Fish Post

Releases – September, 2020

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Dolphin are critically important to the recreational fishery in the South Atlantic, and yet manipulations by federal fisheries managers continue to encourage development of a directed longline fishery that could have a radically negative impact on the recreational fishery going forward, and may have already.

The federal emphasis on commercializing dolphin isn’t new. In 2004, the original fishery management plan for dolphin recognized it as a predominantly recreational fishery and contained a provision for a commercial trip limit of 3,000 pounds, which was specifically designed to prevent a directed commercial fishery from developing. The trip limit provision was taken to public hearing, and a majority of the Council members thought it important enough that they voted in favor of putting the trip limit in place. The NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator removed the trip limit provision, stating it was unnecessary since longliners weren’t targeting dolphin.

In 2014-15, the commercial sector caught its entire quota of dolphin in the first five months of the year, resulting in a commercial closure from Key West to Maine for the rest of the year. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council immediately investigated to find out who had caught all the fish so quickly. NOAA Fisheries at the time refused to divulge who had caught the fish, but representatives of the Bluewater Fishermen’s Association (BFA), a commercial fisheries organization, testified at a meeting that dolphin was only a bycatch fishery for longliners, and that they had not targeted them. BFA insisted that state-licensed boats out of North Carolina were responsible for the early closure.

In response, in 2016 the South Atlantic Council again considered a 3,000-pound commercial trip limit, but NOAA Fisheries and commercial fishing representatives opposed the move. In a compromise, it was agreed that the commercial fishery would operate with no trip limits until it hit 75 percent of its quota, and then a 4,500-pound trip limit would be enacted. 

In June 2020, South Atlantic Council staff finally refuted BFA’s claims with data that showed that the bluewater longline fleet had indeed targeted and caught more than a million pounds of dolphin in 2014 and 2015, which had resulted in the early closure. Upset at being misled, members of the South Atlantic Council immediately moved to disallow longline gear in the commercial dolphin fishery as part of Dolphin-Wahoo Amendment 10. Facing opposition again from NOAA Fisheries and commercial interests, another proposal was put forth that would exempt commercial boats with a Highly Migratory Species license from the longline ban. That exemption would ultimately protect bluewater longline boats that caused the increased catches and penalize the small-scale, state-licensed boats that had been wrongly blamed for the early closure in 2015.

That is where things stand. Amendment 10 continues to be debated by the South Atlantic Council, and now is the time for the recreational angling community to demand safeguards be put in place to prevent a directed longline fishery for dolphin from developing once and for all. As an agency dedicated to promoting and subsidizing commercial fisheries, it is clear that NOAA Fisheries intends to ignore the intent of the dolphin fishery management plan and allow a dolphin longline fishery to become established. Nurtured, encouraged and protected by NOAA Fisheries, a directed commercial longline fishery for dolphin will inevitably have a material, negative impact on the quality and availability of this highly prized sportfish that is so crucial to recreational anglers.

The South Atlantic Council next meets Sept. 14-18 and Dolphin-Wahoo Amendment 10 will be on the agenda. Contact your state’s representatives on the Council (https://safmc.net/council-members/) and urge them to protect the future of the dolphin fishery by disallowing commercial longline gear.

On the first morning of the August 20-21 quarterly Marine Fisheries Commission meeting, Director Steve Murphey dropped a bomb on commissioners by stating he had been approached by the NC Fisheries Association about increasing the red drum bycatch limit from seven fish to ten fish when he reopens the commercial harvest of southern flounder this fall. The argument was two-fold: the commercial fishermen were unlikely to reach the 250,000 lb. cap because the flounder season will be so short, and “they could use the money”. This is just one more example of the Division managing a public resource for the benefit of the privileged few who may sell that resource.

Beyond the audacity of the NCFA to ask for this increase in light of the responsibility they carry for the current southern flounder closure is that the Director is seriously considering granting their request. It was the NCFA that argued against the science for the last twenty years that indicated the stock was being overfished and ultimately filed a lawsuit that reversed much of the 2015 Supplement that sought to reduce harvest by 30%. Instead, we were forced to accept a 62% reduction in 2019 and a 72% reduction this year because the science could not be denied any longer. The commercial industry has historically taken over 80% of the annual harvest of southern flounder for decades and fought every attempt by the Division and the Commission to reduce harvest. So now that we are forced to accept harvest closures to save the stock from total collapse their response is “give us more red drum”?

This also comes on the heels of the Division’s refusal to allow recreational anglers access to gulf and summer flounder while commercial harvest of these species continued because we were told we were not capable of properly identifying the different species. Now we should just turn the other cheek?

This looks and smells like just another backroom deal the way this issue was dropped on the Commission. The Director did not include this important issue on the agenda so commissioners could be prepared for a discussion, nor did he ask for any discussion or input from the Commission that is charged with approving the Fisheries Management Plan for management of red drum. Questions also remain about whether the Director has the authority to change the state plan without approval from the ASMFC.

The fishing public is right to be concerned about the impact this loosening of the Red Drum FMP could have on what is supposed to be a really good year class of red drum this fall. This could be a repeat of the incredible speckled trout fishing we saw the last two years but not if they are slaughtered in the incredible effort that is about to be unleashed in the southern flounder commercial gill net fishery. Red drum have traditionally been primarily a catch and release fishery, which is why most rec anglers are satisfied with a one fish slot size creel limit. As other states have recognized for years with Game Fish protection, they are too valuable to be caught just once. A new limit will also further draw out the strike netters creating even more user conflicts. This all shines a spotlight on what most have believed all along—red drum is not a bycatch fishery. It begs the question many started asking years ago, “how many citations have ever been issued by Marine Patrol for lacking the prerequisite targeted fish?”

The Division has also made it clear that they have no intention of trying to monitor southern flounder harvest when the commercial season is opened to avoid missing the target reduction again in 2020. The Director deflected any effort to monitor the commercial harvest because they were unable to monitor the recreational harvest and it is open before the commercial season. Heaven forbid he be accused of bias toward one user group. It is hard to have confidence that the commercial sector will not bust the red drum “bycatch” cap with new limits when the Division refuses to make any effort to control the southern flounder harvest limits set in the FMP.

This feels like the beginning of a series of asks by the commercial lobby to relax existing regulations and allow them to expanded harvests across numerous fisheries.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted unanimously today to improve management strategies for Atlantic menhaden, by requiring consideration for the small baitfish’s impact on fish up the food chain. Economically important sportfish such as striped bass rely on healthy menhaden populations for survival.

After recreational anglers weighed in, the Commission adopted the new ecological management system, which considers the needs of predator species and will begin the process of allowing fish like striped bass to meet population targets. Menhaden is the first fishery on the east coast to shift to an ecosystem management approach.

“This landmark decision represents a new era in fisheries management,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We are grateful for the Commission’s support of comprehensive strategies that support the entire Atlantic ecosystem. This decision will spur healthier menhaden and gamefish while supporting the recreational fishing economy along the eastern seaboard.”

The Commission has worked diligently for over a decade to thoroughly vet several ecosystem models that led to the development and implementation of these ecological reference points for Atlantic menhaden. The selected model includes important predator species like Atlantic striped bass and bluefish as well as alternative prey such as Atlantic herring. Ultimately, these reference points can be used to set quotas that will help ensure enough menhaden are left in the water to help Atlantic striped bass, bluefish and Atlantic herring rebuild from overfished conditions.

According to a recent scientific study, menhaden reduction fishing contributes to a nearly 30% decline in striped bass numbers. The striped bass fishing industry contributes $7.8 billion in GDP to the economy along the Atlantic coast.