- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

An independent panel of scientists working with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Weakfish Management Board has confirmed that weakfish (gray sea trout) stocks are in pitiful shape and that current removals are not sustainable given the low population numbers of the prized fish.

The panel agreed with the stock assessment’s conclusions that “weakfish abundance has declined markedly, total mortality is high, nonfishing mortality has recently increased, and the stock is currently in a depleted state.”

Here is a tap on the noggins of the ASMFC:

For more than 10 years you’ve known that weakfish schools along the Atlantic Coast, the Chesapeake Bay and other coastal bays and sounds were in trouble. So now, finally, you’re initiating the development of Draft Addendum IV that will propose a range of options to “reduce fishing mortality, including complete harvest moratoria and limited by catch only fisheries.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

If you had a flat tire on your car, would you continue driving the vehicle for 10 years without fixing it? Surely not. You would have fixed it the moment you noticed something was wrong.

The ASMFC says the weakfish numbers stand at an all-time low of 2.9 million pounds, far below the proposed biomass threshold of 22.4 million pounds. The commission report said: “At this stock size, recent fishery removals (landings and dead discards combined), estimated at 1.9 and 1.8 million pounds in 2007 and 2008, respectively, represent a significant proportion of the remaining biomass. While the decline in the stock primarily results from a change in the natural mortality of weakfish in recent years, it is further exacerbated by continued removals by the commercial and recreational fisheries.”

Here we go again. Whenever a fish species is in trouble, the ASMFC, which leans heavily toward the commercial fishing industry, quickly includes recreational fishermen as part of the problem.

Yeah, right. Speaking as one of the recreational anglers, I can’t remember the last time I hooked a gray sea trout. It has been far longer than the 10-year downturn in the species’ population numbers quoted by the ASMFC. However, if I were allowed to set massive nets to catch the trout, I probably could still find a few. Nets simply are more efficient than the single bucktail lure with a pink plastic worm added to the hook to entice the few trout I used to catch.

The ASMFC says natural weakfish mortality has risen substantially since 1995, blaming predation, competition and changes in the environment. But it also says juvenile abundance surveys indicate that the young-of-the-year weakfish continue to be present in numbers similar to previous years, suggesting that recruitment has not been severely limited despite low stock size.

I’m so confused.

However, here’s betting a week’s wages that if all commercial sea trout netting efforts along the coast cease immediately, with all ASMFC member states agreeing that it must be done, the trout would come back more quickly than the striped bass did from 1985 to 1990, when Maryland invoked a striper catch moratorium that applied to commercial netters as well as sport fishermen. As far as the recreational community is concerned, it would gladly go along with a sea trout moratorium as long as everybody else abided by it.

Why am I not all that optimistic about the ASMFC’s weakfish management plans (which probably will not be announced until the end of 2009)? Some years ago, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources representative to the ASMFC made a remark that the reason the Chesapeake’s blue crabs weren’t in good supply was the high number of recreational chicken neckers. He didn’t think the hundreds of commercial fellows who run 300 to 600 crab pots week in, week out, had any effect on crab numbers. No, he blamed the people who sit on a dock dipping a chicken neck into the water.

It’s people like that who might help make the final decisions when the board meets to decide the fate of the weakfish. And that is scary.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com. Mueller’s Inside Outside blog can be found at www.washingtontimes.com/sports.

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