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Originally published in Fly Fishing in Saltwaters

REPORT YOUR BLUEFIN!

The failure to report your catch hurts us all

 

Bluefin tuna is the new Mt. Everest for flyfishers.   Frankly, they dwarf any other fish out there in both the skill required to catch one (you need to make long casts very quickly with at least a 14-wt, often during rough open ocean conditions), as well as their size, speed, strength and endurance.  And, there is nothing quite as intense as chasing around pods of 100-plus-pound torpedoes as they slash through schools of half-beaks or sandeels, often leaping through the air to pounce on bait.  If you manage to get one to eat a fly, brace yourself for a long drawn out battle that you likely wonít win. 

 

More and more fly anglers are getting a taste of this extraordinary fishery.  Thatís because there appear to be more and more around.   Each year differs, but without a doubt, during the last 6 years weíve seen more fish become available to the small-boat/center-console fisherman then there has been in well over a decade.  Not only are there more around but they appear closer to shore, indicating a possible expansion of the stock.  And itís not just in historically prolific areas, it appears to be a coast-wide phenomena stretching from Maine to North Carolina. 

 

All this said, according to NOAA, Western Atlantic bluefin (those US East Coast fish that spawn in the Gulf of Mexico) are badly depleted, bouncing along at around 10 to 20% of where they were 30 years ago.  The Eastern Atlantic stock (those fish that spawn in the Mediterranean), is in no better shape. 

 

Bluefin are, in more ways than one, the poster-child for poorly managed fisheries.  Because of the high-end sushi market, managers have consistently favored the short term benefits of killing far more fish than scientists recommend, over the long term abundance of the species.   As a result the stock has suffered.  Although there has been some recent tightening of restrictions, largely due to the threat of a trade-ban, due to compliance issues among others, they are generally agreed upon to be half-measures.

 

Yet, the Western Atlantic Stock, which some believe should have been shut down years ago, is actually managed very conservatively, especially if you are an angler.   Anglers can currently retain only one fish measuring 27 to 73 inches per vessel per day/trip (note that this is not per-person, but per boat).  Boats are also allowed a ďtrophyĒ fish over 73Ē per year. 

 

What the one fish per-boat recreational limit does is keep a lot of boats from making the trek out to the grounds if they can kill only one fish. Fortunately it has shut the party-boats almost completely out of the fishery.   In my opinion, thatís a good thing as recreational mortality would likely skyrocket if they got on these bluefin concentrations weíve been seeing. (Keep in mind the damage these boats do to the stripers).  Commercial fishermen fall into several categories, but they cannot keep a fish under 73Ē and the bag limit per boat is anywhere from 3 to 5 fish. 

 

While such regulations vary a bit from year to year, they remain relatively tight.  The point is that such tight regulations over time, along with a few good bluefin tuna spawning years, could be resulting in somewhat of a recovery.  I would not advocate loosening the restrictions on the fishery, as they appear to be working, simply from what Iím witnessing out on the water, as well as the coast-wide reports.   While bluefin is likely still a shadow of what it used to be, itís pretty hard not to see they there are more fish around now than there have been in many years. 

 

What confuses me is that there still isnít any substantial uptick in catch estimates or population abundance for Western Atlantic fish during the last 6 years.  This is confounding given the exceptional fishery thatís literally sprung out of nowhere for these fish. 

 

So why isnít this perceived abundance of bluefin showing up in NOAA Fisheries assessments?  Itís hard to say, but I tend to believe it has at least something to do with the reporting requirements, and the lack of compliance.   In some cases such noncompliance exists because the great majority of anglers just donít know any better.  In others, anglers/charter boat captains knowingly refuse to participate.  Neither case is excusable. 

 

By law all recreationally landed bluefin tuna MUST be reported to NMFS within 24 hours of landing at the dock.  This is easily done online at hmspermits.gov, or by phone at (888) 872-8862, yet very few people bother. Since Maryland and North Carolina have their own state reporting requirements, permit holders report their bluefin landings at state-operated reporting stations (for more info call (410) 213-1531 (MD) or (800) 338-7804 (NC)..

