A stock assessment confirms what we already knew; now the Council needs to do something about it

If you have any real history on the water in the Mid Atlantic, you know, quite well… Mackerel stocks ain’t what they used to be.

Yes, there seem to be some fish from Cape Cod North, but even those guys would agree they are depleted compared to the 1980s, when head boats would run mackerel trips and many piers across New England were known for mackerel fishing.

Down here, we get some sporadic runs, but they are small and generally short lived. And that’s a bummer, because not only are mackerel an important prey species, attracting bluefish, striped bass and even bluefin tuna late (or very early) in the season, they historically supported a significant winter fishery. Those days seem to be long gone. Chalked up as another fishery gone under.

Why? Well, if you believe industry, or even NOAA up until quite recently, there are indeed fish out there, they maybe have just moved deep, or north, or farther offshore.

But to those of us who understand what went down with the industrial midwater-trawl fleet, well, it seems pretty clear that the rise of high-volume, low-value fisheries for Atlantic mackerel and sea herring certainly had something to do with it. Probably A LOT to do with it.

Most anglers, and even a great number of commercial fishermen would describe midwater trawls as, ahem, “problematic.” Not only do they catch hundreds and thousands of pounds of of mackerel and sea-herring in a single trip by pulling nets the size of football fields, they inadvertently catch lots of river-herring (bluebacks and alewives).

That “incidental” catch is no joke. We’re talking an estimation of hundreds of thousands of dead river herring and shad a year, sold as bait in states where anglers are prohibited from taking a single fish. And it ain’t news that river herring are in bad trouble. In fact they came really close to making it on the endangered species list just a couple of years ago. A great majority of the runs, at least in the Mid-Atlantic, are either completely gone or a shadow of what they used to be. If you are a striped bass fisherman, you know well how that impacted bites that revolved around that particular bait.

The scale of bycatch in the mackerel and herring fisheries were such that the New England and Mid-Atlantic Councils seriously considered adding them as stocks in the Mackerel, Squid, Butterfish Fishery Management Plan (FMP) and the Sea Herring FMP on a few different occasions. Such a designation would have forced the Council to create control rules for river herring and shad. Under federal law the Council would have had to deal with the river herring and shad bycatch in a very serious way.

While most of us would have greatly preferred to have seen river herring and shad as a stock in the fishery, instead, the Council opted to manage with “catch caps.” In other words, the mackerel (or sea herring) fishery gets greatly reduced or shut down when a certain number of river herring are caught, or more accurately, estimated as caught.

That, of course, has come with its own set of problems, given the minute levels of observer coverage in that fleet; the bycatch caps are currently based on history because there is no real way for those caps to be based on biology. But it’s certainly better than nothing.

To their credit, most of the midwater-trawl fleet participates in a voluntary avoidance program… But it’s become pretty obvious that isn’t working.

River Herring Caps Exceeded

On February 28 of this year, the mackerel fishery closed because of a high proportion of river-herring catch on the four trips that actually had observers on them. When that catch was extrapolated across the fleet, NOAA determined that the river herring cap was exceeded.

So now, only mackerel trips up to 20,000 pounds are allowed. Apparently, we are currently at 89% of the mackerel quota, so about 2 million pounds are left. If the full mackerel quota is reached, then the mackerel fishery gets shut down with a “zero possession limit.” This could have significant consequences for the herring fishery later this year since the species are often caught together.

On March 12, the Southern New England area of the herring fishery also closed because the river-herring catch exceeded that cap.

You gotta ask at this point, “What happened to the ‘voluntary avoidance program’”?

A New Benchmark Stock Assessment

So, here’s where we are now with all of this…

Because of substantial technical issues with the preceding stock assessment, the status of mackerel since 2010 has been classified as “unknown.”

Well, now there’s a new “draft” stock assessment. Although we are still waiting for the completion of the peer-review, which should happen soon, it resolves those prior technical issues, and details what everyone on the water has known for a long time: Mackerel are overfished and subject to overfishing.

So, under the conservation requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Council has to initiate a rebuilding plan.

It is our deep hope that the Council would seek to get catch limits in place designed to bring mackerel back to the abundance that once existed, which would benefit wildlife, predators, fishermen, and fishing businesses like mine.

One would certainly think that the Council would move for an immediate reduction in landings… But things are never that simple.

While yes, mackerel are overfished, there is an unusually strong incoming 2015 year class. So I suspect that industry will be pushing hard to increase landings because there are a few more fish around now, when any reasonable person would understand we should be reducing them.

I mean, really… Given the drastic and extended depleted state of the mackerel stock, is it a good idea to hammer it because of one anomalous year class?

Our answer would be a definitive “no,” but you can bet there will be a discussion to that effect.

You can also bet that folks will be arguing that we should increase the river herring and shad cap because such caps were exceeded this year, with the midwater-trawl industry likely playing the “economic harm” card. The cap (although it is based on a recent average and not the reductions necessary for conservation and recovery) is the only thing protecting already badly depleted river herring runs. And I can imagine the justification will be that there are a handful of river herring runs in New England that appear to be doing well, while our runs down here continue to suffer.

If the caps are increased, it will prove they are meaningless, like some of us worried all along. And it will illustrate exactly why river herring and shad need full conservation and management under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

April 10th Mid-Atlantic Council Meeting

As mentioned, because mackerel has been designated “overfished,” the Council HAS to initiate a rebuilding plan.

The Mid-Atlantic Council will meet on April 10th at the Montauk Yacht Club at 1pm to discuss and vote on a range of alternatives, and likely preferred ones, for such rebuilding plan.

They will also vote on the range of alternatives, including preferred ones, for three-year specifications (quotas) for mackerel, as well as the river herring and shad cap in the mackerel fishery.

Despite the overfishing designation, there will likely be strong industry pressure to actually increase mackerel quotas, based on the aforementioned 2015 year class. Like we said, that’s a BAD idea.

Equally bad would be the inevitable push to increase the river herring and shad cap simply because it’s been exceeded.

Final votes will happen at the June 5-7 council meeting in Philadelphia, PA.

Managers need to act now to bring back abundance of mackerel, river herring, and shad, which we enjoyed in the past. These were once some of the best fisheries on the East Coast, and there is no reason to think they can’t be again. You only need to look at menhaden to see what the future can be for all of these forage species if managers make the right decisions now for conservation.

Here’s What You Can Do

Email your state’s Council members (addresses can be found here). Let them know that increasing harvest of Atlantic mackerel right now is a bad idea. Increasing the river herring and shad cap is an equally bad one.

Do it now…

Or better yet, come to the meeting and express your concerns in person.