Category Archives: Saltwater Fishing

Everything saltwater fishing

Alabama Adds to Vast Artificial Reef Zone

Alabama Adds to Vast Artificial Reef Zone
By David Rainer
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
from The Fishing Wire

Another artificial reef was deployed off the Alabama Gulf Coast this week in Alabama’s vast artificial reef zone. While a reef deployment may not seem like news, this was indeed special because it could change the way industrial and corporate entities view options for recycling materials.

(Billy Pope, aerial courtesy of Alabama Power) A 195-foot barge loaded with two 100-ton boilers from Alabama Power Company plants in Washington and Mobile counties became the latest artificial reef to be deployed off the Alabama Gulf Coast last week about 25 miles south of the Sand Island Lighthouse.
The new reef deployment was the result of a multitude of partners. Alabama Power Company provided a pair of boilers that had been taken out of service from plants in Washington and Mobile counties. Cooper/T. Smith provided a barge and transportation of the reef material. Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) and the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) worked as liaisons to start the process and complete the deployment.

“One thing I’m so excited about with this Alabama Power reef project is that it just shows that the more we’re involved with the community, community leaders and business leaders, there are a lot of great things we can do as partners,” said Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship. “Tim Gothard with the Alabama Wildlife Federation and Matt Bowden with Alabama Power are the ones who reached out to us with this idea. Then it grew with the work with Angus Cooper and Cooper/T. Smith. They had a barge that had neared the end of its useful life, and we needed a barge to transport the material to the deployment site.

“I think there are a lot of opportunities out there to get companies to rethink the ways they’ve always dealt with materials that have reached the end of their service life. The more we get involved with these organizations and companies, the more we can show them there are other opportunities to partner together. It’s good for the companies and good for the marine habitat. That’s why we think it’s important to get the word out about this project, because it can show what we can do with other private companies. I also hope this is a long relationship with Alabama Power as they continue to provide service for their ratepayers and, at the same time, enhance the environment.”

The new reef is located about 25 miles south of the Sand Island Lighthouse in a depth of about 120 feet in the Tatum-Winn North General Permit Area. The boilers are about 18 feet tall and about 40 feet long and weigh about 100 tons each. The barge is 195 feet long.

“A reef this size would take at least a dozen of our super pyramids,” said MRD Artificial Reefs Coordinator Craig Newton. “So this reef is a big cost savings for our artificial reef program. Alabama Power is experiencing cost savings as well because they don’t have to hire skilled personnel to disassemble the boilers and salvage them.”

To prepare for the deployment, Newton said holes were cut in the sides of the boilers to expose an array of small tubes inside the boiler.

“That’s really going to increase the surface area for encrusting organisms to attach to the reef,” Newton said. “It increases the complexity of the reef by providing refuge for small fish, and it’s really going to be easy to find on your bottom machine.

“Within days, the reef will have red snapper on it. Within months, it should have mangrove (gray) snapper on it. Then we’ll start to see the blennies and damselfish and all the little critters that will help support that ecosystem. By the time the season opens again on January 1 (2017), you could see amberjack on the reef because of the vertical relief.”

Blankenship said Cooper/T. Smith’s donation of the barge is a significant enhancement to the reef.

“The barge is part of the reef,” Blankenship said. “The barge and two 100-ton boilers will make a reef that’s going to be there for decades.

“This is the kind of partnership we’re looking for in our reef program. A company like Alabama Power can realize some savings by partnering with us as they upgrade their equipment. That material doesn’t go to the landfill or get cut up for scrap. Instead, we use it for marine habitat. It’s really a win all around. We want to reach out to other companies that might have these same opportunities.”

Angus Cooper III of Cooper/T. Smith said during his time as AWF president, he was able to witness the work Alabama Power is doing to enhance wildlife conservation in the state.

“Alabama Power is truly one of the leaders in our state when it comes to water quality and wildlife conservation,” Cooper said. “We at Cooper/T. Smith are extremely excited to partner with them on this reef project, our first such collaboration. We look forward to seeing the success of this project, both to the ecosystem and in providing a source of outdoor entertainment for our community.”

Wes Anderson, a team leader with Alabama Power’s Environmental Stewardship Projects, said the boilers had reached the end of their useful service, and it was time to either scrap them or find another useful purpose for the material.

“We became aware of other possibilities through our work with Coastal Cleanup and Renew Our Rivers programs on the Alabama Coast,” Anderson said. “Some of our guys said, ‘We sank 60,000 Christmas trees in our freshwater impoundments. Why don’t we make some nice saltwater reefs with some of this salvage equipment?’ When we approached our bosses with the idea, they were very supportive and thought it was a great idea. We were able to show a cost savings for our ratepayers and a great addition to the marine environment.”

Alabama Power Vice President of Environmental Affairs Susan Comensky added, “Being involved in the construction and deployment of this reef is especially exciting for us at Alabama Power because it’s a first for us. In the past, we have simply disposed of old equipment like these boilers, so seeing them repurposed to create a habitat for marine life is very gratifying.”

AWF Executive Director Tim Gothard said the organization’s commitment to Alabama’s artificial reef program made it easy to help foster the partnerships that led to the deployment of the Alabama Power reef.

“We were just glad to be able to connect the dots between all the key players,” Gothard said. “It’s a great public-private partnership for Alabama Power Company to be alerted to a piece of equipment they were retiring and its possible use as an artificial reef. Then Marine Resources was able to evaluate the material to make sure it was suitable for an artificial reef. And, finally, Cooper/T. Smith was able to make transportation available and add a barge to enhance the whole project.

“To me, the exciting part is to see the public and private entities work together with the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to accomplish a project that will be great for the reef system. It will provide really great opportunities for our citizens and general public who like to fish our offshore reefs.”

