Keeping Up With Bluefish - The Fisherman

Keeping Up With Bluefish

2018 5 Keeping Up With Bluefish Paul Peluso
Photo by Paul Peluso

Even the casual angler has noticed that bluefish numbers in general, and big bluefish specifically, have declined to some degree in recent years, although the numbers of exceptionally large blues appear to be up. Where a 20-pound blue was once headline news, the past few seasons have witnessed an increasing number of these behemoths landed by anglers. Bluefish continue to appear regularly along the coast in the spring, but they don’t stay around as long as they used to in most places. Remember, bluefish are a pelagic species (open ocean), so when the population declines, there is a tendency for schools to stay in the deeper coastal ocean—but more about this shortly.

By late May in recent years, most blues depart for northern waters where herring, squid, mackerel, and bunker are abundant all summer. Yes, some schools remain in various estuaries and make occasional brief summer showings in bays and harbors, and again in the fall along some beaches, before they retreat into the ocean depths for winter. On the positive side, snapper fishermen reported very good numbers of these juvenile blues in many areas last summer, which bodes well for the near future of the fishery.

Myths

Let’s begin by dispelling myths that persist about bluefish.

Bluefish spawn in bays and harbors: I hear this one over and over. The truth is they spawn at the inside edge (west side) of the Gulf Stream. We now know that spawning is a continuous event beginning in early spring and ending in early summer. However, for unknown reasons spawning in the middle area doesn’t seem to produce young. So, early spawning off the Carolinas and later spawning off New York Bight seem to be the only successes.

Bluefish never stop eating: Bluefish are no different than any other predatory fish when it comes to feeding. They have active times and inactive times. However, since anglers commonly see them blitzing on bait at the surface they assume that’s the only way they feed and thus eat, eat, eat. I have a fishing annual from circa 1950 that, in the details about the species indicates that blues “feed, throw up, and feed again.” Newsflash! That’s hogwash and when blues aren’t feeding they are difficult to catch.

Blues can’t be overfished: Nonsense! Any species can be over harvested if recruitment is low and harvest pressure high. Indeed, these are the two factors that are responsible for a decline in the East Coast bluefish population.

A high bluefish population causes declines in stripers and weakfish: Nonsense! When stripers declined in the 1970s and ‘80s and bluefish were abundant, some folks blamed the bass decline on bluefish predation. However, they failed to mention that weakfish were abundant in the 1970s. What, bluefish doesn’t like the taste of weakfish? Similarly, stripers were abundant in the 1990s, but weakfish declined causing the same complaint about stripers and blues. Again, did blues suddenly change their dietary habits?

Bluefish have an 11-year cycle: During most of the 20th Century it was believed this was true. However, the 11-year cycle idea didn’t jive with what happened in the 1960s and ‘70s. Bluefish began a major increase in population size in the 1960s and this trend continued into the 1990s, when a decline was noted by managers and a management plan enacted. So, an 11-year cycle turned into a 30-year cycle.

2018 5 Keeping Up With Bluefish Blue1
Blues, especially big ones, may need to be revived for a healthy release. That’s especially true as waters warm in summer. Photo by Leon Sylvester.

About Bluefish

It helps to know what this fish really is. Anglers tend to equate blues to stripers and weakfish, but each of these fish is different. Stripers are true coastal fish and prefer the shallow water close to shore and in estuaries. Adult weakfish, although they spawn in the estuaries, are actually a fish of the deep water continental shelf, and adults spend more than half the year there. Bluefish, on the other hand, are pelagic fish (of the open ocean) like tunas and billfish and spend a good deal of time roaming the open ocean suspended near the surface. However, unlike billfish and tuna, and more like bonito and false albacore, they make forays into estuaries to feed. Since they are pelagic, the bulk of the population spends most of its time offshore. However, when the population is large, competition forces more schools to roam into shallow water to avoid head-to-head feeding. If they find abundant baitfish such as adult bunker, squid and sand eels inshore, they will remain in these estuaries longer. However, competition is the main reason why large schools of adult bluefish spend significant time inshore.

Most scientific studies support a life span of about 12 years, yet fish 20 pounds or more may be 20 years old or more. As they grow, they prefer larger baits such as herring, squid, bunker, mackerel, and in the fall the young-of-the-year of various large species.

Management

Studies indicate that traditionally, recreational anglers harvest 83 percent of the blues, and the commercial sector about 17 percent. Of the 17 percent commercial take, gillnets account for 40 percent. Data indicate that blues are primarily a recreational species and therefore, any management plan must preserve this distribution, although in the 2000s, the commercial catch has exceeded 20 percent.

2018 5 Keeping Up With Bluefish Dandipasquale Bluefish Closeup Ii
Blues have sharp teeth and care should be taken when unhooking them. Long handled pliers are the best option.

