Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

Stripers Forever Sickly;
Asian Oyster Option

(Sorry, a glitch – by me – failed to place this weekly column in here on schedule. Sorry. This week’s “weekly” column will be in here late tomorrow. All past columns can be found at https://jaymanntoday.ning.com/ .

RUN-DOWN AND STUFF: Just like that the snow is no more. A couple 70-dgree days will do that. Hell, even those blackened piles of plowed snow are giving up the gritty ghost.
This melt-away clears the way for a more normal spring runoff (rain) for the Mullica River basin. This week could/should see the first bass takes up river. I’ll be stopping off at some of the upriver bridges and banks to see what’s what. No, I can’t offer specific locales. I don’t want fishing folks fearing the mere sight of me showing up.
Bassing is still a goodly way off by my reckoning. Even if we keep this burst of early spring, the ocean got down there this winter. It takes tons of time for it to warm. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the first brisk burst of schoolie fish immediately before the big bunker-pod bass arrive.
Striper sidebar: The Massachusetts House of Representatives is looking at a bill to give gamefish-only status to all Commonwealth striped bass. The so-called Massachusetts Striped Bass Conservation Bill would also prohibits the sale of wild striped bass and would further sets a recreational daily bag limit of one striper between 20 and 26 inches, or alternatively, one fish of 40 inches or greater per angler.
That last thing is a tad freaky – albeit intriguing. I’ve long been a proponent of inviting home small stripers and weighing in an occasional (tourney) trophy bass, while maintaining a huge protected “slot” in-between. However, I sure don’t espouse something as wild and wooly as the proposed Massachusetts Striped Bass Conservation Bill. We have way too many bass here to get that draconian. I sure like the taste, I mean the sound of that 20-inch fish, though.
Not surprisingly, Stripers Forever is spearheading the Massachusetts effort.
“According to a study by noted wildlife socio-economist Rob Southwick, the recreational saltwater fishery for wild migratory striped bass in Massachusetts generates more than $1 billion annually in economic activity for the economy of the Commonwealth,” Brad Burns, president of Stripers Forever, was quoted as saying. “By contrast, the commercial fishery generates about $24 million. Yet recreational angling success for stripers in Massachusetts waters has decreased steadily in recent years while the commercial striped bass quota has remained constant.”
In the bill before that state’s house, some very telling wording offers a lot of insight for the politicos to ponder.
Under a bill segment entitled, “Economic Gains: Jobs and Revenues” the proposed legislation reads, “ It will maximize the economic impact of game fish status by creating almost 3,000 new jobs (net of commercial job losses) and increasing revenues in Massachusetts by “nearly $334 million,” according to the acclaimed and respected Southwick Striped Bass Study for Massachusetts (2005).”
Then under the heading “Resource Management: Conservation” the bill reads, “It will both reduce the harvest and protect the best reproductive females in the striped bass population while setting aside a reserve stock of fish for unforeseen environmental crises such as that now occurring from mycobacteriosis, which is 100% fatal and has been found in 70% of the stripers (or “rockfish”) in Chesapeake Bay (the source of most of the striped bass caught in Massachusetts).”
My read: I am behind the Massachusetts effort providing the resource is fully exploited afterwards, meaning a gamefish categorization will not lead to a lopsided and ecologically harmful enlargement of the striper stocks.
Getting too crazed about saving stripers is a touchy ecological subject.
The above-mentioned outbreak of mycobacteriosis in the Chesapeake is quite likely exacerbated by an overpopulation of small bass. Per scientists studying the disease, overpopulations lead to tighter schools and a passing of diseases through skin contact. Too little forage for the many bay bass is also a likely factor in their weakened state.
And mycobacteriosis is deadly.
Fish tagging data collected and recently published by Hongua Jiang of North Carolina State University strongly indicates that natural mortality, i.e. without the help of fishermen, has increased among striped bass in Maryland, dating back to the late 1990s. This amounts to an insidious overall die-off. Hongua offered no reasons why the striper mortality rate from natural causes is increasing but he did point out it aligns with the discovery of mycobacteriosis in Chesapeake striped bass.
Now the vital question: Has the bay simply met its striper holding capacity?
Worded with a close-to-home emphasis: Is the Chesapeake -- from whence most of our bass hale -- now overloaded with fish as we under harvest?
OK, so maybe I spiced things up with that “under harvest” part but I think it’s coming down to that.
I stand firm that everything possible must be done to improve the Chesapeake’s environmental health but, in the interim, recreational fishermen should be allowed to get at this genuine overload of small stripers.