The Alabama Power reef was deployed near the 70-foot Offshore Supply Boat Reef to provide additional habitat for species that anglers can target outside of the short red snapper season. MRD officials expect species like vermilion snapper and triggerfish will inhabit the reef as well as amberjack.

“The more diversified we can make the reef program, the more ecologically sound and more stable the reef system will be,” Newton said. “The size of this reef will make it better suited to handle storm events and other stresses that might happen.”

What Is the Tarpon Acoustic Tagging Project?

BTT Tarpon Acoustic Tagging Project
from The Fishing Wire

BTT is pleased to announce that our new tarpon acoustic tagging project is beginning shortly. The purpose of this study is to obtain scientific data necessary for tarpon conservation that will be used exclusively to protect tarpon and enhance their habitat through improvements in fishery management. BTT will not distribute specific data to the public and will only describe tarpon movements and habitats in a general way in order to build public support for greater protections. This project will help answer 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 large.
Do tarpon use the same spawning site each year or move among spawning sites? 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 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.

Why Acoustic Tracking?

Although satellite tagging previously funded by BTT provided valuable data, the tags typically only stayed on the tarpon for a few months at a time, which prevented long-term tracking. In addition, because of the large size of the satellite tags, their use is limited to tarpon over 80 pounds.

The new Tarpon Program will use acoustic telemetry to track tarpon movements.

acoustic tags come in many sizes
Advantages of acoustic tags are that they are smaller and less invasive and can remain with the fish and active for up to five years rather than a few months. In addition, because acoustic tags come in a range of sizes, they can be used on tarpon from 20 pounds and larger, not just the extra-large adults. They also cost significantly less than satellite tags.

How Acoustic Tagging Works

Tags are surgically implanted in the abdomen. Each tag emits an ultrasonic ping that has a unique code for each tag. These pings are detected by underwater receivers when a tagged fish swims in range. When receivers are placed at strategic locations like inlets, bridges, and schooling locations, they can be very efficient.

As part of this four-year study, BTT will place 20 new receivers in waters around Florida, to add to the 60 receivers we already have in the water. In addition, colleagues at universities and state and federal agencies are using this technology to study movements of other fish species. Their receivers will also detect BTT tarpon tags. With more than 1,300 receivers in the water in the Gulf of Mexico, and more than 3,000 along the southeastern US coast, this project will be able to examine both local and long-distance movements for many years. BTT will tag 50 fish in each year of the study.

How You Can Help

Sponsor a Tarpon: Sponsor an acoustic tag for $2,500. You can name your tarpon, and will receive a certificate with its name, photo and initial capture info (very general location and measurements). Each time BTT downloads data from the receivers (approximately every 6 months), a summary of the general data on your fish will be sent to you.

Sponsor a Receiver: Sponsor and name an acoustic receiver (listening station) for $3,000. Each time BTT downloads data from your listening station, you will receive a summary of the fish that have been detected by that station.

Help us tag tarpon. Prior to a tagging trip, our scientists will put out a notice about when and where they will be, along with contact information. If you are fishing in that area when we are tagging, all you need to do is call us when you catch a tarpon. We’ll come to your boat, transfer the tarpon over, and take care of the rest. Remember to always keep the tarpon in the water!

Contact Us Today!

For more information and to sponsor a tag or receiver, please contact Alex Woodsum, Director of Development and Communications at 617-872-4807 or

The purpose of this study is to obtain data necessary for conservation. Data from this study will only be shared with the public in a very general sense to explain how the data is contributing to conservation. Specific data on tarpon movements, habitat use, etc. will not be shared. Our goal is to use these data for conservation, not to help anglers catch more tarpon. So rest assured, the data is highly confidential.

Where Is Tarpon Central?

Tarpon Central

The amazing silver king fishery at Boca Grande

By Frank Sargeant
from The Fishing Wire

Boca Grande Lighthouse

Boca Grande Lighthouse

The historic Boca Grande Lighthouse marks the pass of the same name, where the world’s greatest tarpon fishery occurs from April through June each year. (Frank Sargeant photo)

There are many places to catch tarpon in Florida and throughout Central America, but there is no place where the silver king is so synonymous with the location as Boca Grande, the massive pass at the southern tip of Gasparilla Island.

For years anglers made wild estimates of how many tarpon swarm into this pass each spring, roughly between April 1 and the end of June, but nobody knew for sure until the state’s Fish & Wildlife Research Institute put counting devices on the bottom a decade or so back and came up with a reasonably accurate number.

The count was 10,000 fish–at one time! And the biologists who did the counting note that tarpon are coming and going throughout the season, so this number does not represent all the fish that visit the pass, only those that were there during the counting period.

It’s no wonder that the pass draws anglers from all over the nation–and from worldwide locations–to sample the action. There simply is no place on Earth where your odds are better, in one four-hour trip, of hooking up with one of these silver giants, which are typically about the length of a tall man and weigh 100 pounds or more. They are not only powerful, but they are given to aerial acrobatics that leave first-timers speechless–leaps near 10 feet into the air are not uncommon.

Mature tarpon

Mature tarpon

Mature tarpon typically weigh 100 pounds and up, with fish over 150 pounds caught with some frequency. Nearly all are released since the species is not considered edible. (Frank Sargeant photo)

Boca Grande has the added attraction of allowing anglers to see the fish before they catch them on most days–pods of 10, 20, even 50 at a time come rolling to the surface like schools of silvery porpoises, sometimes almost close enough to touch.

The fish apparently swarm here to feed prior to spawning–the pass is loaded with crabs and baitfish at this time of year, giving them a place to bulk up easily before making the journey offshore, as much as a hundred miles, to drop their eggs in the open sea.

