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Fly Fishing in Saltwaters, Dec/Jan 2010



Managers fall short of instituting a complete ban as stocks hit an all-time low


The last few years have resulted in some extraordinary weakfish catches, including the all-tackle record 19.12-pounder caught from the Jersey Shore in the spring of 2008.  On my boat alone we stuck two fish (one in 2006 and one in 2007) that I’m certain would have blown the IGFA flyrod record out of the water, had I had the sense to take girth measurements.   But there was always an urgency to get those fish back in the water as soon as possible.  The presence of small numbers of such large fish and no small or medium fish is a classic sign of an impending collapse.  Weakfish were in trouble then.  They are in bad trouble now. 


A recent stock assessment completed and peer reviewed this year found that the stock has reached an all time low of 2.9 million pounds, far below the “biomass threshold” of 22.4 million pounds, which is what scientists would consider a healthy stock.  This is an astonishing drop, since the East Coast harvest in 1980 was 80 million pounds.


The current situation has become dire enough that Dr. Jamie Geiger of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that managers might wish to consider invoking the provisions of the Endangered Species Act as one of the “management tools” available to them. 


The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which has management authority over the species, has known about the precipitous decline in weakfish stocks over the last decade.  It’s a little troubling that they refrained from acting until now, since timely action by ASMFC might have prevented the collapse of the stock.  However, the dynamics of the weakfish population has long confounded fisheries managers.  


Historically, the species has experienced extreme highs and lows.  They virtually disappeared in the early 50s and showed no sign of recovery until 1972. The early 70s began a period of tremendous growth in the fishery, which peaked in 1980. Then the fishery declined steadily throughout the 1980s, dropping to  low in 1994. Management measures allowed  harvest to increase slowly through 1998. Beginning in 1999, commercial landings began to decline again, and by 2008, were reduced to an historic low of less than 500,000 pounds. Recreational landings followed a similar trend.   


According to ASMFC biologists, the recent decline isn’t due to fishing pressure.   Natural mortality has increased to a level between two to four times that of fishing mortality in recent years.  Surveys show that juvenile weakfish populations continue to be strong but they are not making it to maturity.


Weakfish anglers know that the species is most often found in estuaries, which provide not only productive feeding areas, but spawning grounds for adult weakfish and important nursery areas for juveniles.   Thus, a number of environmental factors may be causing problems with such estuary dependant fish.  They include intense coastal development; “dredging and filling “activities that have limited shallow water nursery habitat; water quality degradation resulting from point and non-point source discharges; the intensive conversion of coastal wetlands to agricultural areas; alteration of freshwater flows and discharge patterns;  and power plant cooling facilities which have been said to cause entrainment and impingement. 


There is also the issue of predation and increased competition for forage.  The usual folks interested in larger striped bass quotas claim that stripers are eating all the weakfish or that they are eating all the weakfish’s food.  Yet the two species’ historical abundance and coexistence make such arguments difficult to accept (the explosion of weakfish abundance in the early 1970s coincided with what was at the time the largest year class of striped bass ever recorded.)  The same can be said for bluefish (anglers harvested 95 million pounds of bluefish in 1981, and just 19 million pounds in 2008.)  The dramatic increase in spiny dogfish populations has also been pointed to as a factor.  Regardless, attempting to protect one species by the large scale killing of another has never been successful, on land or at sea and it is currently not one of the management tools available under the ASMFC’s single species management approach anyway.


Weakfish stocks may also be suffering from unreported bycatch, either in the winter trawl fisheries off North Carolina or in the gillnet fisheries prosecuted in numerous estuaries. 


In any case, it’s very difficult to prove that any of these factors are a significant source of weakfish mortality, and even if scientists could pinpoint such factors, there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done to correct them.  There is consensus amongst scientists that in order to rebuild the weakfish stock, total mortality will need to be reduced, and the only tool they have to do that is to reduce or even eliminate fishing pressure. 


The usual cast of characters are suggesting that since fishing is not the large part of the problem, then commercial and recreational fishers should not have to make sacrifices.  Yet CCA NY Chairman Charles Witek notes “In the face of a stock decline that cannot be readily attributed to any single cause, taking immediate action to reduce such mortality as ASMFC may be able to control should always be seen as a preferable alternative to doing nothing and allowing the situation to deteriorate further, so that any recovery effort ultimately undertaken will only be more difficult.”


A Draft Addendum to the weakfish management plan, proposing a range of options to reduce fishing mortality was recently created by ASMFC to address the stock assessment results.  The options range from maintaining the status quo to a complete harvest moratorium and limited bycatch only commercial fisheries.   The ASMFC Weakfish Management Board met in early November to consider public comment and take final action on the Addendum.   There was a motion made by Tom O'Connell  of MD for a moratorium, but Tom Fote of NJ offered a substitute motion that would allow a 1 fish bag for anglers and a 100 pound trip limit for commercial fishermen.  Unfortunately, the 1 fish/100 pound trip limit passed by a vote 9-6.   The argument was that this will allow for some data collection and some dead discards to be converted to catch.  Of course, once you have such a “bycatch allowance” inevitably it results in a directed fishery, especially on the commercial side.


The vote was unfortunate, given the dire condition of the stock.  A moratorium would have given weakfish a far greater chance at a timely recovery.  But it wasn’t surprising.  ASMFC has not imposed a moratorium since the one imposed on Atlantic sturgeon more than ten years ago.   Recently they refused to shut down the winter flounder fishery, which is in terrible shape, even after a federally-imposed moratorium was implemented.  Such short sighted policies which have clearly become the norm at ASMFC benefit neither the fish nor the fishermen in the long run.  Let’s hope it’s not too little too late for weakfish.