Holy Mackerel!

John McMurray

Did another large-scale fishery really just develop right under our noses?

Picking up from where I left off in my last post… I wanted to give readers a rundown on what happened during the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council meeting earlier this month, or at least the “Unmanaged Forage” portion of it.

If you read my last post, this might be redundant. But for those that didn’t, the quick recap is that the Council initiated an action last December that would prohibit any new large-scale fishery from developing for those forage species that currently don’t fall under any federal management plan (e.g. sandeels, bay anchovies, silversides etc.), unless, of course, such a fishery could be proven “sustainable” in the broad scheme of things.

Chub Mackerel

Chub Mackerel

I have to point out again that we’re not just talking about “sustainable” in the traditional sense — meaning taking as many fish as you can while allowing the stock to continue to maintain itself at some fairly low level — we’re talking about sustainable in an “ecosystem” context. In other words, there needs to be enough around for predators – the kind of things you and I target, like tuna, striped bass, bluefish etc. Because every good angler knows… without the bait, there generally ain’t no fish.

The idea behind this action, which is a darn good one IMO, is to get out in front of the curve and protect the lower trophic levels of the food chain, before someone decides that they can make a butt-load of money off of scooping them up by the ton.

The Mid-Atlantic wasn’t the first Council to do this (the Pacific Council took similar action). But this is still some really forward-thinking progressive/ground-breaking stuff, and I’m stoked the Council is going down this road.

So where are we now? At the last meeting we received a review of the scoping comments. THANK YOU to those who turned out to the public hearings, as well as to those folks who submitted written comments.

The great majority said the same thing. We need to protect the bait now before it’s too late, before investments are made and “new” fisheries are developed without science, and before we have to hit the panic button and figure out how to manage them.

But, of course, there were those who weren’t too keen on the idea.

One industry representative accused the Council of initiating this action for the sole purpose of taking commercial fishermen off the water, which, frankly, is nonsense. I mean, come on man, we’re trying to protect the food-chain that supports those managed species commercial and recreational fishermen currently catch. One would think they might support us on this.

But I certainly didn’t get a sense that many commercial fishermen, at least the ones who commented, supported any of it. Several mentioned things such as the “lack of science available for effective analysis and implementation.” On that point, uhm, that’s kinda the whole idea… to protect critical bait species we don’t have much information on, at least until we do have the science that shows what we can take out while still leaving ecosystems intact.

Others were worried about “choke species,” or having to stop fishing because there may be an incidental catch of such unmanaged forage species. But the Pacific Council dealt with that through a “de minimis” exemption. What the Council needs to figure out really is just a way to tell if such catch is incidental or targeted. I don’t want to get too much in the weeds here, but those sorts of things will be worked out during the development of the Amendment with industry input.

Yet, aside from all of this, what was most noteworthy is that the small mesh net industry appears to be asking for full exemptions for species such as round herring, Spanish sardine, and “chub” mackerel, arguing that the intent of the current action was to “freeze the footprint,” and that they currently have documented catches. Which is fine I suppose, if they weren’t actually asking for unlimited catch of those species. With the appropriate documentation, we could just cap any existing fisheries and prevent them from expanding. Yet, a lot of us were quite shocked to see the extent of the catch, particularly with “chub” mackerel.

You might be thinking, “what the hell are chub mackerel?” If you fish offshore, you’ve probably come across them. They look kinda like your standard Atlantic mackerel, but generally a touch smaller, with bigger eyes and a somewhat different back pattern. I often see them popping out of the water from 30-fathoms out. When I do, I generally stop and put the lines in right there, because it’s a pretty good indication that there are big predators around.

Well, it turns out that in the last few years the small mesh net industry, particularly those boats based in New Jersey, really started targeting them… and catching them in a big way. I’m talking about millions and millions of pounds.

Why? Presumably because Atlantic mackerel — a species managed by the Mid-Atlantic Council — which was once a pretty large-scale fishery, are more or less gone. Yeah, some fish still pop up here and there, but I don’t think anyone argues they aren’t a shadow of what they used to be.