Not surprisingly, a resource this amazing draws a crowd–it’s common for 50 boats or more to float through the pass in a loose fleet. When they reach the bottom of a drift, they return to the top and try again. Some anglers fish with jigs, easing close to concentrations they see on sonar screens and dropping into their midst.

Both live bait and artificials are successful, though the latter are less so since a device known as the break-away jig was banned a few years back. Either way, your chances fishing with a guide here are probably better than almost anywhere else–it’s common for a single boat to fight three or four fish in a four-hour charter.


The grand old lady of the island is the Gasparilla Inn, which has been housing anglers, captains of industry and movie stars for more than 100 years as they come to pay homage at the shrine of tarpon fishing, the blue-green pass that’s just around the corner from the harbor.

The Gasparilla Inn has been welcoming tarpon fisherman to the island and Boca Grande Pass for more than 100 years. (Photo Credit Gasparilla Inn)

The Victorian-style inn maintains the historic character of the early 1900’s, but it has been steadily upgraded and improved over the decades into a world class resort destination. An 18-hole golf course on the bayside, where you can occasionally see snook and reds swimming along the seawalls, welcomes a respite from the tarpon wars. And the inn is one of the few locations in the nation where there are still croquet courts–the Mallet Club–where the greens are as meticulously maintained at those on the golf course. There’s a beach side tennis club, and of course a marina for the anglers, and the whimsical Pink Elephant Restaurant, just across the street from the docks, where anglers gather to share tall tales–and where wild 3-foot-long iguanas occasionally peek out of the hedges. They’re an invasive species, but still very interesting to see at close range.

The town itself is still much like it has always been–tight zoning laws plus the astronomical value of the land here has kept the development that has ravaged much of mainland Florida at bay, and the toll bridge at the north end of the island is also a factor, forming a sort of mote that helps maintain the laid back tenor of the village and the island. It’s a place that welcomes walking and biking tours–there’s an island-length biking/jogging trail, and plenty of bikes for rent. It’s predictably pricey, both for accommodations and food, but for a weekend or a vacation splurge, it’s one place in Florida everyone just has to visit at least once.

For details on the Gasparilla Inn, visit

Gulf Red Snapper

Gulf Red Snapper Fishery Management

Red Snapper

Red Snapper

Editor’s Note: The following is an opinion piece by Louisiana Congressman Garrett Graves in response to a story that ran across the Gulf Coast recently ( . As you’ll read, Congressman Graves is among those quite unhappy with the way the Gulf of Mexico’s plentiful red snapper fishery is being managed.
from The Fishing Wire

How would you feel if the federal government took all of the gold in Fort Knox and gave it to a few dozen unelected, unaccountable people to decide how to manage it behind closed doors? How would you feel if that same small group unsurprisingly decided to split the country’s gold among themselves – each becoming multi-millionaires? If our government gave away the public’s property for free and allowed millionaires to be born overnight by diverting that public’s property to themselves, I’d be pretty upset – and I am.

As Ben Raines’ weekend article in the Times Picayune and illuminated, the federal government has hand-picked dozens of multi-millionaire “Sea Lords” by allowing them to control the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico. While these select few “Sea Lords” are making millions from our fish, the season for recreational anglers – who used to be able to fish for red snapper all year long – has been absurdly diminished. In 2015, the recreational red snapper season was ten days.

The agency charged with managing our national fishery, the National Marine Fisheries Service, conducted a study on the health of red snapper fish stocks in the Gulf of Mexico. You’ll be shocked to learn that federal government’s methodology and results were grossly inadequate. Their analysis failed to include reef areas – the actual habitat of red snapper, a reef fish. Think about that. It’s like looking for polar bears in Louisiana, finding none, and declaring the population to be at risk of extinction.

Let me be clear, the sustainability of our fisheries is paramount. It is critical that we employ the best science to responsibly manage them and to support their long-term viability. It’s no secret that Louisiana is home to some of the nation’s top restaurants that rely on the supply of fresh, wild seafood to meet demand. Some argue that expanding recreational access would lead to overfishing and threaten commercial interests. This mentality has bred the current system of a government sanctioned oligarchy that monopolizes a public resource. And it has punished tens of thousands of families across the Gulf Coast that enjoy fishing in Sportsman’s Paradise. Luckily, there is another way.

In July of last year, I introduced HR 3094, the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act in the US House of Representatives. The bill simply gives the five Gulf States’ Wildlife Departments the authority to manage the red snapper that live offshore their coast. This approach favors local control and would transfer management decisions to the professionals who are closest to the fishery. In Louisiana for example, our Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has demonstrated a commitment to using the best science to sustainability manage our fisheries through efforts like the agency’s LA Creel program, which helps to provide an accurate count of red snapper fish stocks in our coastal waters. Today, HR 3094 has nearly 30 bipartisan sponsors from across the nation.

The fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico are public property and should be enjoyed by all – not managed like a long-abandoned “sharecropper” model that enriches a select few. Sometimes all it takes is a little sunshine on bad policy to fix things. To quote Herbert Hoover, “all men are equal before fish.” Let’s enact HR 3094 so we can ALL enjoy the Gulf’s bounty.

– Garret Graves, Member of Congress

Red Snapper Management in the Gulf of Mexico

Thank You, Shelby, Graves and Scott

Editor’s Note: Today’s feature comes to us from Jeff Angers at the Center for Coastal Conservation.
from The Fishing Wire

Recreational anglers got an early Christmas present this year, and if you live in Alabama, Georgia or Louisiana, you have a Member of your state’s Congressional delegation to thank for it.

Alabama’s senior Senator, Richard T. Shelby and U.S. Representatives Garrett Graves (R-La.) and Austin Scott (R-Ga.) spearheaded a series of provisions in the year-end spending bill that are very important for red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mindful of the federal government’s bungling of the fishery and obviously aware of the impact recreational anglers have on the economy of the Gulf coast, the provisions require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to fund and incorporate agency-independent stock assessments for Gulf reef fish, including the red snapper.

