The Bluefish Conundrum

Bluefish, photo via NOAA

It’s difficult to describe what fishing for bluefish was like in Long Island Sound forty or fifty years ago.

Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and for a while after that, bluefish defined the summer fishery along the Connecticut shore. Every morning, in at least one local harbor, untold hundreds of bluefish, many of them weighing 15 pounds or more, would rip into packed menhaden schools as the first glimmers of light touched the water, churning the water white as waves of baitfish went airborne with a sound that resembled a waterfall. It happened every day, sometimes throughout the day, from June well into October.

Today, the menhaden still fill the harbors, but they circle quietly, casually rippling the surface, unharried by predators below. The few bluefish that remain are a mere shadow of what used to be.

The bluefish’s decline was documented in a stock assessment update released in 2019, which found that the Atlantic Coast bluefish population had become overfished, and that it had been experiencing overfishing in almost every year since 1985.

No data were available for years prior to that, but given how badly the stock was overfished in ’85, it’s likely that the overfishing began well before then, so it’s hardly surprising that the Sound no longer hosts anything near the number of bluefish that it did in the 1970s.

In 2021, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Bluefish Management Board (Board), trying to restore bluefish abundance, adopted a rebuilding plan calculated to restore the stock within seven years.

Hopefully, the rebuilding plan will succeed, but that success is contingent on two closely related questions: Whether bluefish recruitment is as robust as biologists expected when they drafted the plan, and whether fishing mortality can be maintained at a level low enough to permit rebuilding to occur.

There is little that managers can do about recruitment, which is largely dependent upon oceanographic conditions, but managers can adopt management measures that keep fishing mortality low enough to promote rebuilding.

That will require the Council and Board to adopt recreational catch limits that prioritize rebuilding the stock, even if that happens at the expense of recreational landings. Managers must come up with a realistic estimate of recreational release mortality. And anglers must be convinced, whether through education or enforcement, to comply with the existing bag limits.

So far, managers haven’t shown much appetite for accomplishing any of those three things.

Managers’ reluctance to constrain recreational landings was first demonstrated at a joint meeting of the Council and Board, which occurred in December 2019. The stock assessment update that found bluefish to be overfished had come out a few months earlier; although a rebuilding plan would not be completed until 2021, the Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee had already determined that, to prevent overfishing in 2020, the annual catch limit that applied to combined commercial and recreational harvest must be reduced from 21.81 to 16.28 million pounds.

The recreational sector was entitled to 83% of that total, 13.51 million pounds.

To craft the management measures necessary to keep recreational harvest at or below that figure, the Council and Board first had to calculate what 2020 landings were likely to be if the existing rules remained in place. To help with that task, the Bluefish Monitoring Committee (Monitoring Committee), composed of fishery scientists from the Council, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the interested states,

recommended that 2020-2021 expected recreational landings be estimated using the three-year average (23.15 M pounds). This recommendation was made because the [Monitoring Committee] was hesitant to use only the terminal year estimate (13.27 M pounds) since the 2018 fishing year represents the lowest recorded recreational bluefish landings. Further, the [Monitoring Committee] indicated that bluefish landings have fluctuated in recent years and that a three-year average helps to mitigate the effects of high variability in the terminal year (2018).

If the Monitoring Committee’s advice were followed, the Council and Board would have to adopt management measures that would cut recreational harvest by more than 40%. A new calculation of recreational release mortality would make that cut even larger.

Historically, when NMFS calculated release mortality, they multiplied the Marine Recreational Information Program’s (MRIP) estimate of the number of bluefish released by the assumed 15% mortality rate, then multiplied the resulting figure by the average weight of recreationally harvested bluefish sampled by MRIP personnel. Biologists at NMFS’ Northeast Fisheries Science Center (Science Center) rejected that approach, believing that it underestimated the average size of released bluefish. Instead, they combined the MRIP-derived weights with other data, including American Littoral Society information on the size of bluefish tagged and released, and data voluntarily supplied by anglers in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, which indicated that released fish tended to be larger than those retained by recreational fishermen.

The Monitoring Committee agreed that calculating discard rates based only on MRIP data “does not fully capture what is occurring in the recreational fishery because length frequency data suggests that most anglers keep smaller bluefish and release larger bluefish,” something that anyone familiar with the bluefish fishery would agree is true.

Recognizing that the Science Center’s methodology better reflected angler behavior, the Monitoring Committee estimated that 2020 recreational discards totaled 9.90 million pounds. Subtracting such discards from the recreational catch limit resulted in a recreational harvest limit of just 3.62 million pounds for 2020, about an 85% reduction from the three-year average landings.

Council staff also prepared a memo, which suggested that the MRIP release mortality estimate be used. That reduced the level of release mortality by more than half, to 4.03 million pounds and, when combined with other recommendations in the same memo, provided for a 2020 recreational harvest limit of 8.05 million pounds, more than twice the harvest recommended by the Monitoring Committee.

Both memos were provided to the Council and Board, which had to decide which route to take.

