Category Archives: Conservation

Acoustic Tagging Program for Tarpon

Bonefish & Tarpon Trust Details Acoustic Tagging Program for Tarpon

Tagging Tarpon


The Tarpon Acoustic Tagging Project is a collaborative, five-year program designed to broaden our understanding of tarpon movement and habitat uses. The results will help shape future conservation measures, including the protection of critical habitats and improvements to fishing regulations. The project is generously sponsored by Maverick Boat Group.
Tarpon Acoustic Tagging is addressing the following questions:

Is the tarpon population large and robust or small and vulnerable? If anglers in a particular location are fishing for the same fish every year, then the tarpon population is probably smaller than we think, and issues like shark predation will become a bigger concern. If fish move among regions every year, and anglers are fishing for different fish each year, the tarpon population is probably relatively large.

Do tarpon gather in the same areas for spawning each year or move among areas? On average, ocean currents will carry the larvae from a spawning site to juvenile habitats in a specific geographic region. If it’s the same adults at the spawning site every year, then local adult losses will cause local declines in juveniles. If tarpon move among spawning sites, then the population will be more resilient.

How do changes in freshwater flows into coastal waters influence tarpon movements? Do the problems with Lake Okeechobee and Everglades restoration impact tarpon? Are the water issues in Apalachicola causing changes in tarpon movements?

What are the movement patterns and habitat use of mid-size tarpon (20-50 pounds)? How will these tarpon be impacted by coastal water quality issues? This size class, which is the future of the fishery, is very vulnerable to changes in coastal habitats and water quality.

Until the Tarpon Acoustic Tagging Project began, there was little information available to answer these questions. Satellite tagging provided spatial and temporal data that was limited to tarpon weighing 80 pounds and larger. After a few months, most satellite tags detached from the fish, making it difficult to study their movements over the important multi-year time frame. Acoustic telemetry has helped to combat these limitations.

Why Acoustic Tagging?

Acoustic tags provide the ability to track tarpon for five years. They are also small enough that they are being used on tarpon as small as 5 and as large as 200 pounds!
Acoustic telemetry has helped to broaden the scope of tarpon research. When deployed, a tag is surgically implanted in the fish’s abdomen before safe release. The tagged fish swims within range of an underwater receiver, which detects and stores the tag’s unique code. BTT and collaborators have approximately 100 receivers deployed, but we are also able to take advantage of the network of receivers being used by collaborators studying everything from redfish to sawfish. This vast network exceeds 4,000 receivers deployed from Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. As scientists detect tagged fish on their receiver networks they share data with other scientists, effectively expanding the study area.

How You Can Help

Sponsor a Tarpon: Sponsor an acoustic tag for $3,000. You can name your tarpon and will receive a certificate with its name and initial capture info (general location and measurements). Sponsors will receive access to a password protected site where they can see periodic updates of their tarpon’s movements.
Sponsor a Receiver: Sponsor and name an acoustic receiver (listening station) for $3,000. Sponsors will receive periodic reports summarizing the tarpon detections it has recorded.
Help us tag tarpon: Prior to every tagging trip, our team of scientists will notify sponsors about when and where they will be working, along with contact information. If you are fishing in that area on tagging dates, all you need to do is call us when you catch a tarpon. We’ll come to your boat, transfer the tarpon to our sling, and take implant a transmitter. Remember to always keep the tarpon in the water!

For more information and to sponsor a tag or receiver, please contact Mark Rehbein, Director of Development at 703-350-9195 or mark@bonefishtarpontrust.org

What Are Soft Shell Turtles?

Forty or fifty years ago, it was rare to see soft shell turtles on our lakes. But for the past ten years or so I have been seeing more and more of them while fishing. Soft shell turtles are seldom seen out of the water, but they look very distinctive when near the surface.

Common painted turtles that we often see sunning on rocks and logs in the water have a dark shell and yellow markings. They are everywhere, and I see them so often I even named a cove at Clarks Hill “Turtle Cove” there were always so many in it.

Soft shell turtles, named Florida Softshell Turtles, are a different family from other more common turtles. They are much flatter and look brown in the water. Rather than the sharp beak-like nose of other turtles, softshells have a long hog-like nose. And they have very long necks and much bigger webbed feet.

Softshells spend most of their lives lying on shallow, muddy bottoms, blending in with the mud. They don’t move around much. Their long neck and snout allow them to stick their nose above the surface to breathe. Bigger ones can extend to the surface from more than a foot deep. They feed on fish that swim by, grabbing them in their mouth by shooting their neck out.

The first softshell I ever saw was one caught on a trotline at Clarks Hill back in the 1950s. We were camping at Germany Creek and someone else in the campground brought it in. It was as big as a #2 wash tub.

Back then folks put out a lot of hooks for catfish, and sometimes, but rarely, caught a softshell turtle. If one was caught it was cleaned and eaten, since softshells are much easier to clean than other turtles. I think that is the reason they were so rare back then. Few people run hooks for catfish now so a big threat to the turtles has been removed.

The biggest one I have ever seen, and the only one out of the water sunning they I ever saw, was lying on a log at Lake Hartwell. It was huge, at least three feet across its back. Most of the time they are very shy and spooky but this one let me get close enough to get a good look before splashing into the water.

This time of year, turtles, including softshells, crawl out of the water to lay their eggs in holes they dig on the bank. You are much more likely to see them in the shallows. At Hartwell last week, in one small sandy cove, I counted five of different sizes. The biggest was about two feet wide and the smallest about a foot across.

In the ten days I fished Hartwell I saw more than a dozen softshells. I am glad they entertained me since I didn’t see or catch many bass!

