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Five Fishery Bright Spots

Five U.S. success stories — fisheries that regained health through conservation

August 13, 2011
bright spots main

bright spots main

_In every corner of our continent, fish struggle against an onslaught of harvest, predation, habitat loss, pollution and natural disasters. Those that have biology on their side continue to flourish; others nose-dive into trouble.

Species that prosper create a bright spot in a sometimes-dim environment. They prove that humans can manage their resources, and give us reason to hope that our sport will flourish._

_To illustrate, we took a look at five species in five different ­locations. Some of these fisheries are just beginning to thrive after a long downturn; some appear to be succeeding regionally but might be counted in a larger population that remains near the brink.

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In every case, anglers — including the authors of the following five articles — feel fortunate to enjoy this current bounty. For them, that’s the take-home message in a nutshell._

Salmon
Central Puget Sound, Washington
By John L. Beath

With the help of fishery managers, hatcheries and concerned anglers, Pacific Northwest salmon runs stir high expectations each summer for a limited but spirited season. But that wasn’t always the case: The fishery cycled through boom and bust during the 20th century and now, finally, rises back to life.

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In 1911, millions of wild Pacific salmon returned to Washington’s Central Puget Sound. That year, Seattle’s population grew to 240,000 people because of the area’s rich resources. The commercial salmon-fishing industry blossomed, and forever associated Seattle and Puget Sound to its legendary salmon runs.

All five species of Pacific salmon — chinook, coho, pink, chum and sockeye — returned to the Sound’s rivers and streams by the millions. Chinook salmon — because of their size, fight and superior taste — became the salmon of choice: the king of salmon.

During peak summer chinook runs in those early years, anyone with access to a wooden rowboat used hand lines or primitive fishing rods and reels with bait or lures to catch their share of prized kings. They also caught plenty of ­aggressive coho and pink salmon.

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In 1931, the Ben Harris Seattle Star Saltwater Fishing Derby became the first of many annual Puget Sound salmon events. Competition for fish and habitat continued for decades and greatly reduced salmon populations. As more people moved to the region, fisheries managers relied on dozens of salmon hatcheries to enhance wild-salmon stocks.

In 1999, the National Marine Fisheries Service put Puget Sound chinook on the threatened-species list. In 2000, Washington’s legislature mandated the Puget Sound Recreational Salmon and Marine Enhancement Program to release 3 million yearling chinook each year to help bring the ­population back to 1970s and early ’80s numbers.

Over the past decade, fisheries managers continued the chinook-release program. And while results haven’t been as favorable as hoped, anglers continue to harvest. The release of larger, four-month-old chinook has proved more cost effective.

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Gary Krein, owner of All Star Charters in Everett, Washington (­www.allstarfishing.com), said charter anglers last summer averaged one chinook per angler per trip. “Without hatcheries, we would be shut down,” Krein says. “We have gone to a selective chinook fishery in Central Puget Sound year-round. Summer chinook fishing is excellent.”

Managers continue to work with the legislature to change old mandates and implement strategies consistent with more-successful and cost-efficient enhancement. The future of selective summer chinook sport fishing in Puget Sound should remain consistent for years to come as long as area hatcheries continue releasing chinook.

“Summer and fall chinook salmon returns to Puget Sound are expected to total about 243,000 fish, slightly higher than last year’s projection of 226,000,” says Steve Thiesfeld, Puget Sound salmon manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Most chinook fisheries in Puget Sound likely will be similar to last year.”
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Coho and Pink Salmon**
Puget Sound anglers can expect nearly 1 million coho and 6 million pink salmon to return this summer to local rivers and streams. During the 2011 season, salmon should exceed the area’s human population, just like the good old days. With these excellent salmon numbers, expect busy boat launches and full charter boats.

“This is shaping up to be a really good year in Puget Sound for both coho and pink salmon,” Thiesfeld says.

Additionally, another 17 million pink salmon are ­forecast to return to Canada’s Fraser River this year. “A portion of those Fraser River fish will make their way through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands, boosting ­opportunities for Washington anglers,” he says.