By 1990 it became clear to fisheries managers that the bluefish population was in decline and so a management plan was put in place.

Bluefish range from Florida to Maine but inshore the majority of schools spend most of their time between New Jersey and Massachusetts. Harvest levels reflect this and Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey harvest the largest amounts of blues.

As stated, bluefish spawn at the western edge of the Gulf Stream. They are sexually mature at age 2. For eggs to hatch successfully, a narrow temperature range is required: 68-70 degrees. Typically in spring, this is the temperature on their spawning grounds, yet many recent springs have featured strong northerly winds and below normal temperatures that may have lowered surface temperatures on the spawning grounds.

Data from Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  The Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) has been set at 73.5 million pounds. Although MSY is a management standard, it focuses on developing and understanding how many fish can be harvested and continue to have enough fish to spawn the next generation. MSY does not address how fish distribution changes when populations increase and decline. Thus, with bluefish, inshore anglers experience fewer fish although the MSY standard has been reached. A more egalitarian approach would consider anglers throughout the range of the fish when establishing management criteria. MSY leads us down a slippery slope because fish disappear from fringe areas as they retreat to the core of their home range, and thus anglers at the edges of the home range suffer most.

Recruitment

Bluefish recruitment has been generally fair or poor since the beginning of the new millennium. Although the 1981, ‘84, ‘89, and 1994 were strong year classes, all others have been fair to poor. Now, I know some of you are going to say that you’ve been catching lots of sblues, but many anglers offer a different story. We should never judge the health of a fishery by local successes because it provides a myopic point of view. For example, immediately before the crash of stripers in the 1980s two things were true. One, most anglers weren’t catching stripers along the coast and in some areas anglers caught none for weeks on end. However, the folks in Massachusetts had banner years for big fish prior to the collapse. I met a man from Massachusetts just prior to the moratorium who somehow learned I was a surf angler. He accosted me in my car: there’s no other way to describe a man who waved pink slips in my face (fish sale slips) to brag about all the big bass he’d caught. When I suggested he might not want to kill these big fish given the decline of the fishery he said, “That’s bull, there’s plenty of striped bass.” His local and limited experience caused him to dismiss the facts. I get that from guys today about blues.

One’s tenure as an angler comes into play in developing a perspective of angling quality, too. The most accurate views come from those who have been angling for decades because they have lived through ups and downs in population sizes of many species. Newcomers to the sport on the other hand, believe current catch numbers are normal and cannot relate to the meaning of relative abundance of a species over a series of cycle ups and downs.

2018 5 Keeping Up With Bluefish Child
While bluefish numbers seem to be down overall, exceptionally large blues like this 41 incher landed by Nick Antonelli have been more common in recent years. Photo courtesy of Nick Antonelli.

Why The Fuss?

Therefore, neophytes to angling ask; why all the fuss? I’ll tell you why, the species is extremely important to the recreational sector. Many anglers don’t see, and therefore don’t understand, the scope of the fish’s importance. Well, try these reasons as examples.

When bluefish are abundant they push bait schools into areas where they are more accessible to more anglers. This generates interest and enthusiasm for local inshore anglers. The last few autumns have shown beach anglers how vital blues can be for consistent and successful surf fishing for stripers: including larger fish. Without schools of blues scaring bait and pushing them onto the beaches, most of the time larger stripers have been reluctant to move into the trough to feed.

Large numbers of large blues fill the vacuum left by other declining gamefish. The large bluefish population in the 1980s was a blessing as striper numbers plummeted. They served a similar service in the 1990s when the weakfish population fell off a cliff.Local, so called “mom & pop” businesses such as tackle shops rely on abundant bluefish to generate interest and enthusiasm, and we all know from experience that nothing destroys tackle and uses up lures and hooks like ravaging bluefish schools.Scientists and informed anglers agree that bluefish numbers have declined.Recruitment has been spotty and even poor when compared to previous decades.Anglers and commercial harvesters continue to take larger numbers of blues that cannot be supported by a declining population and poor recruitment.

What Can We Do?

Historically, too many anglers are apathetic when fish populations decline precipitously. Many anglers tell me “what’s the use, nothing we do ever matters.” Well, although I understand the frustration associated with trying to do the right thing, that isn’t an excuse to quit. We have state, federal, and local government agencies charged with properly managing bluefish. Often, they do respond to public pressure in the form of hearing comments as well as letters and e-mails. We also have elected officials and since they want our votes, they are responsive. Then there are also our recreational-based and conservation-based organizations that might be more successful should more anglers be more proactive. In short, if anglers make a big enough “stink” our demands will not be overlooked.

A LOOK AT THE NUMBERS
While bluefish numbers have remained relatively stable since 1992, note the large disparity compared to the 1980s.

2018 5 Keeping Up With Bluefish Chart

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