A Better Way to Count Fish

Black sea bass are at a record height of population density
John Brosnan held a fluke caught in more pleasant weather aboard Breakaway, a charter boat out of Montauk. As of last month, all party and charter boats are now required to file electronic catch reports on certain fish, including fluke. Jon M. Diat

No doubt about it, various governmental marine fishery departments and scientists have had a challenging time collecting accurate data on the status of various stocks of fish that reside along the East Coast of the United States. For sure, it will likely never be an exact science. Fish swim and their patterns are not always predictable. 

While the fear of overfishing is a paramount concern for all involved, few fishermen, either recreational or commercial, can respond in unison that they are truly happy with many of the restrictions in quotas and allocations that they have had to endure for a number of years. And while politics, both good and bad, have played a part at times, it all adds up to a lot of frustration and outright anger that currently abounds in many quarters. 

One of the biggest sources of consternation for all surrounds black sea bass stocks, which — even according to scientists and fishery bureaus — are at a record height of population density. In fact, according to federal fishery scientists, the popular fish are at two and a half times times the rebuilding target for the fishery, yet New York State recreational anglers are faced with a possible decrease of almost 12 percent in the amount of sea bass they can retain this year. 

What is also particularly disturbing is that our neighbors to the south in New Jersey will witness an increase to the length of their fishing season and an increase in how many fish they can keep for dinner in 2018. It just does not make sense.

While the conundrum over sea bass allotments remains up in the air for the 2018 season, fishery management is poised to take a step in the right direction. As of March 12, Electronic Vessel Trip Reports (eVTRs) are now required for all Mid-Atlantic charter and party boat trips. At long last, reporting which and how many fish are caught on a charter or party boat can be accomplished utilizing the latest technology. 

It took a while, but technology has come to the well-worn docks of Montauk and other Long Island ports, and hopefully to the benefit of scientists who tally the catches.

Those operators who possess a federal charter or party boat permit for species managed by NOAA Fisheries and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and are on a trip carrying passengers for hire, now need to submit an eVTR by electronic means through a NOAA-approved software application. The electronic reports need to be submitted within 48 hours of completing a fishing trip. 

Fish that will be bound by the rule include Atlantic mackerel, squid, butterfish, summer flounder, porgy, black sea bass, bluefish, and tilefish. The new reporting system was to have taken effect this past fall, but NOAA Fisheries delayed the implementation to provide vessel owners and operators time to obtain the software application and necessary training to comply with the new regulation. 

Federally permitted charter and party boats have always been required to fill out paper VTR logs, but that information was never really utilized by NOAA Fisheries for annual harvest details. Instead, the agency has relied almost exclusively on the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey and the Marine Recreational Information Program to compile annual catch data in the recreational fishing community.

NOAA Fisheries said in a statement that it is “working to reduce the reporting burden on fishermen while improving data collection procedures in order to obtain data that is more timely, accurate, and useful. The time delays and inaccuracies associated with current data collection in the charter and party fishing fleets reduce our ability to use the data in making management decisions. This action is intended to improve this data collection and improve the utility of the data.” The eVTRs are to be submitted through handheld electronic devices such as iPhones or tablets, or through a web portal on a personal computer.

“It’s definitely a positive move,” said Capt. Michael Potts of the Montauk charter boat Blue Fin IV. “No more saving and mailing in our reports. I have not sailed a trip yet, so of course we don’t know if there are going to be any glitches. But it’s a step in the right direction.”

Time will tell how much eVTR’s will be of a true aid to federal marine scientists and managers, but true accuracy in the status of various fish populations can hopefully make those final decisions easier.

On the current fishing scene, cold and windy weather continues to inhibit many from taking an active role in dunking some bait, whether it be from boat or shoreline. On a quick ride past the Shinnecock Canal on Sunday morning, I did not witness a single person wetting a line for flounder. The once incredibly popular spring fishery is sadly most likely gone forever, as flounder stocks remain at all-time lows. 

Over at the Tackle Shop in Amagansett, the owner, Harvey Bennett, had some more positive news on the fishing front. “I was just down at Napeague Harbor and saw a bald eagle flying with a striped bass in its talons,” he said on Monday morning. “It was a beautiful sight to see. So, some stripers are around.” 

Bennett was especially enthused about the freshwater fishing action of late. “The fishing has been hot,” he said. “Fresh Pond and Fort Pond in Montauk have largemouth bass and pickerel in good supply. Tins, swimming lures, and worms are all working. I also saw two big walleyes taken in Fort Pond on worms.” He added that if you want to tangle with some carp, fish up to 20 pounds were landed over the past week.

Bennett also noted that the alewives have arrived in various backwater streams and dreens. A member of the herring family, alewives are not great to eat but serve as important forage for many larger predator fish.

As a reminder, striped bass season opens on Sunday. Anglers are once again allowed to retain one fish over 28 inches per day. And for the first time in a number of years, fishermen can try their luck in April for blackfish. The daily limit is two fish over 16 inches per person. The season ends on April 30. 

While a spring season for blackfish is welcome news, a fishery in the month of May would have provided anglers with a greater chance of actually keeping a few. Our East End waters are usually too cold in April to provide any consistent action for the feisty fighters.