Conservation VS Preservation

If you spend much time on Facebook, you will see many videos of people rescuing animals. A recent one shows a couple in a boat picking a hawk out of the water with a paddle and easing it toward the bank where it flies off. Many show divers cutting ropes from turtles and even whales.

Several videos show people helping bucks that have gotten their antlers tangled together while fighting. One shows a man carefully cutting a small tree to free a big buck with his antlers wedged around it, probably from rubbing it in the fall.

What is it in us that makes people want to take care of animals? Most of us have that desire to help when we see injured animals. Although we may hunt the same animals and catch fish to eat, we want to do it when legal, and in a sporting manner.

Kids as well as adults have this desire, even more so. Growing up there were many times I found baby birds that had fallen from their nests, doomed to die on the ground. It took only a couple of times putting them back in the nest, only to find them dead on the ground later, to realize the mother bird would push them back out, rejecting them probably because of the human smell.

One time while cutting our field with a rotary mower I saw a rabbit run ahead of me. I stopped and looked in the grass and found her nest, with several small rabbits in it. I carefully marked it and made sure to cut around it, leaving a small island of refuge for them.

That fall we were hunting that same field and killed a couple of rabbits. I remember thinking they may have been some of the same ones I avoided killing with the mower the past spring. But I felt no guilt killing, cleaning and eating them. That is the way of nature, predators killing and eating prey. But it is only human compassion that makes us want to protect the same animals at other times.

Dearing Branch on our property had some small bream and catfish in it. During dry summers it would dry up, being reduced to a few deep pools where all the fish went for refuge from the receding water. Many times, we would get the fish out of those pools, carry them to the house and put them in wash tubs with hoses keeping them full of water.

A few times we were able to keep some of them alive until the branch filled from rains. We would then take the survivors back to the branch and release them. But when the branch was full we would fish for them and eat any we caught.

The same attitude about protecting the resource is common among hunters and fishermen. We are the real conservationists. We believe in using our resources while protecting it. Taking some fish and game to eat does not harm the population.

Some “tree huggers’” the folks that want to totally protect everything in the environment without any human interference or change, never learned the ways of nature. They demand we leave deer alone and not hunt them. But that does not work.

There are almost no deer predators, other than humans, left in nature. Many examples, like Red Top
Mountain State Park on Lake Allatoona, show the facility of that approach. Deer got so overpopulated at Red Top Mountain that they ate all available food. Even the bark was stripped from young trees as high as the deer could reach.

Deer there were starving to death. Some do-gooders wanted to feed them. Others suggested giving them birth control to control he overpopulation. But the Department of Natural Resources realized the cost and inefficiency of both of those approaches, so they opened the park to archery hunting.

Within a few years the problem was solved, at no cost. Not only did hunters take enough deer legally to reduce the population to sustainable levels, they got food for their families. That is a much better solution for deer and people than the other silly suggestions.

Also on Facebook, you will see condemnation of trophy hunters that go to Africa to take game. The do-gooders want those hunters stopped, even suggesting killing them. The taking of Cecil the Lion is a good example. They are out of touch with reality.

Those hunters are strictly controlled, taking only specified animals. They spend a lot of money, often hundreds of thousands of dollars, for their trip. That money goes to local governments and much of it is used to control poachers, local folks that kill animals for monetary gain, with no though to long term effects. They often decimate animal populations to dangerously low levels.

Not only do local governments use money from hunters to protect animal populations, any animals killed are eaten by local people, feeding them. And the money hunters spend on local supplies help those same people.

In tournaments strict rules protect bass. Any fisherman bringing in a dead bass is penalized and catch and release is almost a religion among bass fishermen. After a tournament, bass weighed in are released back into the lake, with big tournaments going to the trouble of using boats with holding tanks to release fish all over the lake rather than concentrating them in one area.

Hunters and fishermen want to protect but use resources. Our license fees go to state agencies that are tasked with that goal. And money spent on fishing and hunting supplies have a special tax that is used for protecting resources.

Don’t condemn us. Join us in helping the natural environment while enjoying the products of it.

Adjusting Fishery Management to Meet Angler Usage

Adjusting Fishery Management to Meet Angler Usage
By Maine DIFW Fisheries Biologist Tim Obrey
from The Fishing Wire

When I started work for MDIFW in the mid-1980s, fishing activity was at its peak. Angler use was at an all-time high and I used to cringe the Monday of Memorial Day Weekend seeing the steady stream of traffic heading south all loaded with fish (in my mind anyway) from my favorite trout ponds. Back then, we frequently crafted more restrictive regulations to limit harvest to protect the wild fish resources. It was rare to liberalize regulations. Doing so would have certainly led to overharvest and the depletion of the popular trout and salmon fisheries in the region.

But now, things are much different. Overall, fewer people are fishing and those that do practice catch and release at a much higher rate than in the 1980s. This has led to a number of cases where we now have too many fish in some waters. Chesuncook Lake is a glaring example of the pitfalls of too little harvest.

Chesuncook Lake has a much–deserved reputation for producing quality-sized salmon. Prior to the 1990s, salmon 2-3 lbs were pretty common along with the occasional bigger fish. The famed September “Foxhole” fishery was outstanding. Most of the mature salmon from the 26,000-acre lake headed upstream into this section of the West Branch. The “best of the best” salmon from the lake created some mighty fine river fishing. I’ve seen several monster salmon exceeding 6 lbs come from this section of the West Branch.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, our winter surveys on Chesuncook Lake showed that there were 3,000-4,000 days of fishing in the winter and anglers were taking home around 1,500 – 2,000 salmon. Chesuncook Lake was one of the prime fishing locations for people living and working in the Millinocket area, just an hour away.