Unlike previous surveys, this one will actually include the many artificial reefs (including offshore oil-and-gas structures) where the red snapper actually are!

Best of all, recreational anglers will get an increased allocation from any increases in the red snapper population that are discovered in the new assessment.

The three legislators should also be congratulated for giving state fisheries managers a greater role in managing the fishery; the measure also includes an extension of the state fishery management boundaries from three to nine miles from shore in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to these legislators, but if you live in Alabama, Georgia or Louisiana, please take a moment to personally thank Sen. Shelby, Rep. Scott or Rep. Graves.

Let them know their work is appreciated by recreational anglers like us – but also by hotels, restaurants, tackle shops and marine dealers all across the Gulf. They are the real winners whenever recreational anglers go out on the water.

What Are Two Good Survival At Sea Books?

Survival at Sea–a Couple of Fascinating Reads

By Frank Sargeant, Editor
The Fishing Wire

438 Days

438 Days

Most of us who spend time at sea like stories of sea survival—you always have it in the back of your mind that it could happen to you, someday, if the stars aligned just so. One of the more intriguing is detailed in the book “438 Days” by Jonathan Franklin, the story of Salvador Alvarenga’s incredible survival while drifting some 9,000 miles across the Pacific, from the coast of Mexico to the Marshall Islands.

The writing is a bit choppy and interspersed with information that’s interesting regarding survival, but that breaks the mood of the story, and yet I found the book a compelling read—I finished it in three nights, which is fast for me. For those who thought, when this story broke in the news in 2014, that it described an impossible feat–that somehow the fix was in–this book and the photos included should allay those suspicions. Here’s the gist of it:

On November 17, 2012, Salvador Alvarenga left the coast of Mexico for a two-day fishing trip. A vicious storm killed his engine and the current dragged his boat out to sea. The storm picked up and blasted him west. When he washed ashore on January 29, 2014, he had arrived in the Marshall Islands, 9,000 miles away—equivalent to traveling from New York to Moscow round trip.

For fourteen months, Alvarenga survived constant shark attacks. He learned to catch fish and birds with his bare hands. He built a fish net from a pair of empty plastic bottles. Taking apart the outboard motor, he fashioned a huge fishhook. Using fish vertebrae as needles, he stitched together his own clothes.

He considered suicide on multiple occasions—including offering himself up to a pack of sharks. But Alvarenga never failed to invent an alternative reality. He developed a method of survival that kept his body and mind intact long enough for the Pacific Ocean to toss him up on a remote palm-studded island, where he was saved by a local couple living alone in their own Pacific Island paradise.

Based on dozens of hours of interviews with Alvarenga and interviews with his colleagues, search and rescue officials, the medical team that saved his life and the remote islanders who nursed him back to health, this epic tale of survival by Jonathan Franklin is a true version of the fictional Life of Pi. With illustrations, maps, and photographs throughout, 438 Days is a study of the resilience, will, ingenuity, and determination required for one man to survive fourteen months, lost at sea. List price is $26.00, from Atria Books, less on

In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea

Also in this vein, I recently read “In the Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick, which has been around for a while, but was recently released as a major motion picture. This is also a story of sea survival, based on the story of the whale ship Essex out of Nantucket in 1819.

The Essex was rammed by a giant sperm whale far off the coast of South America and sank, leaving 20 men in three small whaleboats. (Yes, the tale was the basis for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, written in 1851.)

Over the next three months, the men sailed all over the South Pacific, frequently driven in the wrong direction by prevailing winds, storms and currents. As their food disappeared, they turned to cannibalism, first of those who died from duress, and later by drawing straws and killing each other so that a few might survive. In the end, only eight were left, including two who were found in one of the surviving boats sucking on the bones of their deceased shipmates.

It’s a fascinating look at survival, at the limits of human endurance, and at the historic whaling industry. It’s from Penguin books, and available on

Why Are Recreational Fishermen Being Pushed Out of Red Snapper Fishing?

Court ruling clears way for charter/for-hire privatization scheme
from The Fishing Wire

Gulf of Mexico red snapper anglers are out of options under federal management.

NEW ORLEANS, LA – A federal District Court judge has ruled that Amendment 40 to the Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico will be allowed to stand, clearing the way for a new charter/for-hire sector in red snapper fishing and reserving a significant percentage of the recreational quota exclusively for its use.

Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) filed the lawsuit against Amendment 40, also known as sector separation, on behalf of anglers who have seen their access to the red snapper fishery steadily diminish under federal management while both the commercial and charter/for-hire sectors are positioned to reap windfalls.

“The great risk in these kinds of cases is that the court will simply defer to the federal agency charged with managing public resources and, unfortunately, that is what the court chose to do in this case.” said Bill Bird, chairman of CCA’s National Government Relations Committee. “NOAA Fisheries is committed to privatizing public marine resources for the benefit of private businesses at the expense of recreational anglers. We are deeply disappointed that the judge missed an opportunity to correct this misguided federal management philosophy, but it is certainly not the end of our efforts to get this fishery managed properly, for the greatest benefit to our nation.”

The ruling makes it unlikely that recreational anglers fishing from their own boats will see an improvement from the 2015 red snapper season in which they had nine days to fish, compared to 44 for charter/for-hire operators and year-round for commercial vessels. Separating sectors, awarding private property rights to public resources to some and denying access to other is a dysfunctional management philosophy that sets the stage for a never-ending series of user conflicts under federal management.

“This is another frustrating development in a fishery that has been defined by failure and misguided policies for decades, but it does prove that state management is now the only viable avenue out of this mess,” said Bird. “We are more committed than ever to working with Congress to transfer responsibility for the red snapper fishery away from the federal government and let the Gulf States manage it.”

