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MAFMC AND ASMFC SET NEW BLUEFISH REGULATIONS

Ideally, these decisions result in what is best for the fishery, which in the long run benefits all user groups.
By Fred Golofaro  |  December 22, 2019
MAFMC AND ASMFC SET NEW BLUEFISH REGULATIONS
Bluefish have been conspicuous by their absence in many parts of our region in recent years.

While many anglers are still awaiting the results of the striped bass management options submitted by New York’s Department of Conservation (DEC) to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the resultant regulations for 2020, bluefish entered the management picture in a big way. Several weeks back, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) recommended, and the ASMFC approved, new recreational fishing regulations for the 2020 Atlantic bluefish fishery based on the results of a recently concluded operational assessment of the fishery that found bluefish overfished but not experiencing overfishing. Those new regulations include a 3-fish bag limit for private boat and shore-based anglers, and a 5-fish bag limit for for-hire fishermen (those fishing on open or charter boats). This would represent a major reduction from the 15-fish bag limit that has been in effect since 2000. The ASMFC’s actions are final and apply to state waters (0-3 miles from shore), while the Council will forward its recommendation for federal waters (3 – 200 miles from shore) to the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Administrator for final approval.

During their joint meeting in October, the Council and Commission adopted a recreational harvest limit (RHL) of 9.48 million pounds for 2020 and 2021, which is an 18% decrease compared to the 2019 RHL. Using the current regulations, the recreational sector is projected to land 13.27 million pounds, which will exceed the RHL by 28.56%. The MAFMC and ASMFC met in December to approve new recreational management measures that would limit harvest to the reduced RHL.

The Council and Commission considered several combinations of bag limits and minimum size limits, including options to set a single set of regulations for all fishing modes or different regulations for shore/private modes and the for-hire mode. Although the Council’s Bluefish Monitoring Committee recommended a coastwide 3-fish bag limit, the majority of comments from the public and Bluefish Advisory Panel (AP) members expressed opposition to this option, noting that it would have severe economic consequences for the for-hire sector, which was only responsible for 3.6% of coastwide landings from 2016 to 2018. Additionally, AP members and the public emphasized that the proposed reductions come at a challenging time for for-hire stakeholders as they are also facing new restrictions on other popular inshore species.

After an extensive discussion and thorough consideration of public comments, the Council recommended and Commission approved the 3-fish bag limit for private boat and shore anglers, and 5-fish bag limit for the for-hire industry. No restrictions were made to minimum fish size or seasons.

The first reaction of many anglers to news of the new regulations and that the fishery is overfished was how could they possibly be overfished by recreational anglers since bluefish have bordered on being a non-fishery along many parts of the coast in recent years, especially here in New York. The assessment was based on landings from 2016 through 2018. Other than what has become a diminishing spring run, the vast majority of South Shore anglers go through most of the season without even seeing a bluefish and they have been pretty much non-existent during the fall months, which was for many years considered prime time. Likewise, Long Island Sound has also lacked any semblance of a bluefish run in recent years. Major tournaments that include a bluefish category and draw hundreds of participants have failed to draw any entries. The popular Montauk and South Shore classics sponsored by The Fisherman and State Parks failed to post any bluefish entries again this year, while the Riverview Striped Bass Tournament with several hundred participants saw a lone 4-pound bluefish rake in over $2,000 in prize money.

So, to the question how have we overfished the fishery, or more accurately, what has happened to all of the bluefish? Unfortunately, most answers are based on speculation. The practice of giving unused recreational quota to the commercial sector is certainly worth pondering. As is DEC increasing the daily catch quota for commercials to 10,000 pounds just a month prior to the assessment coming out. Then there is the question of just how accurate the data used to make the assessment really is. One of the answers to the overfishing question can be found in Table 5 of an MAFMC report

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/511cdc7fe4b00307a2628ac6/t/5dc192e13810a93900b77283/1572967138379/Bluefish+MC+Rec+Measures+Staff+Memo.pdf

which reveals 64 percent of the harvest used in the assessment were actually fish ranging from 4 to 12 inches. If you include 13 inches, the percentage of harvest jumps to 70 percent. Most people in the fishing world classify blues 12 inches and under as snappers. This data begs the question of how the data was gathered. Using the

Marine Recreational Information Program’s (MRIP) Access Point Angler Intercept Survey (APAIS) in which field samplers collect catch information from anglers at marinas, boat ramps, beaches, piers and docks, was it simply more convenient to walk local docks where snappers are traditionally caught in large numbers during the summer months? The question certainly begs an answer. On the other side of the coin, while fishermen don’t consider snappers bluefish, the reality is they are bluefish regardless of size, and other fisheries such as striped bass base much of their management decisions on young-of-the-year members of the fishery. There is also the issue of cycles of abundance with bluefish. There have been periods over the past century where blues virtually disappeared from the scene for years before reappearing again in large numbers. How and why is the million dollar question.

States will have the option of conservation equivalency and they may be able to adjust the regulations to meet the required 28.56 reduction. The for-hire sector is concerned that even the 5-fish bag limit is too low to draw anglers for bluefish trips, while others are concerned that size limits will negatively impact the snapper fishery. Just setting an 8-inch minimum size would result in a 28.62% reduction, meeting the required 28.56 reduction in harvest, and you could argue that such a size limit makes a lot of sense since how many other fisheries allow anglers to harvest such immature members of a fishery? Regulations aside, should anybody be killing 4-5 inch snappers?

The bottom line is that fisheries management is an inexact science despite all of the effort put into it, and the results can have considerable economic impact on the various user groups, leaving one or more of those groups unhappy with the outcome. Ideally, these decisions result in what is best for the fishery, which in the long run benefits all user groups.

Additional information and updates on the assessment are available at http://www.mafmc.org/actions/bluefish-allocation-amendment