Ponderous point: What if an ecosystem is so damaged that it cannot meet the mandates of the Magnuson Act? Is that now the case in the Chesapeake? Sure, the pie-in-the-sky numbers show that there is actually more room for improvement in the overall number of stripers, but, what happens if those sought-after young-of-year indices inevitably lead to tragic over populations due to an overtaxing of the ecosystem? What’s more, might that same scenario be playing out in Barnegat Bay, regarding summer flounder? In this month’s JCAA’s newsletter, Tom Fote references the seemingly way-too-low recruitment rate of summer flounder. He writes, “We may have reached the carrying capacity of the bays and estuaries for summer flounder.” Sound similar, eh?
(Fote’s JCAA piece is much more detailed and informative. Please check it out at http://www.jcaa.org, under “March Newsletter.”)
On paper, the M-S Act goals look admirable but in eco-reality they may well be asking way too much of nature and in doing so condemning other species that also need to survive in the same ecosystem.
A dismal report was released by the Recreational Fishing Alliance this week, indicating 2008 saw as many fluke die due to catch-and-release mortality as were legally kept by anglers. The RFA release reads, “The 2008 summer flounder fishing season marked a bleak new era in the history of coastal fisheries management, going down in the books as the first year that the mortality associated with recreational discards of summer flounder equaled the overall harvest mortality. Based on the statistical numbers from the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey (MRFSS), nearly 50% of the total recreational mortality is attributed to regulatory discard, the highest level of discard mortality for this sector in the 27-year history of MRFSS.”
The report quotes Jim Donofrio, Executive Director of the RFA as saying, “Current management in the recreational summer flounder fishery has created an unnecessary conservation problem," said. "Recreational anglers caught an estimated 25 million summer flounder in 2008, with 2.38 million of those fish harvested and the remaining 23 million discarded due to burdensome regulations."
The mortality rate is based on the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) assumption that 10% of all recreational summer flounder discards die.
OYSTER UPDATE: As noted in previous columns, our bayside American oyster population is trying for all it’s worth to make a comeback– with mankind always ready to cash in on the all-they’re-worth side of things. To our south, though, it’s mankind hoping to spur on osyterous things. Down there, a fairly fevered debate is going on over the efficacy and ecological advisability of introducing the Asian oyster to the Chesapeake Bay. These Far East-model bivalves are tough fortune cookies, seemingly able to stave off the ugly advances of a myriad of diseases lethal to indigenous oysters.
About 50 years ago, protozoa-based diseases, like MSX (multi-nucleated Sphere X) and Dermo began running roughshod over the American oysters – those remaining after nearly 200 years of heavy harvesting by humankind. Be it the result of pollution or simply a lowered, thus weaker, base population, the oysters could not fight off increasingly virulent diseases. Many areas of the East Coast, including our own, saw a near vanishing of the species.
The recent entry-level return of American oysters offers some hope that the species may be making a comeback hereabouts. However, down Chesapeake way, no such reappearance seems forthcoming -- despite 15 years worth of scientific effort via $45 million in dedicated federal funding. Enter the dragon, so to speak.
As studies of the American oyster carry on, including efforts to advance genetic hybrids capable of fighting diseases, researchers are increasingly intrigued by the toughness of the Asian oyster -- which they’ve been tapping for genes to insert into the American oyster.
As all efforts to revitalize the American oyster sink as fast as they’re floated, the Chesapeake nation is on the brink of going Asian, despite outcries by ecologists implicitly fearing any introduction of nonindigenous species.
Within the next month or so, Colonel Dionysios Anninos, Commander, Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will decide whether or not to allow Asian oysters to be introduced into the Chesapeake Bay. He is pondering warnings that anything alien might add equally alien diseases to the ecosystem. At the same time, he is being shown that a huge number of common everyday seemingly American things – plants, animals, marine creatures – are actually migrants (long-established), among those, humans. The one direction the colonel isn’t very sold upon is the standing environmentalist-based solution: keep trying to get the indigenous American oysters to make a big man-assisted comeback. Fat chance, say critics of that approach, appropriately pointing out that there are literally millions of people now choking the shores of the Chesapeake Bay – and the rivers leading into it. The environment may simple be irreversible hostile to indigenous oysters.
In recent interviews, Anninos has openly admitted bafflement. While unconvinced that the Asian oyster is the ultimate answer, he’s equally convinced that pouring millions of dollars into unfruitful experiments is not the way to go.
Could any successful introduction of Asian oysters into the Chesapeake mean we could also try out oriental oysters? Not if the energetic folks at ReClam Barnegat Bay have anything to say about it. Gef Flimlin and the dedicated volunteers currently trying to hike the bay’s clam population are also hot on egging on the local oysters. However, should Asian oysters (if given green cards) mushroom into big businesses for the suffering baymen to our south, it’ll be nothing flat before our baymen want to give it a go. And considering the tough times all bayman are having, it might be tough to tell them no.