Congress is aware there are significant problems in the Gulf red snapper fishery and is moving to address it. Last month, language was inserted into the Fiscal Year 2016 appropriations bill by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) that extended all Gulf state waters to 9 miles and sought to improve red snapper allocation and stock assessments. That bill was signed into law, and both Alabama and Louisiana announced immediately they will extend their boundaries from 3 to 9 miles, greatly increasing the potential areas for anglers to harvest red snappers. There has been no announcement from Mississippi thus far.

A bill introduced by Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) H.R. 3094 – the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act – will grant legal recognition to a plan adopted by the Fish and Wildlife agencies of all five Gulf states to assume management of the Gulf red snapper in federal waters. The bill currently has 28 bi-partisan co-sponsors and has the support of a coalition of organizations representing the saltwater recreational fishing and boating community.

Striped Bass

The Scoop on Striped Bass

by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn, U.S.C.G.
from the Fishing Wire

Fishing a bridge

Fishing a bridge

John Miller of Farmville, Va., tries his luck at striped bass fishing in the Lafayette River in Norfolk, Va., under the Hampton Boulevard Bridge. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn)

A cluster of small boats gather toward the end of an ebb tide on a dreary November evening in Norfolk, Virginia. Fishermen, clad in rain slickers, cast their lines toward pilings and retrieve them in silence. There’s no chatter among them – an entire day spent on the water exhausted their conversations. They’re focused on one thing – their target species, the Atlantic striped bass, though nobody’s landed one today. Suddenly, the song of a reel zings out over the rushing water as a striper is hooked and begins what might be the fight for its life. “Hooked up!” exclaims an angler, finally breaking the silence with words they all yearn to shout. The fish peels just enough line to make a beeline for a piling, wrapping the monofilament against the barnacles plastered to it like living razor blades. The line snaps, leaving the fisherman to grieve in the gloomy dusk.

For anglers across the U.S., the challenge of locating and landing stripers is what keeps them coming back for more.

“Striped bass are an elusive fish,” said Dwight Ocheltree, a striper fishing enthusiast and employee at Greg’s Bait Shack in Portsmouth, Virginia. His statement applies in more ways than one.

Striper fishermen know finding these fish isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s a patience game of waiting for them to show up or to start feeding. Then there’s the challenge of landing one after it’s been hooked.

“Stripers love structure,” said Ocheltree. “Bridges, pilings – places they can stay out of sight and ambush their prey. Fishing around structure takes skill that comes with experience. The first thing a hooked striper will do is try to retreat behind structure, and that means breaking the line if you aren’t prepared.”

Talking about fishing

Talking about fishing

According to Ocheltree, once a fisherman lands a striper for the first time, it’s then he or she who will be hooked.

“Once you land one, you’ll be back for more,” he said. “If you’ve been trying but aren’t catching any, keep at it. Keep plugging. You’re one cast away from the best day of your life!” Anglers hoping to catch “the big one” are drawn to waters off the Mid-Atlantic coast, where laws aimed at protecting the species are different that those close to shore.

Coast Guardsmen, charged with protecting living marine resources, enforce an important federal law designed to protect the Atlantic striped bass population.

“The Atlantic striped bass is managed through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate organization designed to ensure states along the eastern seaboard manage their shared fishery resources through cooperative stewardship,” said Patricia Bennett, deputy enforcement chief for the 5th Coast Guard District in Portsmouth. “It is illegal to possess or target the Atlantic striped bass in federal waters, which begin three miles from shore. In state waters – waters less than three miles from the coast – each state has its own laws designed to protect stripers. Even though the Coast Guard does not enforce those state laws, if we find a violation at the state level, we may notify state authorities.”

“The three-mile line is clearly marked on nautical charts,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Stephen Atchley, captain aboard Coast Guard Cutter Cochito out of Portsmouth. “With all the modern navigation equipment, it is every mariners responsibility to know where they are when they are on the water. That means knowing if you’re fishing in state or federal waters.”

“I’m a fisherman myself,” said Atchley. “I’ve fished my entire life. I want there to be fish for my family and for future generations.”

While striped bass fishermen are responsible for understanding and following both state and federal regulations, the majority of these anglers will never venture near the three mile mark, fishing closer to shore in rivers and bays.

“Some people think you need a boat to catch stripers,” said Ocheltree. “You don’t. You can catch striped bass from shore. In fact, that’s how many people prefer to fish them.”

One particular characteristic of the species helps make it the preferred target for so many. Stripers are anadromous – they’re born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean, then return to fresh water to spawn. This means anglers can catch them in rivers that run through cities – they’re a popular urban game fish. Their ability to acclimate and survive in entirely freshwater ecosystems led humans to introduce the species to completely landlocked lakes and ponds. Striped bass can be found throughout the country and are among the most targeted of all game fish.

November usually means striper season arrived here in the Mid-Atlantic. As water temperatures begin to decline, the action should increase. “If you want to catch a striper, you just have to go out and do it,” said Ocheltree. “Put in your time. Talk to other fishermen. Listen to the people at bait shops and at the boat ramps. Every year I learn something new from someone different.”


A coffin for cod? The downward spiral of the fish that built New England

While we don’t always see eye-to-eye with the Pew Foundation on fishery management, particularly where reef species or marine refuges are concerned, this column on the decline of New England cod is well worth reading. Editor
from The Fishing Wire

by Lee Crockett of The Pew Charitable Trusts

Landing a Cod

Landing a Cod

Mike Anderson lands a cod he caught in the early 1990s using hand-line gear in the nearshore waters off Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

When Mike Anderson arrived in Cape Cod in the 1960s as a young man with dreams of adventures at sea, many people shared the same warning: “You won’t get rich in the fishing business; it’s just a way of life.”