Krein expects a generous four-fish pink salmon limit this summer. In 2009, during the last Puget Sound pink salmon run, his guests experienced fast fishing and quick limits. And while anglers catch only about 50 percent of the bites, Krein says a charter of six fishermen should land two salmon each in two to three hours.

Phenomenal fishing is predicted for the entire shoreline from Mukelteo to the West Point entrance to Elliot Bay. With 30 percent to 40 percent more coho expected this year, Krein says they should be far more aggressive they bite better when mixed in with pinks.

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Puget Sound Chinook and Coho Salmon Forecasts, 2009-2011

Adult chinook salmon preseason forecasts:
2009: 222,380
2010: 226,550
2011: 243,000

Adult coho salmon preseason forecasts:
2009: 582,462
2010: 613,930
2011: 981,216

Seasons:
Chinook: Mid-July through August (­fin-clipped only)
Coho: August through October (peak time: September)
Pink: August through September (peak time: Aug. 10 to Sept. 1)

Limits:
Two-salmon limit (release all wild chinook and chum).
During pink salmon season, managers will increase limits for pink salmon based on run size.
All information as of August 2011. For up-to-date seasons, rules and regulations, visit www.wdfw.wa.gov.

About the Author: John Beath has been fishing Puget Sound since age 8. He is an outdoor writer/­photographer based in Monroe, Washington. Beath set the IGFA 6-pound line-class record for chinook salmon in 2002 with a 51.25-pound catch.
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Southern California White Seabass
By Ron Ballanti

As an aspiring Southern California saltwater angler in the 1970s and ’80s, I grew up at a time when white seabass were almost mythical creatures — not unlike unicorns with fins. I remember watching my brother — who worked as a deckhand — catch his first seabass in 1972. An ­impressionable 12-year-old with a slight case of hero worship, I vowed to catch one of my own. It took me 30 years.

Fast-forward to summer 2010, when the one hot ticket in a lackluster cool-water season was a sustained white seabass bite that continued at various locations throughout the spring and summer. The highlight: a bite along the Orange County/San Diego coast, where flotillas of private boaters landed personal-best-size croakers of 40 to 50 pounds.

So how did white seabass go from magical mystery fish to the target of a robust recreational fishery? Several actions caused the transition, the most significant of which was California’s passage of Proposition 132 in the early 1990s. The regulations went into effect in 1994, banning commercial gill and trammel nets within three miles of the coast and one mile of the islands.

Putting this issue on the ballot and pushing its passage became the driving force for the creation of the United Anglers of Southern California (www.unitedanglers.com). Prop 132 remains one of the group’s key achievements.

The inshore nets had proved highly effective at catching white seabass, particularly when the fish gathered in large schools to spawn. Decades of pounding those populations took a toll reflected in commercial and recreational catches.

In 1980 and ’81, the commercial catch collapsed to about 10 percent of historical levels. The state recreational catch from party boats dropped from a 1949 high of 64,000 fish to just 284 in 1978. That historic low aside, recreational-party-boat catches averaged around 1,400 fish annually between 1980 and 1991, or only 2 percent of the 1949 peak, according to an assessment by university scientists and the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute published in 2007 in the journal Fisheries Research.

Commercial fishermen still catch seabass using a variety of methods, including hook and line, and offshore drift and set nets. With those gear restrictions, commercial catches of adult seabass began to grow in 1996 from about 28 metric tons to more than 220 metric tons in 2002, the assessment states. They’ve fluctuated since, but at levels well above the 1980s collapse.

According to the California Department of Fish and Game White Seabass Fishery Management Plan published in 2009, commercial landings reached 653,086 pounds (roughly 296 metric tons) for the 2007-2008 season — a 73 percent increase over the previous five-season average.

Recreational seabass catches can’t be as accurately estimated, because the fishery involves minimally sampled private boats. In several years, over the past decade, recreational catch estimates have exceeded commercial landings.

Recreational anglers must abide by a 28-inch minimum size with a limit of one fish per day south of Point Conception from March 15 through June 15 (prime spawning season), and a three-fish-per-day limit the rest of the year. Some angling conservationists lean toward extending the one-fish limit across the entire year and range to further protect the huge spawners.