There is an interesting chemical angle to our oyster comeback. The largest and potentially deadliest problem facing Barnegat Bay (roughly any bay area from Great Bay up to the Raritan) is runaway nitrification, meaning a potentially lethal increase in the bay’s nitrogen content – leading to suffocating algal blooms. One of the things that American oysters are damn good at tolerating is high nitrogen levels. This is not to say they’ll be jumping for joy (an odd sight) but they may be one of the few bayside marine creatures not overly impacted by nitrogen problems. What’s more, there is likely no marine creature anywhere capable of filtering water faster than oysters. One adult oyster can clean 60 gallons of water a day. For that cleansing reason alone, it would be a boom to never allow wholesale commercial harvesting of oysters in Barnegat Bay, except those hand-raised on designated sites by baymen. It’s even worth pondering using loads of Asian oysters, enclosed in containers, to help clean Barnegat Bay – with a pretty potential profit margin to boot.
BLACKBACK BANTER: E-questions (from http://jaymnntoday.ning.com): “Any advice on where I can use my new Whaler to fish for winter flounder?”
“Where is a good spot to go winter flounder fishing from a bank etc. Kramer.”
Boating: I believe the deep hole in the channel just north of the last bridge onto LBI (we call generally refer to the spot as Hochstrasser's) has the first rising winter flounder -- meaning those just shaking the mud off their fins. Sadly, it is now almost totally boat fishing thereabouts since the town allowed the once heavily used bulkhead adjacent to Hochstrasser’s to be absorbed by a developer -- even though the state had mandates prohibiting any net loss of bayfront access. Water over the damn. I mean dam. Equally potential, blackback-wise, are some of the holes over near BB and BI buoys, Double Creek, toward Waretown. Some folks know how to read the waters coming out of Oyster Creek to cash in on early-out flounder.
Bank fishing: As you likely figured from the above answer, I’m annually sore over losing the super-fun bank fishing locale at the end of 6th Street, Ship Bottom. There is still a bit of room to cast from the bulkhead at that formerly large site. No sitting in vehicles watching rods, as we could back in the day. There is also a small park area a block north, however, it is a wicked far cast to reach the deep water from there -- that means a lot of line out (and bowing when the winds honking) to feel the tiniest bite of a flounder. By the by, it’s during whipping west winds that bank fishing for blackbacks is best when on the LBI side. That area is also worth a try. I have seen bank-fishing folks working the holes under the last bridge onto LBI, Cedar Bonnet side. I’ve had good days there but the bottom snags are insane when strong currents are a-flow, which is just about always. Despite that, it’s also worth a try.
Bloodworms are now available at most local bait and tackle stores. Speaking of worm-age, I turned some low tide mud to see if the local bloodworm population is faring any better. In recent years, my usual digging areas were nearly void of bloodies. After about 15 minutes of digging, I did see some signs the bloodworms might be making a modest return. I didn’t put in major dig time, which is the only way to see if population is legitimately better.
I might note that tapeworms, technically ribbon worms, are holding on just fine. Those are some big-ass worms, easily going over 5 feet when held up and allowed to stretch out. Interestingly, tapeworms are very tolerant of temperature swings, as in long-term changes that might be impacting the region and the planet. On the other hand, bloodworms are hugely sensitive to warmth. They hate it. We are on the far south fringe of their comfort range.
By the by, tapeworms have long been panned as bait but that’s just not so. They make real decent bait once the peculiar anatomy of the slinky slimy creature is understood. The head region (maybe 6 inches worth) is the strongest point, and the thickest. It can easily be hooked and safely lowered while boat fishing. The head areas can even be employed when surfcasting, though tossing them demands an acquired soft-throw casting technique. I have caught many bass on the head portions of ribbon worms. Bass love the things. I never took a large bass on them, though.
A little-known utilization of ribbon worms is as chum and bait for winter flounder. Those tiny little segments have some tougher points that can be adequately hooked for quiet blackback fishing. Winter flounder scarf them up.
By the by, there will likely be a moratorium on winter flounder by next year.
On a nature note, I’m hoping that snowfall and subsequent melt off will enhance the filling of vernal ponds. Those are the low-lying woodland areas that hold water in spring, allowing herptiles, mainly frogs, to sing songs and make tadpoles. When you hear the eco-expression “loss of habitat” (due to build-out) that is often referring to the loss of vital vernal ponds, which are destroyed not only by having houses built atop them but also having developments divert water away from natural ponding points. Also, government officials trying to diminish mosquito habitat, to make new human residents more comfortable, destroy vernal ponds. Pretty damn dumb.

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