But Anderson, undeterred, embraced that lifestyle, fishing his way through decades of long, sometimes treacherous days at sea in the sun, wind, fog, and ice. His hands toughened like leather as he baited hooks late into the night in anticipation of the next day’s bounty. He relished the challenge of each day, the camaraderie among tough-as-nails fishermen, and the exhilarating adventure of it all.

Anderson, now 72, was part of the glory days of thriving New England fishing towns, when fishermen followed their fathers into the business and old-timers spoke, only half-jokingly, of cod so plentiful one could practically walk across the water on their backs. Back then, despite early signs of decline, people still thought the fish were limitless. Most people, that is, except for Anderson.

He believed trawlers that dragged nets along the ocean bottom, scooping up vast amounts of cod, were capturing too many fish and damaging the seafloor. He stubbornly stuck to hook-and-line fishing, even as nets started sweeping up cod in numbers he’d never seen before. In due time, his two-man crew—which once pulled in thousands of pounds of cod a day and regularly caught fish weighing 40 to 50 pounds—began to see both its catch and the size of the fish decline. By the 1990s, the cod were so sparse and small that Anderson gave up and moved on to other species.

Anderson feels he witnessed the decimation of one of the greatest concentrations of marine life on Earth.

Drying Cod

Drying Cod

A historic photo, likely from the early 1900s, shows cod laid out to dry—a once common sight in New England when the fish were more plentiful.

“The fish never really had a chance,” says Anderson, who still fishes every day, both for the joy of it and to make ends meet. “It was greed, shortsightedness, and naiveté. People misunderstood how many fish there were. The world is finite, and we haven’t got the right to diminish the world.”

A recent study determined that the 2014 cod population on Georges Bank, located off Cape Cod in the easternmost side of the Gulf of Maine, was the lowest ever recorded—roughly 1 percent of what scientists would consider a healthy population. That’s down from the 7 percent reported for 2011. In other waters off Cape Cod, the species is also in dire straits. For the fish that built New England, it’s been a long downward spiral.

Because other species in the region also are in decline, the U.S. Department of Commerce declared a fishery disaster in New England in September 2012, the second such declaration for the region in 20 years. As fish populations have plummeted, fishery managers have shown a consistent pattern of failing to heed warnings from scientists, sufficiently limit catch, promptly pursue corrective actions, and otherwise do what’s needed to help fish populations recover, including protecting the habitat and bait fish that cod rely upon.

It’s high time to finally get it right. We at Pew are urging the New England Fishery Management Council—which sets fishing policies in federal waters (from three to 200 miles offshore), from Maine to Connecticut—to address these critical issues:

First, the council must enact and enforce realistic science-based catch levels. Current methods of setting catch amounts are too permissive. It’s wrong to let people keep fishing for the average amounts they’ve caught in the past when fish numbers are dropping and other environmental factors, such as warming waters, may be putting the fish populations at risk of extinction.

School of Cod

School of Cod

The 2014 cod population on Georges Bank, located off Cape Cod in the easternmost side of the Gulf of Maine, was the lowest ever recorded—roughly 1 percent of what scientists say would be a healthy population.

Second, many cod die because they are caught incidentally as fishermen target other species. Fishery managers still don’t have a good handle on the extent of the problem. It’s hard to set safe catch amounts when it’s unclear how many fish are being taken from the water. Add to that the issues created when some fishermen misreport the areas from which they are taking fish or the size of the fish they take, or underreport their catch, and it’s nearly impossible to see the big picture. Fishery managers have been too slow to ramp up their force of at-sea observers and dockside inspectors to better monitor and resolve these problems.

Third, it’s unproductive for the council to consider lifting protections for important cod habitat when the fish need them most. Decades ago, in response to the fisheries crisis of the early 1990s, the federal government curtailed fishing in 8,887 square miles of New England waters where fish live and spawn, including 26 percent of Georges Bank.

But now, fishery managers propose reducing the protected areas substantially, including a drastic rollback of 81 percent of the protected parts of Georges Bank. Cod used to be spread throughout the Cape; but as the fish grew more scarce, scientists believed they took refuge in limited prime habitat areas within their former range. Fishermen in the past knew these spots and targeted them, further decimating the species. Why would anyone let that happen again?

Mike Anderson

Mike Anderson

Mike Anderson, seen here on the Chatham Fish Pier in 2014, helps educate the public about fishing and related issues as part of the Pier Program, run by the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. Millions of pounds of seafood are landed at the pier annually. (Photo via

Lastly, researchers know cod and other fish are much smaller today than they were decades ago. Although the cause is uncertain, scientists theorize that overfishing and warming waters are playing a role. Researchers are also baffled about what is happening to young fish. Experts know that eggs are hatching and fish are growing for several years, but then they are disappearing. These mysteries are worrisome and deserve more study.

This uncertainty makes it all the more urgent for officials to take a comprehensive view of the ecosystem when setting fishing policies—for example, by weighing habitat, food sources, warming waters, and other factors when making decisions about how to manage a species. Pew is advocating that this approach, called ecosystem-based fisheries management, be incorporated into federal law as Congress renews the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. You can read more about it in our blog series here.

As for Anderson, he isn’t involved or weighing in on these current-day debates. Rather, the philosopher’s son and English major is penning stories about his life at sea and telling cautionary tales on the fishing docks as part of efforts by the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance to educate the public about the history and future of the Cape’s small boat fishing industry.

He wants current and future generations to learn from past mistakes. And he hopes New England’s legendary fishing towns can spawn new stories of adventure and plentiful catch, instead of just relying on the memories the old-timers leave behind.

What Is In Chesapeake Bay Predators’ Diets?