An Innovative Hatchery Program
The Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, working with United Anglers of Southern California and numerous volunteers, has spawned, raised and released more than 1.8 million juvenile white seabass into Southern California waters. These fish begin life in a state-of-the-art hatchery in Carlsbad, California, before transfer to a series of grow-out pens between Santa Barbara and San Diego. When they reach approximately 10 inches in length, they’re released.

Each fish bears a microscopic coded-wire cheek tag; anglers are encouraged to save seabass heads for scanning. Freezers are located at sport-fishing landings and other locations across the region. A list of drop-off locations is available at ­hswri.org.

Scanned tags from sport and commercially caught fish have shown unexpected migrations. One fish released off Mission Bay was caught 200 miles away, off the Northern Channel Islands. Others have been recovered in offshore drift nets on the Tanner and Cortes banks, 100 miles off San Diego.

About the Author: Southern California salt- and freshwater angler Ron Ballanti frequently contributes to leading fishing magazines and websites, and operates a marketing business in the marine industry.

Texas Redfish
By Calixto Gonzales

Some Texas coast anglers will tell you they got rooked when the state legislature voted to christen the Guadalupe bass the state fish. A dinky little bass that barely reaches three pounds labeled the official finned critter of the Lone Star State? By Travis and Bowie, an average-size specimen would barely qualify as bait for the true state fish: the redfish.

Granted, some Texans are prone to a tiny bit of hyperbole, but not when it comes to the state’s red drum fishery. After flirting with buffalo-style extinction in the 1970s, redfish populations have rebounded to where Texas Parks & Wildlife Department officials consider the state-sponsored recovery project a resounding success.

Redfish carry a long and storied history in the Texas bays and surf, and they hold a certain mystique. The largest redfish, or “bulls,” didn’t collect in schools; they traveled in “herds.” Redfish were big, plentiful and available.

“The fishing was excellent,” says Albert Rutledge, a spry 92-year-old who has fished Laguna Madre with his friends for more than 75 years. “We always caught our share when we went. Back in the 1930s, we used to go to Port Mansfield and rent a big wooden boat, hook up a 9-­horsepower outboard, and go out to the sandbars and camp. There were four of us. One night, we caught so many redfish, we barely fit in the boat with them.”

After World War II, combat-weary Texans began pursuing a variety of recreational activities, fishing among them. Redfish remained a popular target until the 1960s, when overfishing and, even more so, commercial gill-netting took a toll on stocks. By the 1970s, the fishery had collapsed.

The passage of House Bill 1000 in 1981, which granted redfish game-fish status, began what TPWD head marine fisheries biologist Mark Fisher calls a “multiyear recovery effort.” TPWD gained the power to impose bag and size limits on all fish (ultimately resulting in the current threefish daily bag and 20- to 28-inch redfish slot). The bill also led to the establishment of a fish hatchery and extensive restocking program. The result, according to Fisher, was the recovery of redfish numbers to “near-record levels in both quantity and size.”

Redfish have come back so well, in fact, that some anglers hunting trophy speckled trout and other quarry almost consider them a nuisance. Fisher recounts that at January scoping meetings, one angler complained that “he couldn’t catch any trout because there were too many redfish.”

Texas has plenty of redfish out there, affirms Capt. Rick Bailey (956-369-5090). “We have a variety of habitats to fish up and down the coast, and that’s what makes our fishery so unique. We have marshes, deep shell, grass flats — you name it. Our surf fishing is second only to the Carolinas.”

Bailey says he sees a lot of large redfish too. On a November trip through Mansfield Pass and along the Padre Island beachfront, he and his fishing partner caught more than 20 reds from 29 to 44 inches. “If I were going for a state record, I’d fish Mansfield. Port Aransas and Port O’Connor are great (for trophy redfish), but I’d fish Mansfield.”

Fisher believes that the current 59-pound state record, caught out of Sabine Pass in 2000, easily could be broken. “There are some 60-pound fish out there,” he says. Texas might eventually challenge the current world-record 94-pound, 2-ounce brute some day.

“It’s entirely possible,” Fisher says. “There are some huge fish out there.”