They ultimately took their own course, rejecting the three-year landings average and deciding that 2020 bluefish landings would equal the 13.27 million pounds landed in 2018, which were the lowest landings on record. They did so even though landings through August 31, 2019 already totaled 12.4 million pounds, about 50% more than landings through the same date in 2018, making it very likely that the low 2018 landings were an anomaly that would not be repeated.

The Council and Board also decided to employ the lower MRIP discard estimates, instead of the estimates favored by the Science Center. By combining the 2018 landings estimate with the MRIP estimate of release mortality, the Council and Board could set the 2020 recreational harvest limit at 9.48 million pounds, higher than the limits recommended by either the Monitoring Committee or Council staff.

Because of the Council’s and Board’s decisions, anglers harvested 13.58 million pounds of bluefish in 2020, 4.10 million pounds above the recreational harvest limit. Assuming that the MRIP-based estimate was accurate, another 4.19 million pounds of fish died after being released, although such mortality might have exceeded 10 million pounds if the Science Center’s calculations were right.

In December 2020, the Council and Board had good reason to believe that, if management measures did not change, the recreational harvest limit would be exceeded again in 2021. “To project recreational landings, the [Technical Committee] typically uses the most recent 3-year average of landings. The 2017-2019 average landings (20.30 M lbs.) with the same 28.56% reduction that was projected to be achieved under the 2020 management measures yields a 2021 landings projection of 14.50 M lbs.. This landings potential methodology indicates a potential 73.86% overage of the 2021 [recreational harvest limit] of 8.34 M pounds.”

However, no one on the Council and Board ever discussed the possibility that 2021 landings might exceed the recreational harvest limit; there was universal support for status quo recreational management measures. As a result, anglers landed 12.46 million pounds of bluefish, not too far below the 14.50 million pounds predicted by the Monitoring Committee, and exceeded the 2021 harvest limit by 4.12 million pounds.

It’s still too early to predict whether anglers will exceed the 2022 recreational harvest limit of 13.89 million pounds. Even if they do not, the damage from earlier years’ overages can only reduce the rebuilding plan’s chance of success. To put the rebuilding plan back on track, both the Council and Board, when they meet in December 2022, must adopt management measures that are highly likely to keep recreational harvest within biologically acceptable bounds.

Fortunately, there is hope that the release mortality issue will be resolved. A comprehensive, research-track stock assessment is scheduled for completion late in 2022, and the Monitoring Committee has advised that “this will be the last year that these two differing methodologies will be used. [Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office] staff have indicated that moving forward, they will use the discard estimates resulting from the ongoing research track assessment, similar to what is done for other species.” Thus, beginning in 2024, recreational management measures should be able to take better account of the fish that die after being released.

But angler compliance remains a difficult issue to address. Too many recreational fishermen are either ignorant of fisheries regulations, or believe that they can violate such rules with impunity. The Council and Board cannot change that situation.

However, they could incorporate a buffer that accounts for management uncertainty into the measures that they adopt, something that neither the Council nor the Board has chosen to do in the past, even though such buffers are contemplated in the federal guidelines for fishery management plans.

Such guidelines state that “Management uncertainty refers to uncertainty in the ability of managers to constrain catch so that the [annual catch limit] is not exceeded, and the uncertainty in quantifying true catch amounts (i.e., estimation errors). The sources of management uncertainty could include: Late catch reporting; misreporting; underreporting of catches; lack of sufficient inseason management, including inseason closing authority; or other factors,” and advise that “[Annual catch targets], or the functional equivalent, are recommended in the system of [accountability measures] so that the [annual catch limit] is not exceeded. An [annual catch target] is an amount of annual catch of a stock or stock complex that is the management target of a fishery, and accounts for management uncertainty in controlling the catch at or below the [annual catch limit].”

Thus, efforts to rebuild the bluefish stock face a conundrum.

The Council and Board often choose management measures based on their impacts on fishermen, rather than on their benefits to the fish stocks that such bodies were formed to conserve.

Many Council and Board members have no faith in fisheries science or the fishery management system. Thus Tom Fote, New Jersey’s Governor’s Appointee to the Board, opposed adopting any management uncertainty buffer because he believed there was “so much uncertainty that anything we do will make a difference with the bluefish stock,” and argued, without citing any scientific support, that bluefish abundance had declined due to changing environmental conditions, and not because of fishing activity.

Such position was supported by a Council member from New York who, contrary to the best available scientific information, claimed that the “bluefish stock was restoring itself,” without any need for further management action, thus rendering the need for a management uncertainty buffer moot.

In 2021, the Council and Board adopted a rebuilding plan that, if followed, should restore the stock within seven years. But unless the Council and Board are willing to impose the restrictions on landings needed to keep rebuilding on track, and to take a more precautionary approach to bluefish management that resolves uncertainty in favor of the resource, the success of such plan remains very much in doubt.

About Charles Witek

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

3 comments on “The Bluefish Conundrum

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