Little things turn out to be big deals in Chesapeake Bay predators’ diets

Today’s feature comes to us from Karl Blankenship, long-time editor of Bay Journal, detailing a topic that is beginning to be understood as critical to gamefish populations everywhere—the forage the fish eat.

Analysis finds invertebrates, tiny anchovies are critical in Chesapeake food web

By Karl Blankenship, Editor
Bay Journal;

Menhaden are caught in a purse seine net

Menhaden are caught in a purse seine net

Menhaden are caught in a purse seine net. An analysis of the diets of five major Bay predators found that menhaden was important for only one, striped bass, and even for them, the bay anchovy was more important. (Dave Harp)
t-studied estuary in the world, but a group of scientists attending a recent workshop were surprised about how little they knew about what predatory fish eat.

After all, menhaden — dubbed by some as the “most important fish in the sea” would also be the “most important” fish in the Bay, right?

Apparently not. That honor, were one species to be singled out, might belong to the tiny bay anchovy — a fish that rarely grows more than 3–4 inches in length and typically doesn’t live longer than a year.

“They’re the most abundant fish in the Bay,” said Ed Houde, a fisheries scientist with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who helped organize the workshop. “They’re really important in the Bay’s food web.”

An analysis of 12 years of Baywide diet information for five major predators prepared for the workshop found that bay anchovy was a significant portion of the diet for four of those species. Menhaden was important for only one, striped bass, and even for them, bay anchovy were more important.

“Menhaden came out not as high on the list as people thought it was going to be,” Houde said. “It was an important prey, but it certainly wasn’t in the top three or four.”

Even more significantly, the analysis showed that the Bay’s food web is less of a fish-eat-fish world than popularly thought, even among many scientists. A host of unheralded species, from worms to clams to crustaceans, are major food sources for the Chesapeake’s predatory fish.

Those were some of the findings that came out of the workshop conducted by the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee late last year. The workshop focused on the question of whether the Bay produces enough food, or “forage,” to adequately support its predator population. The workshop stemmed from a commitment in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement that called for assessing the “forage fish base.”

It’s a question conservation groups, scientists and fishery managers are increasingly asking for oceans and coastal areas around the globe: Are there enough herring, anchovies, menhaden and similar species to feed predatory fish, marine mammals, fish-eating birds and, in many cases, to support major fisheries?

It was once thought those small schooling fish were so abundant that they could not be overfished. Around the world, they account for about a third of all fish harvested, after which they are processed for oils, fish meal, livestock feed and other products. A 2012 report by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, prepared by scientists around the world, including Houde, called for global harvests to be cut in half to protect both forage species and the many predators that depend upon them.

Similar questions about the forage base have been raised around the Bay. Anglers have complained for years that striped bass were underfed because of a lack of menhaden, and watermen have contended that large numbers of striped bass and other fish looking for food ate too many blue crabs.

Fishery management over the years has sought to maximize the production of predators like striped bass. Other predators have been introduced, sometimes accidentally, such as snakeheads, at other times deliberately, to give anglers new pursuits, such as blue catfish and flathead catfish.

Populations of many fish-eating birds, including bald eagles, osprey, great blue herons and cormorants are at or near record highs, at least compared with recent decades. Meanwhile, some prey thought to have been important historically, such as river herrings and American shad, are at historic lows.

Invertebrates ‘key’ food source

The forage workshop, which followed the new Bay agreement commitment by a few months, was aimed at reviewing what data were available about forage in the Bay and identifying new information that might be needed to guide future forage fish management — and to ensure high and sustainable production of their predators.

But along the way, workshop organizers began to realize that in the Chesapeake, the emphasis just on “forage fish” might be less important than it is for some other areas.

That stemmed from an analysis done for the workshop that examined the diets of five predators thought to be good indicators of predator food demand in different areas around the Bay. The predators in the analysis included striped bass, summer flounder, Atlantic croaker, clearnose skate and white perch.

The analysis drew on 12 years of data from the Chesapeake Bay Multispecies Monitoring and Assessment Program (ChesMMAP), conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which collects fish at locations from the mouth of the Bay to near Baltimore five times a year.

Since 2002, the survey has captured 391,000 fish, and measured 285,000. Biologists have examined the stomach contents of more than 35,000 fish, representing 94 species, to determine what the fish had been eating.

A type of forage was considered “important” if it accounted for more than 5 percent of the food in any predator species in at least one survey. It was “key” if it accounted for 5 percent in more than one predator.

More than half of the 20 forage groups identified as “key” or “important” turned out to be invertebrates such as mollusks, worms and crustaceans.

For instance, mysids, a small shrimp-like crustacean, was the most common food consumed by summer flounder, measured by weight, the second most common consumed by striped bass, and the third most common prey of Atlantic croaker. Polychaete worms were the most common prey of Atlantic croaker and white perch, and the third most important for striped bass.

In other coastal areas, “the invertebrates are not the big issue — it is the small schooling herring and anchovies or what have you,” said Tom Ihde, an ecosystem modeler with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office, who helped organize the workshop.

Forage fish vs. forage base

Bay Anchovy

Bay Anchovy

In real life, the bay anchovy behind Ed Houde, a fisheries scientist with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, only grows to be 3–4 inches long. (Dave Harp)

Ihde and Houde said much of the previous work concerning forage has focused on predators in ocean fisheries. Those fish are often larger, and primarily consume small fish. Also, much of that focus has been in places such as the West Coast, which lack large estuarine feeding grounds like the Chesapeake Bay.

In the Chesapeake, the predators are often smaller — the largest striped bass generally are here only a few weeks of the year to spawn — and much of the food of the smaller, resident striped bass consists of a variety of bottom-dwelling organisms. As a result, what started out as a discussion aimed at addressing forage fish turned into one focused on the entire forage base.

