Bluefish are overfished, though overfishing is not occurring. That’s the word from Joe Cimino, the administrator for Marine Fisheries at the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife during the September 9th meeting of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (Council). However, he also said “rebuilding projections are somewhat favorable,” which means some type of increase in bluefish harvest should come in 2022, to be determined at a future meeting.
Biologically speaking when a fish stock is harvested to a point where it can’t replenish itself naturally through reproduction, it’s overfished and in trouble. But the statutory term “overfished” doesn’t mean that other factors like migratory shifts or natural predation aren’t to blame for downturns in stock. As per federal fisheries law – the Magnuson Stevens Act – if a stock assessment shows a fishery to be below a statistical level, it’s deemed to be overfished. However, if bluefish for example, just don’t appear in coastal waters as they once did, is biological overfishing the only culprit?
It’s one of the conundrums that’s led to efforts on Capitol Hill currently to add the word “depleted” to the list of management terms. Yell “overfished” in a room full of environmentalists and our fishing world gets turned on its end, so perhaps the term “depleted” would be less frightening in the mainstream world.
Once a fishery is declared “overfished” any active fishing may also result in statutory “overfishing.” Bluefish is presently limited to a three fish bag for private anglers (five aboard for-hire boats), which according to scientific experts will keep bluefish from experiencing overfishing. However, if we were to increase the private bag limit by just one bluefish, you would suddenly trigger overfishing.
Yes, fisheries management can be confusing, and sometimes “quite frankly, ludicrous,” as Councilman Pat Donnelly noted in last week’s Editor’s Log (9/9 Meeting Notes Part I). But the federal law provides what amounts to a constitutional framework for managing fisheries; while not perfect, our U.S. fisheries are the best-managed in the entire world. Still, sometimes folks may see a particular fishery of interest and believe there should be some added protections put in place, even when none are actually required. That’s where sheepshead comes into play.
On September 9, Jeff Brust, Chief at the Bureau of Marine Fisheries called sheepshead “an emerging fishery that maybe we want to get ahead of,” in terms of a fisheries management plan (FMP). There’s currently no official FMP for sheepshead coastwide; it’s a stock that really hasn’t been assessed and has no official stock status designation. While some sheepshead sharpies are pushing for regulations in the Garden State, without an FMP or stock analysis it would set a very danger precedent to incorporate regulatory changes without scientific data.
Conversely, the speckled or spotted seatrout population is managed by Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) which requires a coastwide minimum size limit of 12 inches. However there is no federal requirement that says New Jersey must maintain a one-fish bag limit as they do with weakfish; in fact, in Delaware there’s a 12-inch minimum size and no bag for specks.
I asked Cimino for an update at this latest September meeting, and he explained that the legal definition in New Jersey for a weakfish actually includes speckled trout. “There’s no way to disentangle them currently without a regulatory change,” Cimino said, adding that a regulatory package is still winding its way, floor-by-floor, at the New Jersey State House.
During the Council’s September, 2020 meeting, Brust said the state had already been working to separate weakfish and speckled trout to allow for more flexibility in setting limits on spotted sea trout. “I can’t give you a timeline but we’ve already written the language, it’s in legal review and it’s step one or step two of the process.”
Nearly 2 years and counting; clearly those “steps” are broken!