 

Of course, all anglers targeting bluefin must obtain an HMS (Highly Migratory Species) permit every year.  This is not just another $20 tax.  NOAA Fisheries uses this list to gage fishing effort.  Through calling permit holders, they gage effort/vessel trips, and then from dockside surveys they get catch-rate info.  If contacted on the dock or by phone, recreational anglers must cooperate in the Large Pelagics Survey (LPS) or Marine Recreational Information Program to facilitate scientific research and catch monitoring on the species.

 

NOAA gages bluefin reporting compliance at a mere 20%.  Iíd suggest that itís even lower.  As mentioned, a good part of that is ignorance.  People simply donít know that they are supposed to report.  And I fault NOAA Fisheries as well as the fishing-press for not making the requirement better-known.  Yet there are a good number of bluefin anglers who simply choose not to report.    Equally annoying is when I hear anglers and captains bragging about how they do not participate in the phone and/or dockside surveys.  There are a number of bogus reasons anglers/captains have for not reporting or cooperating with surveys, such as laziness, mistrust of NOAA, a fear that if they report their catch the fishery will be shut down, etc., yet such noncompliance hurts everyone. 

 

The benefits of more accurate data should be self explanatory?  Better data is of course better for the long-term sustainability of the fishery.  But accurate reporting would also fully demonstrate the recreational stake in the fishery.  Simply put, if thereís no catch history, thereís no catch.  If catch has been underreported, the catch share will be similarly underrepresented.  If the compliance rate went up, it could lead to increased allocation for anglers.  The bluefin tuna Angling Category allocation of 19.7% is based on the historical recreational catch of 1983 through 1991. The allocation percentages have been modified slightly since they were first set in 1992 to reflect current effort and landings by fishing category (e.g., Angling, Longline, Harpoon).  Higher Angling landings reports could lead to a bigger allocation for anglers in the future, but that would of course require bluefin anglers to report their catch, and the large majority doesnít appear to be doing so now.

 

Compliance would also provide a more accurate calculation of the value of recreational fishery.  Several different groups, including NMFS, the American Sportfishing Association, and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), undertake analyses of the value of recreational fishing in the US.  The number of trips and species targeted are two important components of value calculations. Offshore trips for bluefin are among the most expensive recreational trips.  If more trips are accounted for due to landings reports, the estimated value of recreational fishing increases.  The value of recreational fishing is sometimes a key motivator for Congress and fishery managers to take actions that will benefit anglers.  As it stands now, the economic value of the commercial bluefin fishery simply dwarfs the recreational one. 

 

Compliance would also demonstrate fuller utilization of the US quota so US does not lose quota share to other nations.  I suspect a larger compliance rate would give an increased estimate of catch rates, which can show larger population sizes in assessments, which can lead to increased quotas. For example, in the case of bluefin tuna, the 2010 assessment of the western stock incorporated 12 time series of bluefin abundance.  Two of the time series were based entirely on annual catch by U.S. recreational fishermen since 1993 (age 2-3 fish, age 4-5 fish).  When higher catches are shown in these time series, the assessment reflects that as an uptick in the population size, even though in this case it was very small.   The point is that when the population is assessed at being closer to or at sustainable levels, the population is able to withstand more fishing and quotas could be increased.

 

The bottom line is that to not report your bluefin catch, as required by law, is just stupid.  To not participate in the phone or dockside surveys is equally brainless.  Itís been well documented that the 2003/2004 year class was a good one.  These fish, now in the 150-pound range, are finally beginning to show up in assessments, but itís a very small uptick.  The fact of the matter is that not only are weíre encountering these fish, but there appear to be fish both before and after that.  In other words, larger and small fish, yet the numbers donít seem to reflect that.   Given the 20% compliance estimate, I guess thatís not surprising. 

 

Iím fine with the bluefin regulations that are in place now.  Frankly I donít think we need more than one fish per boat.  But for those that are complaining, they likely have no one to blame but themselves.  Regardless, Iíd like to see more accurate information on bluefin, as it will of course benefit the fish in the long run.  That can only come with better angler participation and compliance in both the reporting requirements and the Large Pelagic Survey.