A young ice angler with a Chesuncook salmon.
We implemented a one salmon bag limit and a 16-inch minimum length limit in an effort to maintain the quality of the salmon fishery at Chesuncook Lake in the face of very high use and harvest. Initially, the regulation was working fine and the fishery was holding up well. But then something dramatic occurred. The mills in Maine’s famous mill town were closing. People left the area. Those anglers that remained were getting older and fishing less frequently.

The combination of a sharp decline in angler harvest and the very restrictive regulations created a perfect storm for salmon management. The salmon began to stockpile because there was little harvest. This put a burden on the smelt population which is the primary source of food for salmon. We had too many predators and not enough food, which resulted in slower salmon growth. Now, the lake is full of 13-16 inch salmon. These are not bad looking fish and many anglers are happy to catch them, but the behemoths of yesteryear are nowhere to be found.

We attempted to alleviate the situation by liberalizing the salmon regulations, but with little success. We estimated total angler use at less than 500 days in 2017 compared to the peak of 4,200 angler days in 1991. The MDIFW has a harvest goal of 2,000 salmon per year until growth recovers. In 2017, the estimated salmon harvest was just 400 fish. Therefore, there is a need to attract more anglers to the lake and encourage them to remove more salmon to reach this goal.

This situation is very similar to the problems we had at Moosehead Lake with an over-abundant lake trout population. It took some serious regulation changes at Moosehead Lake to reverse the trend and we are looking at similar strategies for Chesuncook Lake. In 2018, we liberalized the regulations on salmon at Chesuncook to include: No size or bag limit on salmon under 16 inches and a one fish bag limit on salmon greater than 16 inches. We were on the ice this winter and anglers were taking advantage of the new laws, but still, there were not many people making the trek north of the Golden Road.

The Natural Resource Education Center at Moosehead, a local educational 501(3)(c) non-profit, has partnered with MDIFW Biologists to organize a salmon fishing derby on the lake this spring to help achieve the lakes management goals and objectives restore a healthy landlocked salmon population. The Chesuncook Lake Salmon Derby will be held on the Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Weekend. A cash prize will be given to the angler that brings in the largest salmon of the derby. Also, anglers will be given one raffle ticket for each salmon under 16 inches that they bring to the weigh station. Another cash prize will be drawn randomly from these raffle tickets.

So, make your plans to head to Chesuncook Lake this spring. Get your smoker ready and prepare for some fast salmon fishing, a terrific view, and maybe win a few bucks while helping to restore one of Maine’s best wild salmon fisheries.

Au Sable River

How the Au Sable River Changed the Trout Fishing World
By CASEY WARNER
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
from The Fishing Wire

The Au Sable River is known throughout the country as a premier trout-fishing destination.


With the opener of Michigan’s trout season right around the corner, anglers soon will be donning their waders and heading out to one of the thousands of cold, quality streams that make the state a nationally known trout-fishing destination.

Perhaps the most renowned place to cast a fly in Michigan – the Au Sable River, running 138 miles through the northern Lower Peninsula – is significant for much more than its outstanding trout fishing.

In 1959, 16 fishermen, united by their love of trout and the Au Sable River and concerned about the need for long-term conservation of Michigan’s cold-water streams, gathered at George Griffith’s home east of Grayling.

“For some time I and several others have been considering ways and means to protect and preserve trout and trout fishing, and have come up with the idea of forming an organization to be known as Trout, Unlimited,” wrote Griffith, a member of the Michigan Conservation Commission, in an invitation letter to a fellow angler in 1959.

“Such an organization could work with state and federal agencies now charged with that responsibility … it would help educate the public on the dire need of sound, practical, scientific trout management and regulations to protect the trout as well as satisfy fishermen.”

The sportsmen that responded to Griffith’s invitation to meet at his cabin on the Au Sable believed that better and more scientific habitat management would improve the environment as well as the state’s trout population and fishing.

Nearly 60 years after that initial meeting, the organization those fishermen founded – Trout Unlimited – has become a national champion of fish habitat conservation.

Today, the organization has almost 300,000 members and supporters, with 30 offices nationwide, and sponsors the International Trout Congress.

The Michigan History Museum in Lansing is showcasing Trout Unlimited’s founding on the Au Sable in a special exhibition, “The River that Changed the World,” open through July 29.

“The Au Sable River has influenced – and continues to influence – people around the world,” said Mark Harvey, Michigan’s state archivist and the exhibition’s curator. “The stories in the exhibition demonstrate the innovative and unprecedented ways private citizens and state government worked together to conserve and protect the river and sustainably manage its fish populations.”

Original paneling and artifacts from the Wolverine fish car, which carried millions of fish by rail across Michigan, tell museum visitors the story of efforts to plant trout in the Au Sable.

Fred Westerman, one of the first employees of the Wolverine and former fisheries chief in the Michigan Department of Conservation, forerunner to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, once reported:

“Frequently … thirty cans of fish would be dropped off at some spooky junction – like in the jack pine at Au Sable-Oscoda with the cemetery across the tracks and the depot a mile from town – on the night run of the Detroit & Mackinac, to await the morning train going up the river branch.”

The exhibition also introduces the relationship between the Anishinabe (Odawa and Ojibwe people) and the Au Sable River and explores Grayling as a fishing and tourism hotspot since the mid-19th century.

Harvey said that the idea for the exhibit stemmed from the Michigan History Center’s longstanding relationship with, and eventual donation of materials from, Art Neumann, one of the cofounders of Trout Unlimited and its executive director from 1962 to 1965.

“Instead of just focusing on the Trout Unlimited group, we took a wider view of the river that inspired these people to work for systemic change,” Harvey said.

The exhibition features George Griffith’s 24-foot-long Au Sable river boat and a re-creation of Neumann’s Wanigas Rod Shop, where he made fly rods considered works of art and became known as a champion of conservation.

