Gone Fishin’ Blues
We, as users of a common-property resource, can never stop fighting for sensible management. If we do, managers will succumb to pressure from other users.
As this is being written, the Mid-atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission have put out the “Draft Scoping and Public Information Document for the Bluefish Allocation Amendment to the Bluefish Management Plan.” They are looking for comments on suggested changes to the plan that manages bluefish along the Atlantic Coast. This is a species that is important to the recreational fishing industry. The council and commission are seeking public input for the development of a “Bluefish Allocation Amendment” to the Bluefish Fishery Management Plan (FMP) that will review and potentially revise allocations between the commercial and recreational fisheries, the commercial allocations to the states, the goals and objectives, and the transfer processes. We support the concept of revisiting allocations on an established periodic basis, not just on the whim of the managers. We know that our coastal demographics are constantly changing, as are the ocean and coastal environments. So, we give this part a thumbs up. What we question is the reasoning behind the potential allocation changes that may be made.
The current allocations are based on recreational catch histories from 1981-89. It should be noted that during these years, striped bass were still in a recovery phase and bluefish were in pretty good shape. So, many recreational anglers targeted bluefish and kept a lot of their catch. The Bluefish FMP has a provision: Amendment 1 (1999) introduced the updated allocations to the recreational and commercial fisheries as 87 percent and 13 percent, respectively. This amendment also put in place the state-by-state commercial allocations from Maine to Florida’s east coast using catch histories from 1981-89. States manage their own commercial quotas and are subject to accountability measures. Additionally, Amendment 1 allows for a transfer of up to 10.5 million continued
pounds of quota from the recreational to the commercial fishery as long as the recreational sector is not projected to land its share of the quota. This is, as they say, the real heart of the potential changes.
It should be noted that for the last five years, 2013-17, the initial quota for the commercial sector has not been caught, and still, during that time, transfers were made from the recreational quota to the commercial. During that same period, the recreational landings have trended down from 16.5 million pounds to 9.1 million. The number of recreational fishing trips primarily targeting bluefish has also declined. That might be an indicator that scientists need to take a harder look at the status of the bluefish stock. From the perspective of the recreational fishery, that may also be a result of other stocks that have recovered and are now primary targets.
One of the most troubling prospects of this amendment is the concept that the recreational catch has to be based on actual landings or dead fish on the docks. That does not account for the fact that a lot of recreational anglers today release the majority of the bluefish that they hook up. If the new allocations are made only on the actual landings, then the recreational users will be penalized for being conservative. Allocation percentage will increase for the commercial user. Something that as a consumer I cannot understand is the commercial market for bluefish. Yes, I like to eat them, but I always thought that if one stumbled between the cleaning table and the oven, the fish would spoil. They have a shelf life of about half a nanosecond, which makes a commercially handled product marginal at best.
What needs to be done with this amendment to the Bluefish FMP is to give recognition to the value of fish released on purpose. Those fish are likely responsible for multiple encounters for anglers. NOAA Fisheries already keeps track of releases, or as it calls them, discards. At a minimum, the recreational catch should be calculated by adding up landings and releases (discards). That would give a much fairer picture of what the allocations between sectors should be.
The public comment period’s timing has not been posted for this, and by the time this is printed, it may be too late to comment on the scoping document. The process will still be a long way from the finish line. Check with asmfc.org or mafmc.org to see where the process is and make your thoughts known. If recreational users do not get credit for being conservative by releasing bluefish to catch again another day, this will begin to destroy the beneficial aspects of catch-and-release fishing. And it would set a bad precedent.