The Atlantic black sea bass fishery closed on Monday, October 17, to the dismay of most recreational bottom fishermen. Photo Credit: Joe Richard

Cross another species off the bottom-fishing list

Even when anglers on the east coast couldn’t catch red snapper, groupers or vermilion snapper, black sea bass still allowed family level anglers to catch and keep something for dinner. On Monday, October 17, to the dismay of most recreational bottom fishermen, the Atlantic black sea bass fishery closed.

With NOAA Fisheries Service implementing recreational annual catch limits (ACLs) and accountability measures for black sea bass in 2011, the sporty fighter with a healthy appetite is the latest species to fall to NOAA Fisheries over-regulation.

“We are left with very little for avid bottom fishermen to pursue in the South Atlantic, especially during the winter,” said Bill Bird, chairman of Coastal Conservation Association’s South Atlantic Fisheries Committee. “Bottom-fishing trips have been a staple for recreational fishermen and these closures are cascading at a time when coastal communities have fewer tourists and are already reeling from the troubled economy.”

As part of annual catch limits for black sea bass, anglers can expect early closures yearly and shortened seasons the following year. It’s a troubling pattern when anglers continue to see fish species put off-limits for large portions of the year. Accountability measures allow the NOAA Fisheries Service to enforce in-season closures and annual catch limit adjustments the following fishing year, at any time, based solely on data that they’ve compiled.

“It is unconscionable that we are still managing high-value recreational fisheries without the fishery independent data necessary to corroborate the catch data,” says Bird. “We would urge that the Council demand the resources necessary to incorporate fishery independent data to establish the greatest level of confidence in future stock assessments.”

Background

NOAA Fisheries Service monitored recreational black sea bass landings and projected that the 2010-2011 annual catch limits (409,000 pounds) would be met by mid-February 2011. The recreational fishery for black sea bass closed on February 12. When final recreational landings data for the 2010-2011 fishing year became available—landings data that NOAA Fisheries compiled—it was determined that the annual catch limit was exceeded by 67,253 pounds.

On June 1, 2011, the recreational sea bass season re-opened for the 2011-2012 year, this time with a reduced annual catch limit of 341,747 pounds and a reduced bag limit that went from 15 per person/day to 5 per person/day. In 4½ months, NOAA determined that the black sea bass annual catch limits were reached and closed the fishery October 17. The fishery will reopen June 1, 2012. Black sea bass has a season of June 1 through May 31 on the books, but for 2011-2012 it was little more than 4 months.

Constant Catch Strategy

At the heart of the black sea bass debacle is the Council’s adoption of a constant catch strategy in 2006 that has restricted all participants with artificially low catch limits, says CCA’s Bill Bird. Constant catch strategy means that a fixed tonnage is taken from the resource yearly, with little wiggle room for adjustments. CCA is calling for switching the rebuilding strategy to allow for greater recreational quotas while still achieving the 2016 rebuilding deadline.

“It is now painfully apparent that the Council made a mistake when it approved the constant catch rebuilding strategy in 2006,” wrote Bird. “While that strategy, promoted at the time by the commercial sector and the headboat industry, shielded those sectors from painful take reductions early in the rebuilding program, it subsequently shackled all participants with artificially low limits that are locked in for the duration of the program.”

Under the constant catch strategy, the highest take levels of the entire rebuilding timeframe occurred in the first two years when arguably the fewest fish were available. After that, allowable catch levels dropped significantly for the remaining eight years. Meanwhile, the black sea bass stock is behaving exactly as expected—it is responding to management and rapidly rebuilding. As it does, recreational anglers are encountering them more frequently and catching their quota far more quickly, resulting in the October to June closure, says Bird.

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