A “battery” of glass beakers from the Grayling fish hatchery, each of which held thousands of eggs, highlights the late 19th-century work of state conservationists and private citizens who tried to save the Arctic grayling.

An iconic cold-water fish that once dominated northern Michigan streams but was almost extinct by the beginning of the 20th century, Arctic grayling were native only to Michigan and Montana in the lower 48 states.

“When sportsmen first discovered the grayling in the Au Sable, it drew international attention,” Harvey said.

The current Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative now aims to restore self-sustaining populations of the fish within its historical range in Michigan.

Current DNR Fisheries Chief Jim Dexter applauded the vision and passion of those who recognized the Au Sable’s promise as a premier fishing destination.

“As the name of the exhibit implies, the Au Sable is a world-class fishery resource attracting anglers from every corner of the earth,” Dexter said. “It’s one of the most stable groundwater-influenced watersheds in North America, and produces exceptional trout fishing.

“It wasn’t always that way, though. Without the creation of Trout Unlimited at the Au Sable River, by those who understood the potential of our cold-water resources, Michigan might not be home to one of the world’s greatest trout fisheries.”

Trout Unlimited’s work has also encouraged other groups like the Anglers of the Au Sable, who now lead the charge for preserving this unique, high-quality body of water. Dubbed the “river guardians,” the Anglers group has fought multiple environmental threats to river.

The exhibit and related events also offer opportunities for hands-on experiences.

Visitors can learn how to tie a fly and compare tied flies to real insects under a microscope or sit in a kayak and take a 360-degree virtual reality paddle down the Au Sable.

They can also explore the essence of the Au Sable without leaving mid-Michigan through a series of museum programs revolving around the exhibit.

“While the exhibit focuses on the wonderful stories, images and sounds of the river, we wanted to bring the Au Sable River to the capital region,” said Michigan History Center engagement director Tobi Voigt. “We designed a series of programs highlighting themes from the exhibit – like fly-fishing and kayaking – that can be enjoyed by a variety of age groups. We’re especially excited to showcase a fly-fishing star and host our first-ever kayak tour.”

Programs include a fly-casting workshop with noteworthy fly-tier and fly-fishermen Jeff “Bear” Andrews, a kayak tour on the Red Cedar River, and the Second Saturdays for Families series featuring hands-on activities like making a compass, a sundial or a miniature boat.

To learn more about “A River That Changed the World” and to find Michigan History Museum visitor information, go to www.michigan.gov/museum.

Check out previous “Showcasing the DNR” stories at www.mi.gov/dnrstories. Subscribe to upcoming articles and other DNR publications at the bottom of our webpage at www.mi.gov/dnr.

When Trash Fish Get Trendy

How Fisheries Managers Respond When Trash Fish Get Trendy

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2013 National Survey


By Chris Macaluso, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
from The Fishing Wire

Fisheries management can be influenced by the American appetite for (certain kinds of) seafood, which makes it even more important that the system works better for anglers

My brother Joey and I were weird, I guess. When we were kids, we loved to fish for sheepshead, which, at the time, were generally thought to be a “trash” fish and were despised by most Louisiana anglers.

Sheepshead are ugly by any objective standard. They have big, goofy buckteeth, gray and black skin, and a row of foreboding spikes along their dorsal fins. They’re also an absolute pain to clean. Some charter guides I knew when I was in my teens refused to even put them in the ice chest, for fear that they would wind up on the cleaning table along with the better speckled trout and redfish.

But I never agreed with sheepshead getting a bad rap. First of all, they fight like caged, rabid raccoons. And on our summer trips to Grand Isle or fall excursions to Cocodrie, the sheepshead aggressively ate a piece of shrimp or hermit crab on a jig head when the speckled trout wouldn’t cooperate, and they guaranteed that we had some fresh fish to go with our suppers of canned beans, and French bread.

Sure, you had to hack through some thick rib bones and tough scales to get a filet. But crabs are hard to clean, and I don’t know too many folks who consider boiled and steamed blue crabs to be “trash,” just because the meat is difficult to pick out.

Then, about 15 years ago, sheepshead started showing up on restaurant menus under the pseudonym “bay snapper.” Suddenly, a bunch of anglers who would never have kept an ugly, stubborn sheepshead were raving about how tasty their fish-of-the-day lunch special was.

Now, pretty much every restaurant in South Louisiana has sheepshead on the menu or as a fresh-fish special. I guess the cliché about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure applies.

I’m often struck by how frequently recreational and commercial fishermen are pitted against each other over a handful of “popular” fish because they taste good or they fight hard or simply because they are easy to catch. How many fish like sheepshead, once considered less desirable by both recreational and commercial fishermen, are out there? How can fishing for these species lessen the animosity that has been built over fish like red snapper?

I’m also dumbfounded, at times, by the argument that states are not as equipped to manage commercial fisheries as the federal government, especially when states have responded to the increased popularity of sheepshead with adapted management for both recreational and commercial harvest. And still we don’t fight over sheepshead at state commission meetings like we do over red snapper at the federally directed Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council.

State fisheries agencies generally do a good job of conservatively managing commercial and recreational fishing, which is one of the reasons the TRCP and many of its sportfishing partners support the Modern Fish Act—because it would increase the role that states play in federal management and data collection for recreational fishing.

CMac’s special recipe.
Cats, Carp, and Courtbouillon

Like sheepshead, there are other fish thought of as trash, simply by reputation. On a late-March trip to Grand Isle, my fishing buddies got to tie into a handful of gafftopsail catfish, another much-maligned, yet hard-tugging and good-eating saltwater predator. I kept the fish, despite some dirty looks, and I used the filets to make a catfish courtbouillon, a rich tomato-based stew my family ate on Good Friday.

