'Perfect Storm' closes sea bass

Has a precedent just been set for future immediate closures of saltwater fisheries?

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration unexpectedly announced the temporary closure of the recreational black sea bass fishery in federal waters north of Cape Hatteras, N.C., for 180 days in response to recent landing data that showed recreational fishermen may catch more than double their annual quota by the end of the year. This closure began Monday, Oct. 5, 2009.

This ruling is based on NOAA findings stating that landing data and scientific analysis shows recreational fishermen have reached their quota and could exceed their 1.14 million-pound harvest limit by as much as 84 to 225 percent if the recreational fishery is not closed.

It is important to note, however, that state rules apply, allowing anglers to fish out three miles from land. One such state is New Jersey, allowing anglers to harvest black sea bass with a possession limit of 25 fish and a minimum size limit of 12.5 inches.

Although individual state waters remain open for the black sea bass, party and charter boat operators with a Federal black sea bass permit are prohibited from harvesting black sea bass from both State and Federal waters as of the effective closure date.

All licensed party boat and charter boat operators fall into this category.

Stock data on sea bass proves the sea bass population is a healthy stock. Sea bass are not being overfished and overfishing is not occurring, some recent data shows.

"A perfect storm has occurred," said Capt. Adam Nowalsky of Karen Ann II Charters in Little Egg Inlet, N.J.

Nowalsky is among those who say the following items led to the closure:

1) Poor Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey data (telephone reporting data).

2) Lack of flexibility in Magnuson Stevens Act.

3) A new management process introduced that is currently pending review.

It is no secret that scientists and biologists have insufficient data regarding the sea bass stock. In previous years, scientists did not have adequate data to put together stock assessments, determining the stock's sustainability.
Scientists were mandated by Magnuson Stevens Act to do something, forcing fisheries management to take a 3-year Average Abundance from trawl surveys.

"We all know sea bass typically congregate around structure; areas where trawl boats try to avoid with their expensive gear, so it's no wonder sea bass stock numbers are off," Nowalsky said.

When trawlers have a good year catching fish as they migrated, it skewed all the results. The best year ever managed a whopping 1.4 kg/tow, or just over 3 pounds. The adjacent graph explains what that looks like, Nowalsky said.

Good trawling tows earlier this decade show that the abundance of sea bass has been much closer to the norm, as the graph depicts. However, since it was below their proxy, the stock was considered "overfished," and the Magnuson Stevens Act mandated that the stocks be rebuilt by 2010.

In the meantime, more information was being gathered about black sea bass. Earlier in 2009, an announcement was made that the stock was not overfished and no overfishing was occurring. In fact, their assessment showed a stable stock at or above their targets throughout the entire past decade per the adjacent graph.

As a result, the committee came to the conclusion that the 2010 quota should be restored to the level it was at in 2008.

Nowalsky said that another evaluation by the Science and Statistical Committee reported that the stock assessment was new and caution should prevail, maintaining the status quo.

What they failed to discuss, Nowalsky said, "Is that 'status quo' was the average landings of the decade (the quota in 2008), as opposed to the unnecessarily halved quota of 2009. If the new assessment had been out a few months earlier, the quota for 2009 would never have been halved as it was. But this wasn't fully discussed, so the SSC made a recommendation for the 2010 quota to be set to the same level as 2009."

To make matters worse, the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (MAFMC) met in August to vote on the 2010 quota. The MAFMC's hands were tied, as the inflexibility in Magnuson Stevens Act bound the council to set a quota that did not exceed the upper bounds of the recommendation by the SSC.

Upon discussing the fact that the SSC did not discuss and fully understand the recent management history of sea bass, a motion was made by the Council to ask the SSC to reconvene and discuss the information and history available to the Monitoring Committee.

The motion looked like it was going to pass by a vote of 10-9, but then the MAFMC Chairman decided to cast his vote against the motion. Thus, the vote ended in a 10-10 tie. The motion to have the SSC reconvene failed, and left with no other choice, the 2010 quota was set at the same level as 2009, approx. 2.3 million pounds.

By the third week of August, we learned that preliminary numbers from MRFSS indicated that the first half of the year's landings could exceed the 2009 quota by 100 percent. As a result, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service both voted in favor of a 180-day closure of the EEZ to recreational angling for black sea bass, effective on Oct. 5.

"It is now the perfect storm of October 1991, drastically affecting the Mid-Atlantic and New England coasts," Nowalsky said. "Three storms, deadly enough on their own, absolutely disastrous when combined, and they have come together."

Capt. Adam Crouthamel of Adam Bomb Sportfishing in Cape May, N.J., was devastated upon hearing the news.

"This closure is a disgrace," he said. "It is a concrete example of the disconnection that fisheries management actually has with the fisheries. Sea bass numbers are good. Each trip this fall I've marked acres of sea bass on the drops that I fish, with some structures showing fish from the bottom stacked up 40-feet high.

"You can't get a lure to the bottom without getting a double header. The best part is that the keeper ratio is about 5 to 1 ... my customers caught over 500 sea bass on our last trip with 108 of those sea bass being keepers."

Crouthamel said he believes this will be a crushing blow to the charter and party boats, along with the fuel docks and bait shops that supply these boats with equipment and supplies.

"I won't be buying any more clams from my supplier or will I be purchasing any hooks, lead and line. My fuel dock will also feel the pinch. I get out more in October than most boats in my marina combined because of our great sea bass fishery. The trickledown effect is going to hit hard. A boat that doesn't run can't burn fuel, break fishing rods, loose rigs and in short have folks spending money. The government will have her sitting all month long at the dock, taking up space!"

Most in the industry feel they have been put in a really tough spot, and they fear it sets a precedent that any fishery can be closed at any time.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) has been fighting for flexibility in the Magnuson Stevens Act for years. Flexibility would help solve issues such as the black sea bass closure.

This should be the wakeup call for all anglers to unite and act rather than talk. Maybe it's time to join the RFA or another organization ready to take on precedent setting cases such as this.

Our winter sea bass fishery is the bread and butter for northeast anglers and business owners. I hope the NOAA has a plan for the tautog fishery as that is about all the recreational angler has to fish. You can sure bet that the displaced sea bass anglers will be targeting tautog, impacting that fishery 10-fold.

You have to wonder sometimes, who is minding the store?

Editor's note: Capt. Chris Gatley can be found with his fishing clients chasing striped bass in front of the Statue of Liberty, or heading offshore to the Atlantic Ocean canyons off the NJ/NY coast for tuna. His articles on cutting-edge fishing techniques can be found in The Fisherman Magazine, and he's a regular presenter at key sports shows during the winter months (when he's not pursuing whatever he can find in East Coast rivers).