer occurred when the Council agreed to ratchet up the river herring and shad bycatch cap for the mackerel fishery, as the mackerel quota increases with the 2015 year class coming into the fishery.  The intent of such cap is to incentivize avoidance.  But given that the cap was exceeded in short order this year, well, that approach doesn’t appear to be working.  The right thing to do is to keep the cap at the same level.  As readers likely know, river herring and shad stocks are not in great shape.  That likely has to do, at least in part, with the bycatch that happens at sea in the mackerel fishery.  Allowing such bycatch to increase certainly won’t help.  In the end, this is a good example of why river herring and shad really need to be managed under their own federal fishery management plan.  Attempts to make that happen thus far have, of course, failed.  Frankly it needs a legislative fix.  More on this at a later date.

Black Seabass, Summer Flounder and Scup

The Council and Commission met jointly on that Tuesday and Wednesday to adopt specifications for scup and review specifications for the black sea bass, bluefish, and summer flounder fisheries. The Council and Commission received data updates for all three species, including catch, landings, and survey indices. They established 2019 catch and landings limits for the summer flounder, scup, black sea bass, and bluefish fisheries. No real big news here as far as size and bag limit increase/decreases.

The Council and Commission discussed a joint action that includes alternatives for conservation equivalency for black sea bass and summer flounder, Block Island Sound transit provisions, and slot limits for all three species. Both groups reviewed and approved a range of alternatives, and the Commission approved Draft Addendum XXXI for public comment.

The Council and Commission discussed the black seabass wave 1 (Jan, Feb) fishery and eventually voted to open the 2019 wave 1 recreational black sea bass fishery to anglers through the regular specification process with a season of February 1 – 28, a 15-fish possession limit, a 12.5-inch minimum size, and a 100,000-pound allocation divided to the states based on historical wave 1 catch. These management measures are the same as were implemented for 2018. The Council and Commission also discussed developing a Letter of Authorization (LOA) program to open the wave 1 fishery in future years but ultimately decided not to move forward with that.

 

 

 

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