by Frank Richetti
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association January 2002 Newsletter)
A joint meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was held on Wednesday, December 12, 2001 to decide on the guidelines for recreational landings of summer flounder, black seabass and scup (porgies) for the 2002 season. Once again, we will have to implement harsher methods to restrict our catch of each species in the upcoming year. This is getting to be like listening to an old worn-out record, the recreational community caught more fish than they were supposed to and therefore must restrict its catch in the upcoming year. The technical committees that advise the council and commission admit that the stocks are increasing but that we are exceeding the harvest level allowed by the "recovery plan. That is the real rub in this whole mess, the very conservative recovery plans are great at helping a collapsed population rebound but are not flexible enough to allow for proportionally increased harvests once the stocks are out of danger. I'm not saying that we should have a free-for-all. We need size and bag limits, but we have been held to landings of around 7.5 million pounds on fluke for seven seasons in a row. In those same seven years we have seen our size limits increase from a 13-inch to a 16-inch fish, plus bag limits and season closures and the spawning stock grow dramatically.
Has the population of fluke been stagnant for the last seven years? No, the population is increasing. The way the recovery plan works is that as the fish population increases it becomes easier to catch fish, so we catch more fish. But because our harvest increases at a faster rate than the "plan" allows, our ability to land fish must be restricted. Hence, the size & bag limits coupled with season closures. In days of yore, the landings for recreationally caught fish would, in effect, be self-regulating, when fish stocks are down you catch fewer fish and as fish stocks increase you catch more fish. The irony of the current plan is the more abundant the fish are, the more we have to be restricted. With the larger size limits, we land heavier fish thereby filling our quota with fewer fish at a time when they are more abundant.
When the meeting started the 2001 fluke landings looked pretty grim. The projected landings were 5.2 M lbs. more that our target of 7.16 M lbs., but when the actual landings were published we caught 11.54 M lbs. and were only 4.4 M lbs. over target. For the first time in more than seven years we will get a substantial increase in out TAL (total allowable landings) for 2002. Our limit will increase from 7.16 M lbs. to 9.72 M lbs. This 2.56 M lbs. increase in TAL will lessen the pain of restrictions for the 2002 season. Instead of needing to cut back almost 40%, we will only need to cut back around 16%.
Each state will be allowed to decide how they are going to meet the restriction goals for landing fluke. This is called conservation equivalency. The state regulations can be any combination of size limits, bag limits and season closures that meet the targeted reduction. In case a state decides to take no action, the council/commission has enacted a precautionary default measure of one fish at 18 inches to impose on the non-compliant state. Looking at the preliminary tables for NJ, a 16.5 inch fish will give the needed reduction with a longer season than in 2001. We will get updated tables through the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife early in the year and will have a clearer picture of what the 2002 fluke season will look like.
Black seabass landings exceeded the target by 6%, which is really within the error of our ability to measure landings. Nevertheless, the council voted to increase the minimum size limit by a half inch to 11.5 inches with no closed season. There is no conservation equivalency in this plan so each state has to impose the restriction uniformly up and down the coast.
Scup (porgy) landings were almost double the target and the plan called for a 57% reduction in recreational landing for 2002. Most council members (commercial as well as recreational) recognize the fact that recreational landings played no part in depressing the scup stocks. The by-catch in the small squid fishery was responsible for the mess. That situation was fixed in the late 90s. Now that the stocks are rebounding the recreational catch is going up dramatically but still only accounts for about 20% of the landings. Commercial landings and discards account for the rest of the mortality. No councilmen or commissioners would put forth a proposal that would implement the 57% reduction. They instead opted for 37% by increasing the minimum size limit to 10 inches and a season from July 1 through October 31. However, the National Marine Fisheries Service oversees all the fish management plans and is bound by law to stay within the boundaries of each plan. They probably will not accept the 37% reduction because it is insufficient to meet the "plan" and instead will impose more austere measures.
A FINAL THOUGHT
It is easy for any fishery management plans to call for size increases on fish. It is the easiest way for managers to restrict landings. But the folks who are most affected by increased size limits are those who are least represented by the governing bodies. People who are too poor to own a boat or are not able to afford a day out on a party boat are restricted to fishing only from the piers, banks and beaches. These are the people who fish for food as well as recreation. They will rarely catch a legal size fish and each time the size limit goes up a notch they have even less of a chance to feed their family fresh fish. They have as much right to these natural resources as anyone else in this country but they are slowly being cut out of their fair share. As our fish stocks recover we must find ways to allow for people from all walks of life to participate and have fair access to the resources.
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