Hopes, Fears and The Future

Recreational anglers at sunset

My fishing seasons begin bright with hope and filled with expectations.

Last year’s mistakes and missed opportunities have been recalled and dissected all winter; plans have been laid to assure better outcomes next time. And those next times are coming soon. The marina has promised that, sometime later this week, my boat will go into the water, and I’m caught up in an almost childlike anticipation.

And then my adult side kicked in.

It’s hard not to note that it’s the middle of May, and my boat still sits dry in the boatyard, surrounded by a legion of others. That’s something new.

Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, we tried to get our boats into the water by March, when the ice was gone from the bay and winter flounder had started to stir. Back then, St. Patrick’s Day marked the unofficial start of the flounder season, and everyone tried to get out for a shot at the first fresh fish of the year.

But flounder populations started to fall in the 1980s. When managers here in New York tried to halt the decline with more restrictive regulations, the recreational fishing industry pushed back. The party boats argued that their clients must maintain the “perception” that they could bring home a load of fish, even if they usually didn’t, while the tackle shops said that flounders were the fish that first brought customers into their stores each spring, and so remained important to their businesses, even if there weren’t many around.

Regulations tough enough to protect the fish were thus never adopted, and now the flounder are just about gone. In March and April of 1989, New York anglers brought more than 1,500,000 of them home; in 2017, they kept around 650.

Cod are just about gone, too. There are fewer red hake (we call them “ling”) on the wrecks, and the April mackerel run doesn’t run any more. There are so few fish around in the early season that there’s no longer much of a need to put the boat in before May.

And even May fishing seems to be under siege.

Right now, we can still find some striped bass. This year, there should be a lot of small ones around, ten-pound-class fish from a good spawn in 2011, and a bunch of real runts from 2015. But the big, fecund females that produce the most, and the most viable, eggs will be scarce. The last big year class spawned before 2011 was produced in 2003, and its abundance has been whittled away by years of fishing pressure. Older fish, from the big 1993, 1996 and 2001 year classes, have been subject to even more years of harvest, and are even harder to find.

A recent stock assessment update revealed that the striped bass stock is very nearly overfished.

Despite that fact, and the many recent below-average spawns—2012 was the worst ever recordedthe Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is thinking about changing the “reference points” used to manage the stock. Some ASMFC members have already proposed an increase in the allowable fishing mortality rate and a reduction of the spawning stock biomass target. If such changes are made, even fewer of the old, fecund females will be left in the stock to ensure the bass’ future, and get the stock through those times when adverse environmental conditions hamper spawning success.

Yet, although I enjoy fishing for striped bass, I spend most of May fishing for weakfish, a beautiful and iconic species that has entranced generations of Long Island anglers. In recent years, I’ve caught very few; the population is badly depleted. Increased natural mortality, from causes unknown, seems to be a big part of the problem. In 2009, biologists suggested that a complete prohibition on harvest would help the stock recover should natural mortality decline, but ASMFC decided to allow continued harvest. Nearly a decade later, there are few signs that a recovery will occur.

Still, when the weakfish are scarce, there are usually bluefish. Blues are the traditional day-saver, the fish that May anglers can always catch when they can’t catch anything else.

Last year, though, there weren’t many blues in the bay. A stock assessment released in 2015 indicated that abundance had declined to 85% of the target level, and some anglers, who are seeing fewer fish, have expressed concern. Even so, the ASMFC and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) have initiated a process that could further reduce bluefish abundance by reallocating fish currently caught and released by recreational anglers, to the commercial sector.

And then there’s summer flounder.

Our season opened on May 4th this year, and with little else to fish for, anglers are already focusing most of their efforts on whatever summer flounder there are, even though at least six consecutive years of poor spawning success has caused a decline in summer flounder abundance.

That decline has been significant. In 2016, the MAFMC’s Science and Statistical Committee warned that “the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as next year if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not undertaken.” Fishery managers heeded that warning and reduced the summer flounder catch limit for 2017.

But just one year later, both the MAFMC and ASMFC chose to ignore the advice of the MAFMC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Monitoring Committee, which recommended that recreational regulations not be relaxed in 2018, fearing that New Jersey’s failure to comply with ASMFC’s summer flounder management plan, along with changes to recreational effort estimates, have added significant management uncertainty to the recreational fishery.

So the future of the summer flounder appears cloudy as well.

Going into this season, I can’t help tempering my anticipation with the fear that the health of our fish stocks is headed downhill, knowing that even if the fishing this year isn’t very good, it might be the best fishing we’ll see for a while.

At the same time, I caught my first fish in 1956, and one of the advantages of spending years on the water is that you gain a bit of perspective.

While the immediate future of some of our fish stocks looks grim, I know from experience that things can also get better.

I fished through the collapse of the striped bass stock in the late 1970s and 1980s. I also fished through its recovery to its peak of recent abundance a decade after that. So I know that declines in abundance can be reversed.

Striped bass isn’t the only stock that I’ve seen rebuild. Two or three decades ago, summer flounder, scup and black sea bass were all badly overfished, and bluefish were getting scarce. But those fish, too, were restored to abundance by hard work, good fisheries laws and effective regulation.

I’ve learned that good fishing and good management go hand in hand, and that the best way to get good fishery management is to stand up and demand it. If anglers don’t want more striped bass killed, or their bluefish allocations cut, they need to turn out for the hearings that will be coming up, contact their state fishery managers and their representatives at the MAFMC and ASMFC, and make it clear that such changes are bad for the fish, and for fishermen as well.

And anglers need to make sure that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), the law that rebuilt the summer flounder and bluefish, the black sea bass and scup, remains strong and effective. They must resist the blandishments of the snake-oil salesmen who support legislation such as the Modern Fish Act or, worse, H.R. 200, and would trade the future health of fish stocks for a bigger short-term kill.

Fish populations have gone downhill before. Bad management decisions have also been made.

But Magnuson-Stevens, and dedicated fishery managers, have a solid track record of rebuilding fish stocks. So long as we keep that law strong, and insist that managers focus on long-term abundance, not on short-term landings, the problems we face going into this season—which are very real—are problems that can be solved.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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