Recreational landings of Atlantic bluefish to blame.
By Charles Witek
On November 19, 2019, the National Marine Fisheries Service formally notified the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council that the Atlantic bluefish stock had become overfished. The Council, which manages bluefish in federal waters, must now create a plan to rebuild that stock.
A benchmark stock assessment released in 2016 found the bluefish stock to be reasonably healthy, so news that it is overfished came as a surprise to some fishermen and to some fishery managers. Yet, in recent years, many anglers along the New England and Mid-Atlantic coasts complained about declining bluefish abundance and some asked, Where are the bluefish?
Their answer finally came in an operational stock assessment released in August 2019, which included updated information on recreational fishermen’s effort, catch and landings. The operational assessment revealed that the bluefish population was significantly larger than fishery managers had previously thought, but it also described recreational landings were far higher than previously believed.
Such high recreational landings, managers learned, meant that the bluefish stock had experienced overfishing in every year between 1985 and 2017. That overfishing took a big toll; the spawning stock biomass fell from more than 400 million pounds in 1985 to just 201 million pounds at the end of 2018. According to the operational assessment, the bluefish stock was overfished, and had been for 16 of the past 33 years.
Just one year earlier, the Mid-Atlantic Council, believing that anglers never came close to harvesting their annual allocation of bluefish, initiated an amendment to the management plan that could have permanently reduced the recreational share of the fishery, and increased commercial landings. The information from the operational assessment, which found that anglers not only harvested, but substantially overharvested, their full allocation, effectively ended the Council’s reallocation efforts.
The pending amendment would serve as a vehicle for the bluefish rebuilding plan.
Federal fisheries law requires the Mid-Atlantic Council to draft a rebuilding plan that is likely to restore the bluefish spawning stock to its target level of 438 million pounds, within 10 years. It also requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to implement such plan within two years after receiving notice that the stock has become overfished. As a practical matter, that means the rebuilding plan will be in place for the 2022 season.
In the meantime, the Mid-Atlantic Council, acting in conjunction with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Bluefish Management Board, has reduced the recreational bluefish bag limit from 15 fish to three, although anglers fishing from for-hire vessels will be allowed to keep five bluefish per day. If those regulations are insufficient to maintain recreational landings at or below the 9.48 million pound recreational harvest limit in 2020, regulations will be even more restrictive in 2021 when, because bluefish are overfished, any 2020 overharvest will be deducted from the 2021 harvest limit.
Scoping hearings on the rebuilding amendment, which gave fishermen an opportunity to provide initial comments, were held in January and February. In May, both the Mid-Atlantic Council and the Bluefish Management Board will consider those comments, along with any other information provided by fisheries scientists, and develop management alternatives calculated to rebuild the bluefish spawning stock. Those alternatives will be included in a draft rebuilding plan that will be reviewed by the Council and Management Board in August and, once finalized at the August meeting, released as a public hearing document.
At that point, stakeholders will be invited to comment on the proposed rebuilding plan. Capt. John McMurray, who has served three terms on the Council, currently represents New York on the Management Board, and makes his living guiding fly and light-tackle fishermen on the waters off western Long Island, thinks that one issue deserves particular attention: Managing bluefish, which is primarily a recreational species, for high levels of abundance, and not for the highest sustainable level of landings.
He said, “We use the least efficient gear, and so we need abundance. Just having an abundance of fish in the water to catch is far more important than smaller size limits and larger bag limits or how many fish we can kill . . . the fact that anglers value ‘experience’ above mere extraction should be acknowledged, emphasized and better accounted for when developing management measures. And that is what anglers should be pushing for.”
Managing for abundance has long been practiced in freshwater fisheries, where no-kill and other special-regulation fisheries are maintained in order to promote conservation and enhance the angling experience. Yet, despite language in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that makes “the promotion of catch-and-release programs in recreational fishing” an express purpose of federal fisheries law, saltwater fisheries managers have historically remained firmly focused on yield, and on maximizing the number of fish that can be safely removed from a population.
As noted in the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s 2014 report, A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries, “Currently, federal fisheries managers set catch limits for recreational and commercial fishing at or near maximum sustainable yield. While this may be an ideal management strategy for commercial fishing, where harvesting the maximum biomass is desired, it is not an effective management tool for saltwater recreational fishing. Recreational anglers are more focused on abundance and size, structure of the fisheries, and opportunities to get out on the water.”
A fishery management action team, formed to work on the bluefish rebuilding plan, has already suggested that the plan promote catch and release, and at the Council’s December meeting, Council staff noted that during a previous round of scoping hearings, a number of anglers asked the Council to consider “recreational management maximizing abundance over landings,” and “the economic/intrinsic value of bluefish within the recreational fishery.”
It appears that the Mid-Atlantic Council is willing to at least consider that advice. Dr. Jose Montanez, a Fishery Management Specialist at the Council who has worked on bluefish for many years, stated in an e-mail to me that “everything is on the table for the Council to discuss/consider at this stage.”
However, not everyone agrees that abundance is more important than yield. Representatives of the for-hire industry, who sit on the Council’s Bluefish Advisory Panel, have asked managers to maintain the highest possible level of landings, believing that higher bag limits give people a reason to pay to go fishing, while Advisory Panel members who represent the commercial fishing industry are strong supporters of the status quo. The Council’s final decision probably depends on the comments heard at the upcoming hearings, with both the quantity and the quality of those comments playing a role.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has asked the Mid-Atlantic Council to complete work on the rebuilding plan in about 15 months—by February 2021—in order to give the Service enough time to finalize regulations within the two years required by law. Depending on what the final regulations look like, the rebuilding plan could prove to be a watershed event for bluefish and for recreational fisheries management on the Atlantic coast.
Charles Witek is an active salt water angler who lives in New York.