Opinion

Of Sandeels and Tuna: We Need Your Help Getting Ahead of the Curve – John McMurray

Management of sandeels and other forage fish is essential for the larger fish species that depend upon them.

This post was originally featured on the Marine Fish Conservation Network. By John McMurray.

I am absolutely hammering yellowfin right now, and well inshore of the canyons (no, I’m not gonna tell you where, LOL). I’m not trolling, or chunking, or doing any of that traditional stuff. I’m catching them on topwater plugs. Yeah, that’s right. These crazy-awesome fish are absolutely smashing topwaters!

Why is it so good right now? Pure and simple… Large schools of sandeels have amassed at certain spots. They are so thick at 30 fathoms right now, my sounder sometimes can’t even read bottom.It is so freak’n cool I can’t even begin to describe it. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is as intense as a 100-pound missile exploding on a floating stick bait or a popper. It’s insane, man! And the sound that reel makes when they tear off? Sublime…

Of course it isn’t just yellowfin that are attracted to this mass of life, it’s wahoo, white marlin, skipjack, false albacore, mahi, blue runners, whales, turtles, dolphins etc… All kinds of stuff, man. There’s just a crap-ton of life out there right now. All because of these stupid skinny little 4 or 5″ baits. They don’t look like much when ya hold one, but when you put’em all together? Epicness…

So, where am I going with all of this?

There’s some serious concern right now that such “unmanaged” forage fish – those critters which have no oversight in reference to who catches what and how much, such as sandeels – could relatively easily be exploited on a large scale by an industry seeking new forms of income.

Cod, perhaps the most iconic commercial fishery in the Atlantic has crashed, and the groundfish fleet appears to be going down quickly. Mackerel, is pretty much gone. Pretty big constraints could be coming with both menhaden and sea herring as managers consider managing both species as part of the ecosystem. I could go on here… The point is that a lot of fisheries may quickly be getting to the point where there isn’t good money in them anymore. Thus, there’s likely gonna be commercial fishermen looking for new things to exploit. And well, unmanaged forage fish like sandeels are an easy target.

A forage fish species’ tendency to school in large numbers is precisely what makes them so vulnerable. Think about the sandeel concentrations I’m talking about above, and then think about huge small mesh nets scooping them up by the ton. That would really suck, man. If such a thing were to happen, it would probably put me outta business. And no one would get to see the awesomeness of a tuna topwater bite!

Think this is an overreaction? Well NOAA has already spent a bunch of taxpayer dollars looking into developing this sort of “underutilized” fishery. Check it out: Development of the Chub Mackerel Fishery as an Underutilized Fishery. Would like to know what all the marlin guys think about that.Of course it isn’t just sandeels. Imagine if those guys decided to target bay anchovies on a large scale. Forget about my albie season. Or halfbeaks! Anyone who’s ever popped for tuna knows that without these, we’d really miss out. And silversides? And what about chub mackerel?

Anyway, there’s a lot of vulnerable bait species that really have no oversight right now. Pretty much every “hatch” we depend on could indeed end up as fish-meal or fish-oil or some crap like that.

Yeah, yeah, yeah… I’ve written about this before. Here: On Forage Fish… Managing the Unmanaged, and here: Freezing the Footprint. But I’m writing now with a renewed sense of urgency. Because there is real acknowledgement now from managers that this could be a problem. And guess what… they are actually moving to correct it!

This is a very progressive, precautionary move the Council is making. Something it wouldn’t have even considered 5 or 6 years ago. It’s a big, big deal IMO. But there’s a long way to go before this happens, if indeed it does happen.This last December, at the behest of anglers in the Mid-Atlantic, notably CCA MD, the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council passed a motion to “initiate a regulatory action to prohibit the development of new, or expansion of existing, directed fisheries on unmanaged forage species until adequate scientific information is available to promote ecosystem sustainability”. In other words the Council is moving to prohibit fishing on a large scale for unmanaged forage species, unless science exists or can be developed to prove that it is sustainable… Not just sustainable for fishermen, but sustainable for the entire ecosystem. That means making sure there are enough in the water for predators.

So where are we now? The Council has initiated a “scoping process” (a fancy way of saying information gathering). The idea is to solicit input from the public before developing options on how to do this. The public. That’s you!

There are a series of public hearings scheduled (listed below) where you can do this. You can of course also send comments via email, fax or snail-mail (again, info below). But the important thing is that you do comment, because this stuff is important for us.

All this said, what the Council probably doesn’t want is a lotta anglers coming up and passionately saying that forage fish like sandeels, bay anchovies etc. are important. The Council clearly already knows this, or they wouldn’t have initiated the action.

What the Council is asking for are comments re how to do this. Specifically on 8 unique questions. I’ve broken them down below, and provide my personal thoughts on each.

Read on about the Council’s eight questions and John’s responses to them.


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