Editor’s Log: Pound For Pound - The Fisherman

Editor’s Log: Pound For Pound

New Jersey’s recreational black sea bass fishery reopens on July 1.  Well, if you want to call a one-fish bag limit a fishery; in reality it’s just a bycatch allowance.

According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) the spawning stock biomass (SSB) of black sea bass reached its peak in 2014 at over 76 million pounds.  “In 2019 SSB was estimated at 65.63 million pounds, 2.1 times the updated biomass target of 31.84 million pounds,” ASMFC further noted.  In other words, the black sea bass population is double what fisheries managers had targeted, yet we still have a limited Jersey Shore fishery.

Black sea bass is currently going through the regular assessment process to determine stock status, which ultimately will be used to support catch advice for the 2025-2026 fishing seasons.  My fingers may be crossed, but I have a queasy feeling in my gut.  Based on the latest bureaucratic decisions in other regions, I’m not exactly brimming with optimism over the future of recreational access to black sea bass.

On June 11, NOAA Fisheries announced that anglers in the South Atlantic will get a one-day red snapper season coming up on Friday, July 12. One single day to fish for red snapper for the entire year, and it’s not even a Saturday!   The day after the NOAA decision, the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) expressed disappointment with the federal fisheries service, “to once again reduce Atlantic red snapper harvest opportunities despite scientific evidence that red snapper are more abundant now than they have been in most people’s lifetimes.”

“ASA has long advocated that recreational harvest access to Atlantic red snapper should be increased to match the progress that has been made in rebuilding the fishery,” ASA noted in an email alert, calling the 24-hour red snapper season “draconian” and resulting in what the tackle industry trade folks called “devastating impacts to the economy and recreational fishing.”

It’s even worse in North Carolina, where for the first time in history there is no recreational season for southern flounder.  State regulators started limiting recreational flounder fishing in 2019 through a quota system, evolving into a “pound for pound” analysis where fishing over one year’s quota shortens the following year’s season.  “Estimates from 2023 indicate the recreational catch exceeded the quota allowed under a stock rebuilding plan,” the NC Division of Marine Fisheries stated in an official release.  Thus, after a scant two-week flounder season in 2023, that pound-for-pound payback has resulted in no fishery at all in 2024.

When the federal fisheries law (Magnuson Stevens) was reauthorized by Congress in 2007, it established annual catch limits (ACL) and accountability measures (AM) in coastal fisheries, both commercial and recreational.  In principle, go over your ACL, get punished by way of an AM; that’s where pound-for-pound paybacks come in.   Yet, our recreational fishing harvest is monitored through a random survey program, the Marine Recreational Information Program or MRIP, that relies on limited dockside surveys and random mail samples; not only are keepers tabulated through this survey, but also the fish we release, undersized or out of season (bycatch mortality).

In September of 2023 I wrote an article (NOAA Bombshell! Angler Effort Surveys Still Flawed) highlighting a NOAA Fisheries admission that their fishing effort surveys used in MRIP are likely overestimating angler effort by as much as 30 to 40%.  Perhaps in response, the state of North Carolina will require all anglers who fish recreationally for flounder and other inshore species to report their daily catches directly to the state starting December 1.

Closed-season bycatch is problem in the angling world, exemplified with the red snapper and flounder mess down south.  And perhaps our one-fish sea bass allowance helps reduce that bycatch mortality number, I don’t know.  But in the pound-for-pound world of fisheries management, it’s the recreational angler who keeps getting pounded.

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