About the Author: Longtime Sport Fishing contributor Calixto Gonzales has lived near the Texas coast his entire life. His base of operations is the Lower Laguna Madre, which is among the premier destinations for red drum anglers in the United States.

White Marlin
By Ric Burnley

Sickle fins to the right, bills to the left, two fish boil in front of the boat, a white marlin crashes the bait on the right flat line, another plays with the left short. We’re surrounded. Where? Venezuela? Bahamas? St. Thomas? Believe it or not, we’re 50 miles off Virginia Beach.

Over the past five years, white marlin numbers have exploded along the mid-Atlantic. In 2006, anglers registered only 232 whites for trophy citation with the Virginia Salt Water Fishing Tournament. Last year, the number jumped to 1,253.

And it’s no fluke. A perfect storm of favorable ­environmental conditions and effective management measures has resulted in some of the best white marlin fishing in memory. Comments Virginia Beach native, Capt. Mike Standing , “We haven’t seen white marlin fishing this good in 15 years,” “and we’ve never seen these numbers.”

Standing attributes the good fishing to a variety of causes: an abundance of bait, favorable water temperatures, good weather and even technological advancements. “Can you imagine how many marlin we could have caught in the ’80s if we had modern electronics?” he asks.

In fact, numbers from the VSWFT show that white marlin fishing also peaked in the late ’70s and again in the early ’90s. So, the remaining question is: Have management measures had a positive effect on white marlin numbers?

“Hell, yes,” answers Dr. John Graves, the U.S. chairman of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas and a member of the federal highly migratory species advisory panel. “The increase in apparent abundance and the increase in size are consistent with less fishing pressure.”

The No. 1 contributor to the white marlin rebound, according to Graves, is the regulation of the longline fishing industry, a major source of mortality for all billfish species. Closing swordfish nurseries to longliners put many smaller operations out of the industry. In addition, 10 years ago ICCAT adopted a binding measure requiring longliners to release all live billfish. “As expected,” Graves says, “reported landings of white marlin decreased by 67 percent.”

Recreational fishermen are doing their part too. Mandatory circle-hook use in all billfish tournaments made a significant impact on white marlin numbers. Graves explains, “Even outside the tournament scene, many anglers are using circle hooks as they fine-tune their rigging and angling technique.”

Standing agrees, “We’ve switched to circle hooks exclusively, because our hookup ratio is greater.”

According to Graves’ research, 98 percent of white marlin caught with circle hooks survive release, while only 65 percent of whites taken on J-hooks live. To understand the impact, consider that anglers released 4,000 to 8,000 white marlin in the late ’90s before the circle-hook regulations took effect. “Assuming all of those fish were caught on J-hooks,” he says, “35 percent died after being released. While no one can say that these measures are solely responsible for the increase in local abundance, I think there’s an awfully strong case for good management.”

No question conservation has helped, Standing says, “even if the fish do run in cycles.” He hopes that conservation measures continue producing more fish through the tough times. “The lows won’t be as low and the highs will be higher than ever,” he predicts.

But will the boon last? Graves is optimistic: “Hopefully we will keep the same level of protection,” he says, “then the outlook is good for us.”

However, dark clouds hover on the horizon. ICCAT’s measure requiring the release of all live white and blue marlin expires next year. Depending on stock assessments, those regulations might not be renewed. “There has been considerable push-back from the nations with pelagic ­longline fleets,” Graves says.

One thing remains sure: White marlin fishing has been better than ever for mid-Atlantic anglers. Last summer, Standing and his crew released 250 whites and averaged 10 fish per trip in September. “A lot of those fish were caught fly-fishing too,” he adds.

So, will next year’s fishing improve? “That depends on a lot of things,” Standing says. “We’re just happy we got what we got.”

About the Author: Ric Burnley is a father, teacher, writer, photographer and outdoorsman based in Virginia Beach. For the latest on what’s happening in the mid-Atlantic, check out his website: www.fishcrazy.info.

Florida Sailfish
By Terry Gibson

I’ve been in the conservation business long enough to know that it’s a mistake for anglers to use local, on-water observations as the ultimate filter about a given fishery. For example, a stock might be going strong at the heart of its range but dwindling toward the edges, where populations are naturally lower. Anglers living where the fish thrive assume that’s the case everywhere.