Everyone said it was delicious. They had no idea they were eating trash, I guess.

Gafftops, unlike their cousins the hardhead catfish, aren’t bottom-dwelling scavengers. They strike lures as aggressively as redfish and speckled trout and fight every bit as hard. On a memorable day in late August a few years ago, several five-pound gafftops exploded on topwater plugs in the Grand Isle surf when I was aiming for specks. The surface boiled and my drag screamed as if a redfish or big trout had busted the bait. But when the fight was over, my friends looked in disgust at what was on the end of the line. Similar to the way sheepshead were looked at 30 years ago, some of my friends won’t even put a gafftop in the ice chest for fear of scorn at the cleaning table.

But the list of reformed trash fish is growing each year. Bonito were once only kept for cut bait and chum, but if the meat is taken care of, they are just as tasty as their blackfin tuna relatives. Even the dreaded invasive Asian carp is pretty tasty after being dredged in seasoned corn meal and dropped in hot grease. There are more than enough of them available for those who want to give them a taste.

Making the Most of Our Time on the Water

I’m not suggesting that I would give up on a good trout bite or a school of hungry redfish to chase down gafftops or throw chunks of hermit crabs at sheepshead. But, like many fishermen who have busy home- and work-lives, I like to catch something while I’m out there—I’m not going to turn down the opportunity to hook aggressive-striking, hard-pulling fish and keep a few of them for the grill or the fryer.

And I’m not suggesting that improving the management of popular species like red snapper or cobia is less important because there are other fish out there to catch. My point is that, too often, anglers fall into the trap of getting hung up on catching one fish or another, and it can lead to a less enjoyable time on the water if a particular season is closed or the target species doesn’t cooperate that day. It might be up to us to “dig in the trash” more often.

But as attitudes towards these fish evolve and change, it will be even more important that our system of federal fisheries management does not ignore recreational fishing—because restaurant trends will come and go, but the importance of predictable seasons to local outdoor recreation businesses will not.

Read more conservation news at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership here

What Is the 2018 National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Summit

Big red Fish

Recapping the 2018 National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Summit
by Mike Leonard, Conservation Director, American Sportfishing Association

If the Bassmaster Classic is the “Super Bowl of Bass Fishermen,” then the National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Summit is the “Super Bowl of Marine Fisheries Policy Wonks.”

Held in Arlington, Va., on March 28-29, this gathering of over 100 fisheries managers, scientists and leaders in the saltwater recreational fishing community was an opportunity to discuss and collaborate on ideas to improve saltwater fisheries management and conservation. What it lacked in large crowds and dramatic weigh-ins, it made up for in PowerPoint presentations and stimulating breakout sessions. For a policy wonk like me, that’s about as exciting as it gets.

With the theme of “improving opportunity and stability in saltwater recreational fisheries,” this year’s summit had a level of optimism far beyond what I’ve experienced at past summits. As a community, we’re moving past the point of only complaining about our problems (although there was still a fair amount of valid criticism on display), to working through solutions.

The commitment from the Trump Administration to saltwater recreational fishing was evidenced by the participation of the Secretary of Commerce, the Acting Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and the Assistant Administrator of NOAA Fisheries. Secretary Ross’s remarks in particular underscored that the nation’s 9 million saltwater anglers and their $63 billion economic impact are being taken seriously by this Administration. The recreational fishing community has a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of these favorable conditions to collaboratively advance management and data collection improvements that will result in better fishing opportunities.

Innovation on full display
One of the most fascinating presentations of the summit came from John Carmichael with the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. While many parts of the country have struggled with managing recreational fisheries under stringent statutory requirements and insufficient data, this problem has been particularly acute in the southeastern U.S., where a lack of timely and quality fisheries data creates significant challenges for managing the region’s high species diversity and total number of anglers.

However, the South Atlantic Council is exploring innovative ways of better aligning fisheries regulations with current fisheries conditions using different metrics of abundance, with the aim of providing more stability and reasonable access. This approach requires more vetting, but it was encouraging to see a Council thinking outside the box on an idea that holds a lot of promise for improving federal management.

Another key theme to emerge from the summit was the potential for improving fisheries data through electronic reporting. Almost every angler these days has a smartphone, and while challenges exist in ensuring data provided by anglers is usable, there is growing interest among managers and anglers to figure out how to tap into this technology to provide more timely and accurate estimates of what’s being caught. Once again, the South Atlantic Council is thinking innovatively by testing voluntary electronic reporting in conjunction with reopening the red snapper fishery. While it’s not a panacea, electronic reporting can help significantly in providing managers with fisheries data they currently lack; a problem that is leading to overly precautionary management measures that limit access.

With great power comes great responsibility
I talked to several attendees who clearly were not accustomed to our community finally having such an ability to influence the fisheries management system. The saltwater recreational fishing community has been frustrated for many years over a federal marine fisheries management system that hasn’t given us a fair shake, leading to less access to marine fisheries resources than we feel we deserve. Now that we have an opportunity to fix that, some are concerned that we might go too far and lose sight of our roots as conservationists.

While I can understand where this concern is coming from, I certainly don’t see that being the direction our community is headed going into, or coming out of, this summit. The innovative management approaches being discussed aren’t about simply allowing us to kill more fish, but rather allowing access that’s better aligned with the actual abundance of fish stocks instead of overly precautionary guesses. That’s not anti-conservation, it’s anti-mismanagement.

The recreational fishing community’s continued commitment to conservation was prevalent at the summit, with important discussions on our leadership in improving the survival of released fish, conserving forage fish and restoring fisheries habitat.

Bill Shedd, President of AFTCO, summarized the current position of the saltwater recreational fishing community well in his keynote address: “I can tell you that right now is the best time in the last 40 years for all of us who are involved with fishery issues on behalf of the saltwater recreational fishing community… we have earned a bigger seat at the table and it is time for us to more confidently take that seat.”