The commercial guys suggest (without any real evidence that I’m aware of) that they have just gone somewhere else, which is not unreasonable given their historically cyclical nature… but it’s been an awful long while, and there is no sign of their return. Others believe that fishermen just wiped them out. Which is also not an unreasonable assumption given the scale of that fishery when it was going full-on.

But getting back to “chubs,” industry went from catching almost none in 2008 to catching over 5-million pounds in 2013! Yes, this likely has something to do with availability, but that’s an extraordinary escalation in a very short amount of time. I think I speak for more than just myself when I say it caught “us” off guard. The scale is actually greater than some forage fisheries currently managed by the Councils. I mean, a 5 million pound harvest of a forage species, with no science or management in place? Seriously? It’s a little concerning. What we were trying to avoid with the development of this action appears to have actually happened, right under our noses! And hardly anyone knew about it until a few weeks ago.

There’s actually a pretty compelling case for emergency action, similar to what the Council is doing with blueline tilefish. One could certainly argue that chub mackerel should be a managed stock in the Squid/Butterfish/Mackerel fishery. The reported chub mackerel landings, and written and oral testimony from industry, make it clear that this is now a significant directed fishery, not bycatch or incidental. It is being caught and sold in large numbers. And it does indeed appear to be in need of conservation and management. I mean, such an extreme escalation on a forage species is basically the definition of an emergency situation. I think the Council would be entirely justified if it went that route. I’m not arguing here that it should, as doing so will likely come with its own set of issues, but I am saying that it could.

Earlier this month the Council did vote to move forward the development of an “Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment.” Preventing expansion of current fisheries on unmanaged forage will presumably be part of that. So, I guess we’ll see about capping the chub mackerel fishery at some level during the development.

But the take home really is this: This is a damn important amendment right now. And anglers, particularly those that fish offshore, should be paying attention. The abrupt chub mackerel expansion/escalation shows us why. If they can sell it, they will absolutely harvest it, develop markets, etc. before managers can respond. And that could be disastrous for us and for entire ecosystems.

There were and still are those who don’t see the utility in an Unmanaged Forage Amendment, arguing that there’s no way a fishery can develop on such forage species and go unnoticed. Well, this one certainly did. And such an example shows us why there should be a sense of expediency here. The Council needs to move this amendment. Get it done… as quickly as possible.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is a full-time charter boat captain and president of ONE MORE CAST CHARTERS in Oceanside, NY. McMurray spent nine years on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and six years as a legislative proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and is a founder and past president of the American Saltwater Guides Association.

20 comments on “Holy Mackerel!

  1. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I am not. The knee-jerk resistance to this amendment from the beginning has always been about more than principle…there is something at stake and the resistance is to accountability. Glad this process is bringing that to light. Thanks, as always, John, for keeping people informed and speaking plain English.

    • Liz…
      Your comments are an unfortunate mis characterization of the industry’s position and attitude.
      We are accountable and have taken many steps to improve that situation.
      Greg DiDomenico
      Garden State Seafood Association

  2. John…
    Just few comments it is true the industry had one good year in the last 5. So please make sure your readers understand that you chose to mention the highest year.
    It is true that this species when available can be harvested in large amounts…but that is not very often.
    Perhaps you could refer to the nets as mid water trawl with a small cod end? Not “small mesh fisheries”. As you know the forward portions of the nets have mesh sizes that are enormous.
    Greg DiDomenico
    Garden State Seafood Association

  3. Typical response by commercial interests. Deflect and deny and keep doing it until it’s too late and they move on to the next fish after they’ve wiped out this one.

