And That’s Why It’s So Good…

NOAA Fisheries approves the Mid Atlantic Council’s “Unmanaged Forage” Amendment, ensuring future recreational fishing opportunities, like the one we’re experiencing now…

By Capt. John McMurray

If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you know that we’re having probably the best topwater bluefin tuna bite anyone has ever seen in my neck of the woods. I’m talking craziness. 150-pound fish crushing poppers in a spectacular fashion.

I mean, it’s nuts… You throw a big popper ahead of a school of pushing fish, pull it, and one or two 60-plus-inch fish slash though the water missing it. Pull it again, and a solid 100-plus-pounds of pure muscle leaps completely out of the water and smashes the thing.

What ensues is pure unadulterated awesomeness. The water explodes… Everyone on the boat screams some gratuitous obscenity, usually punctuated by the term “holy” in front of it; I start screaming “Set the hook, set the hook!”; and then… the drag on that beautiful Van Staal sings as line dumps off the reel at close to 50mph. It’s truly a wonderful sound.

The following 30 minutes to sometimes well over an hour is a white-knuckle pull-up-reel-down exercise. You gain some line, the fish takes it right back. All while I’m behind the helm shouting orders while jockeying the boat to keep the fish going under the boat and getting cut off.

And then the gaff, and sometimes even the harpoon comes out, or better yet, the dehooker. And the end game –the most perilous part, when there’s the highest risk of the fish breaking off or spitting the hook — when the fish comes in the boat, or we intentionally pop the hook and it swims away… We’re all high-fiving…

I can’t even describe the joy man. I live for this stuff!

Why are these fish here?

Pretty damn simple. Because of a seasonal, somewhat dependable sandeel aggregation.

I am pretty close to certain that these fish are here, within striking distance, for no other reason but to feed on shoals of these small slender baitfish. At times the bait is so thick, I can’t even mark bottom on my sounder.

My first job as a charter boat captain, when I get underway each morning, is to find such bait. If it ain’t in one spot, I move to the next. I look for the usual indicators – the whales, dolphins, storm petrels, sheerwaters etc. Basically any of the melange of species that eat sandeels.

We really don’t start fishing until I find it.

Sure, those bluefin could be on squid, or butterfish, or something else. But it’s those sandeels that bring them here. Those things absolutely drive these time and area bites, which can and often do last not weeks, but months.

And it ain’t just sandeels, nor is it simply tuna we’re talking about here. Every fishery that I prosecute, i.e. striped bass, bluefish, summer flounder, mahi mahi, yellowfin etc… relies on unique, seasonal bait aggregations. Having spent the better part of the last 20 years on the water, I’m very conversant with these specific seasonal species relationships that drive the same sorta time and area bites, like the bluefin one described above.

For instance, bay anchovies drive the fall false albacore bite, and they fuel striped bass blitzes in Montauk. Without those anchovies we don’t really get either one. The same could be said for Atlantic silverside (aka spearing) in the back bays. They drive a lot of that mud-flat fishing with poppers etc. And “half-beaks” (what are really Atlantic Saury)… they are responsible for a lot of that late-season bluefin action, especially up in Cape Cod. I could go on here, but I’ll spare ya.

In case you haven’t gotten it yet, the point of all this is all these, up to now, unprotected baitfish (aka “forage fish”) are pretty damn important. Not just in the context of how they drive time and area specific opportunity for anglers and charter boat captains, but because, well, predators (cetacea, finfish, birds etc.) simply need things to eat. And they need a lot of them, in the areas and times that they historically show.

Yet, it’s very true that the very same schooling/balling characteristics unique to such forage fish make them entirely susceptible to large scale harvest for some sort of new/developing large-scale/low-value fishery.

 The Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (MAFMC) “Unmanaged Forage” Action.

In what was a historically relevant act of forward thinking, the Mid Atlantic Council recognized such vulnerability, and initiated an action to protect what they considered “forage” species from such large scale fishing. I should be clear here that the intent was not to prohibit fishing on such forage, but to make sure that any such fishery had the science behind it to show that it was sustainable. Not just from a yield perspective, but from an ecosystem one.

What followed was a two year collaborate process where the Council hashed out what was to be included on the “protected list”, and how such species were to be protected.

Late in June NOAA Fisheries approved the Amendment, or at least most of it.   No, we didn’t get everything we wanted. For instance false albacore, which was and still is highly susceptible to a large scale fishery, and by most accounts is indeed forage for large tunas, billfish and sharks got taken off the list in Committee. And in the end, NOAA fisheries took out bullet and frigate mackerel. But pretty much all of the real important stuff is covered.

The Council ended up protecting over fifty important forage species from the sort of devastating fisheries that could harvest hundreds of millions of pounds of forage-fish for fishmeal, fish-oil etc…

And that is pretty freak’n huge!

A collaborative process.

What is particularly relevant about such a forward thinking action is the collaborative process it took to get us here.

Consensus was developed at the Council’s Advisory Panel Meetings. Such Advisory Panels are made up of stakeholders, including commercial fishermen, anglers, for-hire operators, dealers, and other members of the interested public, who have unique perspectives and a real understanding of relevant fisheries.

At such meetings it was determined what constituted a directed fishery of significant scale, what forage species should remain on the list, etc.

Such a collaborative approach wasn’t unique to the Council’s forage fish action. The process that allowed the Council to complete a Deep-Sea Corals Protection Amendment involved numerous stakeholder meeting/workshops, and well documented concessions from those fishing the area and those who wanted the max area protected.

Everyone gave a little, and in the end, what the Council ended up with was a durable and largely supported plan. And that appears to be the case with the Unmanaged Forage Amendment as well.

A Blueprint for Future Management Action

In the end… I think what the Council did here, in collaboration with all stakeholders, with its Unmanaged Forage Amendment as well as its Deep-Sea Corals Amendment, provides a good blueprint for future management action.

Working with stakeholders, developing consensus, and trying to reach general agreement on an outcome. I know that’s not possible on every issue, but that’s what the Council should strive for, and as I term off this August, I hope that they do moving forward.

They owe it to the resource, and to the public… Not just those who depend on it, but also those who intuitively want healthy and abundant marine resources.

But for now, it’s time to celebrate the passage of the Unmanaged Forage Amendment, and what we did to effectively protect the bait, not to mention all the businesses like mine that depend on it!


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    This is What I'm Thankful For - Marine Fish Conservation Network