Technology Enhances DNR’s Ability to Gather, Share Natural Resources Information

Michigan Technology Enhances DNR’s Ability to Gather, Share Natural Resources Information
By BOB GWIZDZ
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
from The Fishing Wire

With an electric current pulsing through the waters of a secluded stream, brook trout and other fish swirl into view – stunned briefly – before they are captured, measured, counted and released.

The information gathered from these sampling efforts helps fisheries biologists assess stream fish populations.

Meanwhile, the use of electroshocking is one example of how the Michigan Department of Natural Resources employs technology to help produce, retrieve or collect valuable data on a wide range of subjects.

Technology is defined as the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. From that perspective, the DNR has always been a high-tech agency.

But as technology advances, the DNR continues to adopt new concepts and techniques as it carries out its task of managing the state’s natural resources.

Some technological applications are explicit to the DNR’s various divisions, like those specialized for managing forests, fish or wildlife. Others are wide-ranging and involve the entire department.

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology, for example, is used across the DNR. GIS uses maps and aerial photography to display various layers of data, from political boundaries like county lines to forest types, locations of campgrounds or other information.

Maps can be created with GIS displaying specific layers of data the user is interested in, while omitting others.

“It’s all about data,” explained David Forstat, who runs the DNR’s Resource Assessment Section (RAS). “We work with all divisions within the department.”

The Resource Assessment Section has 20 employees. Most of these workers are headquartered in Lansing, but several employees are situated in the northern Lower Peninsula with plans to add a person in the Upper Peninsula.

“We use the data to answer questions,” Forstat said. “We know where the deer are, where the wolves are, we keep track of the trees – we have tools to go out in the woods and map where the trees are.

“We know how old the trees are, we know where we have diseased trees and healthy trees, which trees need to be cut, whether they’re a certain age or a certain size. We know where young trees are that need to be thinned out.”

Forstat said the DNR’s Forest Resources Division supplies 50 percent of the RAS budget and is its biggest beneficiary.

“If a chip board company wants to come into Michigan, they need to know where the trees are, a certain age of trees, a certain size of tree, a certain kind of tree,” Forstat said. “They want to know about the transportation system, where there’s a big highway or railroad so they can haul the lumber in, process it and ship it out. They may need to know they have a source of electricity or water.”

Michigan has been working on GIS since the late 1970s, but the data collection just continues to get more sophisticated.

“We’ve got 1,000-plus different data layers,” Forstat said. “We’ve been flying the state every year or every other year to get high-resolution aerial imagery.”

Forstat points to a popular DNR program – Mi-HUNT – as an example of how the DNR’s Wildlife Division provides information to hunters across the nation from data provided by the Resource Assessment Section.

The online mapping application directs hunters to the nearly 10 million acres of land open to public hunting in the state.

Wildlife biologist Mike Donovan, who heads up Mi-HUNT, said hunters can find all the places – state game areas, state and national forest land, state park land open to hunting, even private land available to hunters through the Commercial Forest Act or Hunter Access Program – they can go for their next hunt.

“It’s an interactive map that shows you where the land is and provides aerial photos – leaf-on and leaf-off – topographical maps and vegetative cover types,” Donovan said. “It’ll tell you the size density and the age of the trees.

“And it’s really the best place to go for HAP information because that stuff can change so quickly.”

The public has access to all the RAS data.

“People who recreate outdoors are probably our biggest users,” Forstat said. “Most DNR field staff use GIS, but the public – people who use trails or camp or hunt – use it more than our folks.

“We even have an app to find morels, to look for a place where we had a forest fire or a controlled burn, because morels like to grow where there’s been a fire.”

Forstat said the DNR uses GIS data in its conservation officer vehicles, on its boats when collecting fisheries data and in state forests in a variety of ways.

“When you have things that come up quickly, like a forest fire, you want all that data at your fingertips,” he said.

The DNR is also using geographic data to keep track of the state’s cultural resources.

“The Resource Assessment Section is working on a project for the Michigan History Center to assist with cataloguing all the historical markers with GPS coordinates,” Forstat said. “And we developed an application that can be used on smart phone devices. Staffers used the application to verify marker locations, condition, and for the collection of photographs of the markers around the state.”

Now travelers and others interested in Michigan history can easily find historical markers with a quick search at www.michigan.gov/markers.

Forstat, who studied geology, began his DNR career inspecting oil and gas wells.

“You had to take all of your books, all of your maps out there with you. I figured there had to be an easier way to capture the locations of all the wells in the state, their conditions and any pollution problems associated with them,” he said.

DNR staffers developed a program to track them from the office.

“After that, GIS just exploded,” he said. “Computers were the way to go.”

Forstat said that the big push to digitize this data came in the 1980s, when the DNR converted paper maps to digital maps.

“I remember we had one computer and you had to sign up to use it,” Forstat said. “Now we have more data on our cell phones than we had on that computer.”

Gary Whelan, the DNR Fisheries Division’s program manager for research and fish health, said acoustic tags – transmitters implanted in the body cavities of the fish – are giving fisheries managers access to information that seemed like science fiction just a few short years ago.

The DNR has set up a series of dozens of receivers that pick up the tags’ signals.

“We have them in walleye, sturgeon, whitefish – anything we want to know when and where the fish are using habitats – what spawning habitat, which prey resources they’re using,” Whelan said.

“An example is Saginaw Bay walleye – we can find out when a fish leaves the inner bay and we have receivers all the way up Lake Huron and all the way to the bridge. They produce an ungodly amount of data.”