    • Gordon…
      I was hoping to have an intelligent conversation on a serious topic.
      We caught these fish legally and reported our landings. In fact chub mackerel have been caught for a long time on this coast.
      I was simply trying to make the point that we had one good year in the last 5 and agree with John that the availability it critical to a decent fishery and it does not happen often.
      And just wanted to make sure people are aware of the gear and it mesh configurations.
      Greg DiDomenico

  4. I’m 68 years old spent 30 of them commercial fishing (including midwater trawling for Mackerel) and the last 20 years as a recreational fish guide..seen both sides of the fence …my commercial fishing brothers were by far the most honest resource caring and open minded of the two groups which I think was born out of the the lifestyle we lived. Recreational fishermen have to learn to not shoot at the hip and listen more to both sides and commercials have to listen more to the recs that are interested in saving fish for the sake of the fish ala John Mcmurray. Keep up the good work John and Greg and may commen sense prevail and hopefully one day we can see the two groups (comms and Recs) working together instead of acting like a bunch of spoiled 6th graders

  5. Good SB fishing, last couple weeks, so really just seeing all this.

    Chis… Thanks for the comments. Agree. Shooting from the hip/stone throwing does no one any good.

    Greg… Thanks for the clarification. In the future I will refer to such nets as mid water trawl with a small cod end. And yes industry really had only one big year. As I think I mentioned, that likely has to do with availability (and maybe the lack of availability with Atlantic Mackerel). I certainly don’t blame industry. Anyone would have done the same thing in their shoes. Atlantics weren’t abundant, chubs were. So…

    But I do want readers to understand that this is a “new” fishery, at least on that sorta scale. Maybe that sort of abundance/availability is anomalous, maybe it isn’t. Maybe there’s been some sort of shift and we’ll see more chubs in the coming years. Dunno. No one does.

    The point, and where we likely disagree, is that we need some science on what we can sustainably take out of something like chub BEFORE someone directs on it on a large scale. Because we really have no F’n clue what removing large amounts of something a lot of other sht probably eats, maybe in some cases depends on, will do, particularly to those existing/established fisheries.

    That’s the whole point of the Unmanaged Forage Action.

    Look forward to working with you and industry in getting it done… Hopefully in a way that most of us are happy with.

    • Hi John et al,
      I just want to chime in and let everyone know that the chub mackerel fishery isn’t something really new. Seafreeze has been landing chub mackerel for 30 years now, careful to report and log, in compliance with the law. And, yes, some years are higher landings than others. Chub mackerel are utilized as a commercial species literally worldwide, due to their prolific nature. Understanding that we don’t have accurate science on the species in the Mid Atlantic, and understanding that the NEFSC survey gear and towing protocols will simply not sample the species, we offer wholeheartedly to help spearhead a survey to collect scientific information for a stock assessment. With climate change potentially shifting distribution of species shelfwide, certain species may become more or less profilic, and/or natural cycles of abundance causing certain species to appear or disappear, we feel that accurate science and not just blanket actions is one of the most important factors in management. Obviously, not every species in the ocean can have a stock assessment or be surveyed, but for species that are commercially harvested-currently managed or unmanaged- that would seem to be the best route to go if industry is willing to help collaborate in surveys and data collection.
      Meghan Lapp
      Seafreeze Ltd

      • John, Thanks for your leadership on the Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment. I was at the Philly MAFMC meeting, and I thought all the industry public comments were unconditionally against the amendment because protecting the ecosystem would take away from their bottom line. Their comments were both revealing and disappointing, and proved why the MAFMC needs to move on this as soon as possible.

        • Fred…I am really surprised at your comments. In this case I find myself being disappointed.
          I have yet to go back and listen to my comments in Philly but I certainly will.
          Maybe I will understand why you are making such comments….I always like to hear what you have to say but in this case I can admit I do not.
          Also…could you be more specific with what was said by industry that was “revealing”? And what we said about our “bottom line’?
          Greg DiDomenico

      • Thanks for the comments Megan. The chub fishery is not new I suppose, however the scale does appear to be. That’s quite a jump in one year. Yes, that likely has to do with an abundance of that species in a single year, and/or the lack of mackerel. Remains to be seen whether that sorta thing happens again. Think it’s important we figure out a way to deal with “new”/”developing” large scale fisheries, instead of scrambling to manage them after investments have been made etc. Think that’s what we’re try’n to work out with this action. Not sure how we’ll deal with chub moving forward, or whether or not we’ll deal with it at all in the UMF action. But I must admit, at first glance I like your suggestions re cooperative research. Thanks for offering that.

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