Anglers and bluefish have a complicated relationship.
We call them “yellow-eyed demons” when they show up in the surf, attacking lures meant for striped bass. And we call them worse things farther offshore, when they show up to ruin shark baits and mangle carefully-rigged—and expensive—ballyhoo intended for tuna.
But when they burst through the surface of a calm summer sea, leaping completely clear of the water before landing headfirst on a topwater plug, we have to admit, however reluctantly, that they are one of the great gamefish of our northeast coast.
Still, great gamefish aren’t always great food fish, and that’s certainly true with big blues.
Small bluefish, fresh from the sea and still lean from their travels, can taste pretty good. Even larger ones that have been feeding on squid, sand eels and butterfish in deep ocean waters can be enjoyable. But once bluefish invade inshore waters and begin feeding on menhaden, their flesh becomes too oily and strong-tasting for most people’s palates.
Thus, most bluefish caught by anglers today are released.
That wasn’t always the case.
During the early years of the fishery, recreational fishermen killed most of their catch, even if they had no intention of eating them. I remember boats coming back to the dock in the 1960s and ‘70s, the anglers on board calling out “Who wants some bluefish?” even before the boats were tied up in their slips.
They got very few takers.
In those days, before states licensed their commercial fishermen, some of the unwanted bluefish were sold to local restaurants. Some were given to (often, almost forced on) reluctant neighbors, while others fertilized gardens. Far too many ended up in a dumpster or were returned, dead, to the bay.
Because bluefish weren’t in much demand as a food fish, the commercial fishery was small; through the 1980s, it only amounted to about 10% of the overall landings. As noted in the initial Fishery Management Plan for the Bluefish Fishery, released in 1989, “bluefish comprise a small percentage of all finfish harvested commercially along the Atlantic coast primarily because the commercial bluefish market is unstable, easily saturated, and characterized by low dockside prices.”
Because anglers so dominated bluefish landings, the original fishery management plan allocated 80% of the bluefish harvest to the recreational sector. When the management plan was amended in 1998, the allocation was amended as well, to 83% recreational and 17% commercial, with the proviso that if the commercial quota in any year was less than 10.5 million pounds, and recreational fishermen were not expected to land their entire quota in that year, a portion of the unharvested recreational quota could be transferred to the commercial sector.
That allocation was based on recreational and commercial landings during the years 1981 through 1989.
During those years, anglers in the New England/Mid-Atlantic region still killed most of their bluefish, releasing only 21% of all the fish caught. Since then, a conservation ethic has pervaded the fishery. In the most recent decade, 2008-2017, that release rate has tripled, with 62% of all bluefish caught returned to the water.
Anglers have come to realize that fishing is more enjoyable when fish were abundant, and that they can help to assure such abundance by releasing unwanted bluefish, instead of using them for crab bait. Unfortunately, it seems that the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Mid-Atlantic Council) and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) now want to penalize bluefish anglers for adopting that conservation ethic.
On April 30, in a joint meeting, the Mid-Atlantic Council and ASMFC’s Bluefish Management Board (Management Board) approved a Draft Scoping and Public Information Document for a proposed Bluefish Allocation Amendment to the Bluefish Management Plan (Scoping Document). One of the primary issues to be addressed in the Scoping Document is whether the current recreational/commercial allocation should be changed.
As the Scoping Document notes, “These allocations were developed using catch data from 1981-1989 (the years prior to regulations that may have affected both recreational and commercial landings) and are still the basis for current bluefish allocations. Stakeholders would like to see allocations reviewed using more recent catch histories.”
While that statement may be true, there are problems with its underlying premise.
Although the terms “catch data” and “catch histories” are widely used in fishery management, it would be far more accurate to say that the allocation and any reallocation of bluefish that might occur are based on “kill” data and “kill” histories, because fish that anglers return to the waters alive were never a part of the calculation.
That skews the allocation discussion, for in catch-and-release fisheries, the most important consideration isn’t sustainable yield, or the number of fish that can safely be removed from the water, but instead sustainable abundance, the number of fish available for anglers to catch, release, then hopefully catch again. Fish can be, and are, utilized, even if they are not killed.
That’s acknowledged in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which defines “optimum” yield as “the amount of fish which will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities… [emphasis added]”
Yet, despite the fact that such language clearly values recreational opportunity as much as it does food production, fishery managers still give purely recreational considerations little weight in their decisions, and instead practice what might be termed “dead fish management,” placing all of the emphasis on harvest. The Mid-Atlantic Council has never acknowledged that recreational fishermen are fully utilizing their bluefish allocation when they maximize recreational opportunities through catch and release.
Capt. John McMurray, an ASMFC commissioner from the State of New York, raised that point at the joint meeting, pointing out that the Scoping Document failed to address “the value of keeping fish in the water.” ASMFC staff agreed to add such language before the document was released to the public.
Capt. Tony DiLernia, who represents New York on the Mid-Atlantic Council, raised another important issue. He pointed out that the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), which estimates recreational catch and recreational harvest, is revising its figures for angling effort. And, as noted in the Scoping Document, “Preliminary MRIP calibration work suggests all effort estimations will increase ~3-5 times. This increase has the potential to drastically alter bluefish catch/landings/effort data for the shore and private angler modes.”
Thus, there is a very good chance that recreational bluefish landings will turn out to be much higher than previously believed, probably high enough that no reallocation of recreational quota to the commercial sector could be justified. Because of that, Capt. DiLernia suggested that the Scoping Document not be released until the revised MRIP data becomes public.
Until then, no one will know how many bluefish anglers truly catch, or kill.
New Jersey ASMFC commissioner Tom Fote agreed. He also reminded everyone that while striped bass may be considered more glamorous, bluefish are the “money fish” on the coast, the fish that, when they are abundant, attract tourists to the party boat fleets and force anglers to replace lures and other gear that the bluefish destroy. An abundance of bluefish is an economic boon.
Despite such arguments, the Mid-Atlantic Council and Management Board, on near-unanimous votes, decided to move forward with the reallocation process and release the Scoping Document for public comment.
That is unfortunate, because the Scoping Document effectively tells anglers that their conservation efforts will prove to be futile, for the fish that they choose to release will only be reallocated to, and killed by, the commercial sector. It tells them that, from an allocation standpoint, they were better off in the days when they fed their dead bluefish to rose bushes and dumpsters, compared to today, when they set most of their live bluefish free.
That is the wrong message to send, and not only because it is contrary to the clear language of Magnuson-Stevens.
It is wrong because it values dead fish more than live ones, when it is only live bluefish, abundant and available, that will allow both the recreational and commercial fisheries to thrive in the future, as well as today.