But I simply couldn’t believe it when I read that the International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas had determined that the western Atlantic sailfish population teeters on the threshold of overfishing, according to a 2009 assessment.

For some 25 years, I’ve fished off southeast Florida — arguably the best sailfish waters in the country. Every veteran offshore captain I know in this region would swear on his mother’s grave that the sailfishing has never been better. In fact, captains and anglers I’ve interviewed from North Carolina to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, agree: The phenomenal conservation ethic and behavior anglers have demonstrated in the fishery have resulted in a robust western Atlantic population and stupendous fishing. So why the discrepancy between the stock assessment and what anglers in the Southeast are experiencing?

ICCAT divides Atlantic sailfish into eastern and western stocks from a management perspective. The eastern stock clearly shows a sharp decline, due primarily to harvest off the West African coast by artisanal fishermen and by the European commercial fleet.

The entire western Atlantic stock, all sailfish that swim in waters off South and North America, comprise one population. However, billfish biologists suspect north and southwest Atlantic divisions. In addition, most of the western Atlantic harvest takes place in the Caribbean and off South America. (Brazil, for example, harvested 432 million metric tons in 2009.) As IGFA conservation director Jason Schratwieser put it, “The amount of harvest in the southern hemisphere is probably why the entire western stock is potentially overfished.”

Natural fluctuations in sailfish ­populations might be a driver behind the record release numbers documented by longstanding Florida tournaments like the West Palm Beach Fishing Club’s 76-year-old Silver Sailfish Derby. The world’s longest-consecutive-running billfish tournament, the Derby has provided an ­uninterrupted stream of sailfish-catch data.

John Jolley, the club’s 30-year board chairman and ­president, was also one of the first marine biologists to study western Atlantic sailfish. He points out that billfish live fairly long — tagging data confirmed that sailfish can live at least 17 years — and have wide natural variations in reproductive success. No one really understands the causes behind these variations, but Jolley quickly points out that despite skyrocketing recreational participation in the fishery, “the fishing is as good or better than it’s been over the past 50 years.”

Ellen Peel, executive director of The Billfish Foundation, testified at the ICCAT meeting last June: “The long-practiced, catch-and-release ethic by U.S. anglers and the coastal nature of the species are likely the two primary reasons the western stock has not plummeted over the years. The additional conservation benefits that have resulted from the pelagic longline closure off Florida no doubt strengthen the status of the stock.”

In other words, the strong conservation ethic and political will of anglers have helped keep the western Atlantic stock pretty much to the right of the overfishing mark.

The sailfish success story in the western Atlantic might have been dramatically different — tragic, really — without the billfish catch-and-release conservation ethic. The ethic first took root in the West Palm Beach Fishing Club when members became repulsed by the wasteful practice of hanging up dead sailfish for show on the dock.

Club members created the concept of release flags, which became a grand tradition. That led to tag-and-release flags, which encouraged the extremely important spirit of cooperation with scientists and managers for data collection and sharing knowledge.

“Release-idermy” (release rather than skin mounts) and the adoption of circle hooks represent a growing conscientiousness toward long-term protection. “I love this story,” says Jolley. “It’s a success story of self-regulation that resulted in a better fishery and more caring and educated anglers.”

About the Author: Terry Gibson is principal owner of North Swell Media LLC, in Jensen Beach, Florida. A southeast Florida native, Gibson has served in various editorial capacities for respected fishing, hunting and surfing publications. These days, his primary focus is on marine conservation and communicating science to saltwater enthusiasts.

brigt-spots-salmon.jpg
Salmon numbers plunged during the 20th century. Hatcheries have helped rebuild the stocks. Chris Woodward
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Almost ghosts? SoCal’s white seabass came back from the brink in the 1970s and ’80s. Bill Boyce
brigt-spots-redfish.jpg
Redfish: an inshore staple throughout the Gulf and South Atlantic coasts. Tosh Brown
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Circle hooks and longlining rules have boosted white marlin numbers. Capt. Tim Simos
brigt-spots-sailfish.jpg
The majesty and beauty of sailfish is practically unrivaled in the blue-water offshore world. Pat Ford
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