Another fish-tagging program involves using pop-up tags, that attach to a specimen’s back and eventually release, to record temperature and depth data. The tags send a signal to a satellite, so fisheries researchers can locate and recover them.

“It tells us a lot about what habitat the fish are using day by day,” Whelan said.

Other high-tech fisheries projects involve using remotely operated vehicles, towed by fisheries research vessels, that can carry video cameras, hydro-acoustic units to estimate prey abundance and water-quality monitors.

“We’re using a lot of GoPro cameras too,” Whelan said. “We use them to count gobies – drop a GoPro on a tripod on a reef, for instance – and we’re using GoPros on our research nets, to see how they’re fishing and whether fish are avoiding them.”

The DNR has been using modern communications media, such as Facebook and YouTube, to communicate to the public for years. But it’s also developing communication tools for department’s website that give the public more information than ever before.

Eric Hilliard, a digital media and web resources specialist with the DNR’s Wildlife Division for the last five years, has recently completed an online waterfowl count “dashboard” that shows hunters how many and which species are using the state’s managed waterfowl areas. It’s available at www.michigan.gov/wetlandwonders.

“Last year it had 30,000 views,” Hilliard said.

Even the technology used to collect that sort of information has changed.

David Luukkonen, a wildlife research biologist, said that DNR staffers who fly over the state to survey waterfowl have always made notes as they flew. Now they use voice recorders with an app that applies a GPS pin as it records, so the DNR knows exactly where the birds are.

This is coming in especially handy, Luukkonen said, as the DNR is conducting a survey of diving ducks and other pelagic (open-water) birds. As energy companies push to build off-shore wind facilities, the DNR data will show which areas of the lakes the birds use to help avoid conflicts.

Meanwhile, Luukkonen is working with a graduate student at Michigan State University on a mute swan study. Forty-five GPS-collared swans transmit data to cellular towers whenever they are within range of a tower, which is practically all the time.

“The idea is to develop a population model of mute swans, so we can effectively manage them,” Luukkonen said. “We’re finding out all kinds of things about them we didn’t know. We thought they were fairly residential birds, but we’ve found that they travel a lot more than we knew. And we’ve even found them feeding in fields, something we never suspected.”

As technology continues to advance, one thing is clear – improving the DNR’s ability to collect and share information benefits both Michigan’s natural resources and the people who enjoy them.

Check out previous Showcasing the DNR stories and subscribe to upcoming articles at www.michigan.gov/dnrstories.

Facts about the Modern Fish Act

Fishing for the Facts about the Modern Fish Act
By Chris Horton, Fisheries Program Director, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation
from The Fishing Wire

Mark Twain once said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Some in the environmental community have taken that saying to heart in their efforts to discredit the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (S. 1520 and H.R. 2023). Their story – passing a Magnuson-Steven’s Act (MSA) reauthorization bill with the provisions of the Modern Fish Act would gut federal fisheries management and lead to widespread overfishing. The truth – either they have not read the bills at all, or more likely, they want to maintain status quo of an outdated commercial fisheries management law and continue to receive significant funding from large foundations who want to further privatize our fisheries through catch shares. My money is on the latter.

The fact is, anglers were the first and only stakeholders to step up to bear the burden of funding science-based management and on-the-ground habitat restoration to sustainably manage fisheries more than six decades ago – not the Environmental Defense Fund, the Ocean Conservancy, restaurant associations, commercial fishermen or any other organization. From 1951 to 2017, our license fees and the excise taxes we’ve paid on things like fishing tackle, rods, reels, marine electronics, trolling motors and motorboat fuels have resulted in more than $28 billion for fisheries management across the country – both for marine and freshwater fisheries.

Unfortunately, the significance of our contributions to all fisheries management, including federal, is misunderstood or dismissed by many Members of Congress and the environmental community. A good example of that misunderstanding can be found in my response to a “Questions for the Record” request from the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmospheres, Fisheries and Coast Guard following my testimony last September, where they stated the Trust Fund, “does not, however, have very much impact on fisheries conservation conducted under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.” You can find the full list of questions and my responses here, but suffice it to say after consultation with several states in the Gulf of Mexico, I was able to provide plenty of examples where anglers fund federal fisheries management under MSA.

As anglers, we would never support a bill that would lead to widespread overfishing and fewer fish to catch. After all, we advocated for, and funded, the foundation of science-based, sustainable fisheries management. Yet that doesn’t make for a good story when your funding model depends on maintaining the status quo and a clear path to privatizing public trust resources.

Let’s look at some of the key provisions of the Modern Fish Act from both the fiction being told and the facts of the matter.

Alternative management measures for recreational fisheries

FICTION – S. 1520 would, “Inappropriately exempt the recreational sector from the necessary management discipline imposed by annual catch limits and accountability measures.”
FACT – This provision simply frees the Councils to consider more appropriate recreational fisheries management measures when hard-poundage annual catch limits (ACL’s) are not effective. It does not exempt the recreational fisheries from adhering to annual harvest constraints. In fact, in a report from the Gulf Council’s Science and Statistical Committee on the feasibility of these alternative management measures proposed in the Modern Fish Act – “They noted that extraction rates, fishing mortality targets and harvest control rules could easily be implemented as catch limits…”

Flexibility in rebuilding timelines

FICTION – “Injects too much flexibility and ambiguity into the rebuilding timeline for overfished stocks.”
FACT – Both H.R. 2023 and S. 1520 eliminate arbitrary rebuilding timelines and replaces with a biologically-based timeline relative to individual species. It’s interesting to see organizations that claim to support science-based decision making opposing an effort to ensure that rebuilding plans are based on science, not an arbitrary 10-year requirement that has no scientific basis.
Temporary Moratorium on Limited Access Privilege Programs (catch shares)

FICTION – “Both the moratorium and the study are unnecessary and unwise”.
FACT – Of course this would be considered “unwise”, coming from the primary environmental organization that has received millions from foundations like the Walker Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation to push catch shares on both commercial and recreational fisheries. What they are concerned about is that the study by the National Academy of Sciences required by this provision might find that catch share programs may not be such a good idea in mixed-use fisheries.
Process for allocation review

FICTION – “Such reviews would divert significant resources from compelling management issues without significantly improving recreational fishermen satisfaction.”
FACT – Reallocation of quota between sectors is a difficult, exceedingly contentious process, much of which is caused by the ambiguity of what metrics the Council should weigh in making those decisions. To make periodic reallocation reviews more efficient, this provision simply requires the National Academy of Science to provide some clear criteria to consider. In the case of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, the allocation between the commercial and recreational sectors was set more than 20-years ago, using data 10-years prior. Fisheries change over time, and with today’s technologies, families have an opportunity to catch their fish themselves, rather than just purchasing from someone who profits from the resource like a restaurant or seafood market.
It is sad that some environmental organizations have now enlisted the help of New Orleans chefs to tell their “story” as it relates to red snapper when it is clear they have no idea what the Modern Fish Act actually does, nor do they know anything about recreational fishing. In a recent E&E News article, one such restaurant owner/operator is quoted as saying, “It’d be nice to have $150,000 boats to get 30, 40 miles offshore, but most people can’t do that.” Most people don’t have to. I’ve caught red snapper within five miles of Pensacola Beach, Florida in a 10-year old 20-foot, single-engine bay boat, and was surrounded by similar boats all landing snapper. Likewise, we easily catch red snapper out of small boats within 8 miles of Orange Beach, Alabama and 10 miles of Grand Isle, Louisiana. This is not a rich man’s game (although the average $25/pound cost of red snapper at a seafood market might lead you to think otherwise), but a public trust resource available to tens of thousands of anglers from all walks of life.

As the original fisheries conservationists, anglers demand that our fisheries be managed sustainably. Nothing in the Modern Fish Acts undermines the fisheries conservation or sustainability tenants of MSA. It simply looks to strengthen MSA by bringing parity for millions of recreational anglers to a federal management model designed primarily for commercial fisheries.

Independent Study of Gulf Red Snapper

Independent Study of Gulf Red Snapper Population Announced
from The Fishing Wire

Studying red snapper

A team of university and government scientists, selected by an expert review panel convened by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, will conduct an independent study to estimate the number of red snapper in the U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

“American communities across the Gulf of Mexico depend on their access to, as well as the long term sustainability of, red snapper,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “I look forward to the insights this project will provide as we study and manage this valuable resource.”

The research team, made up of 21 scientists from 12 institutions of higher learning, a state agency and a federal agency, was awarded $9.5 million in federal funds for the project through a competitive research grant process. With matching funds from the universities, the project will total $12 million.

“We’ve assembled some of the best red snapper scientists for this study,” said Greg Stunz, the project leader and a professor at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. “The team members assembled through this process are ready to address this challenging research question. There are lots of constituents who want an independent abundance estimate that will be anxiously awaiting our findings.”

Recreational anglers and commercial fishermen will be invited to play a key role in collecting data by tagging fish, reporting tags and working directly with scientists onboard their vessels.

“The local knowledge fishermen bring to this process is very valuable and meaningfully informs our study,” Stunz said.

Some stakeholder groups have expressed concerns that there are more red snapper in the Gulf than currently accounted for in the stock assessment. The team of scientists on this project will spend two years studying the issue.

In 2016, Congress directed the National Sea Grant College Program and NOAA Fisheries to fund independent red snapper data collections, surveys and assessments, including the use of tagging and advanced sampling technologies. Sea Grant and NOAA Fisheries worked collaboratively to transfer federal funds to Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant offsite linkto administer the competitive research grant process and manage this independent abundance estimate.

“Today’s announcement is welcome news for all red snapper anglers in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. “As Chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, I was proud to author and secure federal funding to address the need for better data, which is a fundamental issue plaguing the fishery. The management of red snapper must be grounded in sound science if we want to provide fair access and more days on the water for our anglers. It is my hope that these independent scientists will be able to accurately determine the abundance of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico once and for all.”

“This research will be driven largely by university-based scientists with partners from state and federal agencies.” Stunz said. “This funding will allow us to do an abundance estimate using multiple sampling methods with a focus on advanced technologies and tagging for various habitat types.”

“I’m pleased to see that the independent estimate is moving forward and including the expertise of recreational fishermen,” said Rep. John Culberson of Texas. “I will continue to work with Texas fishermen and NOAA to address the inadequate access to red snapper.”

The project team will determine abundance and distribution of red snapper on artificial, natural and unknown bottom habitat across the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists on the team include:

Greg Stunz, Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi

Will Patterson, University of Florida

Sean P. Powers, University of South Alabama, Dauphin Island Sea Lab

James Cowan, Louisiana State University

Jay R. Rooker, Texas A&M University at Galveston

Robert Ahrens, University of Florida, Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences

Kevin Boswell, Florida International University

Matthew Campbell, NOAA Fisheries (non-compensated collaborator)

Matthew Catalano, Auburn University

Marcus Drymon, Mississippi State University

Brett Falterman, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

John Hoenig, College of William and Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Matthew Lauretta, NOAA Fisheries (non-compensated collaborator)

Robert Leaf, University of Southern Mississippi

Vincent Lecours, University of Florida

Steven Murawski, University of South Florida

David Portnoy, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

Eric Saillant, University of Southern Mississippi

Lynne S. Stokes, Southern Methodist University

John Walter, NOAA Fisheries (non-compensated collaborator)

David Wells, Texas A&M University at Galveston