In fact, the importance of soft-bodied organisms like worms is likely understated when fish stomach contents are examined, Ihde said. “Some of these invertebrates are digested quickly and are probably even more important than our analysis would show because they very quickly turn into unidentifiable goo,” he said.

That said, workshop participants said in their recently released report that menhaden should still be considered a key forage species because the species is important to large striped bass for whom the Bay is a critical spawning area, even if they are only here part of the year. Menhaden are also considered important prey for larger individuals of other large predatory fish such as weakfish and bluefish. And menhaden are likely important for other species, such as fish-eating birds, workshop participants said.

“There’s a general perception that it is all about menhaden,” Ihde said. “They are important. But we can’t forget about all these other things that in some cases are more important to our current system.”

And those other things add to the complexity of understanding, and ultimately trying to manage, the Bay’s food web.

Some organisms not typically thought of as forage turned out to be important in the Bay, such as the young of croaker, weakfish and spot — adults of which are generally considered predators.

“It was a big surprise to me to see something like young-of-the-year weakfish show up as one of the more important prey in the diets of predators,” said Houde, who has participated in several forage fish studies in recent years.

Scant data for tributaries

But the total picture is far from complete. The ChesMMAP surveys only cover the mainstem of the Chesapeake. There is little information available about tidal tributaries.

Those areas are important nurseries for many fish — and are also home to a rapidly growing population of predatory blue catfish. Although some studies are under way to better understand the diet of blue catfish, much less is known about the forage base and food demand by predators in those areas.

Because of those limitations, workshop participants suggested the data from ChesMMAP may under-represent the importance of some forage species such as American shad, river herrings, mummichog, killifishes, gizzard shad, silversides and some small bivalves, which tend to be found in low-salinity areas.

Even less is known about shallow water of less than 2 meters, especially in habitats such as underwater grass beds and marshes, which biologists think may be particularly important for forage production, and where survey boats have a hard time operating.

And the ChesMMAP data have their own limitations. It is a trawl survey, so it collects fish mainly from the bottom, and collections from its gear under-represents both the largest and smallest fish.

The survey is being modified in coming years to collect more samples from higher in the water column and from the benthic invertebrate communities at its collection sites.

While that should refine its information, it is not likely to dramatically change overall conclusions, as other — albeit smaller — surveys examined in the workshop analysis found similar results.

“Our hope is it will lead to a much better understanding of the ecosystem,” said Chris Bonzek, the VIMS scientist who oversees the ChesMMAP survey and who prepared the forage analysis for the workshop. “But we are not going to all of a sudden see that bluefin tuna are the most important predator in the Bay.”

A more complete picture

Because predators are eating so many types of prey — many of which are poorly studied — it’s difficult to characterize the current status of the Bay’s forage base. But, with support from the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, Houde and several colleagues are reviewing existing information to start piecing together a more complete picture of forage abundance and predator demand.

With information gleaned from the ChesMMAP analysis and other sources, they are assessing the relative abundance of different forage groups in regions of the Bay to see if there are trends in the overall amount and availability of prey, or in the relative abundance of the different types of forage.

In addition, they are looking at stomach content data from major predator fish species to begin to estimate the amount and kinds of forage they are consuming.

That information will start addressing the fundamental questions of how much forage is consumed by predators, what type of forage is most important in different regions of the Bay and how much change has taken place over the years. Ultimately, it will help answer the question of how much food is needed to support the Bay’s predators, both now, and in the future.

“While we are not close to getting that answer, it is the direction we are heading in,” Houde said. “Providing estimates of consumption and forage demand is something we would like to be able to deliver to managers in the next decade.”

A ‘balanced’ ecosystem

Figuring out how to use that information to maintain a “balanced” ecosystem will be a challenge for managers as populations of many forage species vary widely. For instance, the numbers of bay anchovy can fluctuate tenfold from year-to-year — they can live up to three years, but most are eaten by predators within a year — so the relative success of annual reproduction drives their overall abundance. Likewise, the numbers of young croaker, weakfish and spot available to be eaten depend on year-to-year reproduction success.

When the issue moves beyond fish to the broader forage base, the level of complexity increases. Many bottom-dwelling species can be sensitive to extended periods of low oxygen, so a large seasonal “dead zone” can reduce overall abundance, and even eliminate species, from some areas. “If it is a bad hypoxia year, the benthic invertebrates cannot get up and swim away like the fishes,” Ihde said.

The loss of underwater grass beds, coastal marshes and oyster reefs have reduced the amount of habitat available for many forage species. The hardening of shorelines, development of land adjacent to the Bay and its tributaries, sea-level rise and climate change will likely cause continued habitat losses, the workshop report said.

At the same time, predator populations are constantly changing — and not just the fish.

Around the Bay, the populations of fish-eating birds such as eagles, osprey and blue herons are large — and growing. The Bay’s population of double-crested cormorants, which was almost nonexistent four decades ago, is nearly 5,000 today. That’s enough cormorants to consume 300 tons of fish annually, according to the workshop report.

Overall, the fish demand of birds around the Bay is largely unknown, Houde said. Birds, though, could be one of the first indicators of stress if there were a problem with the Bay’s forage base. Houde noted that research in other areas has shown that when forage fish populations decline by a third of unfished levels, the populations of fish-eating birds may drop precipitously.

Protecting forage fish

Other than menhaden, most of the forage species in the Bay are not actively managed fishery species. Menhaden have been increasingly regulated in recent years by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages migratory fish along the coast. The commission is working to establish new harvest goals in the next several years that recognize the role of menhaden as prey for predators.

The abundance of other forage can be influenced by a range of actions aimed at improving environmental conditions and protecting habitat, the workshop report said.

For instance, reducing nutrient pollution could reduce the size and duration of dead zones — Bay water quality standards were written to promote a greater diversity of benthic creatures as well as larger, longer-lived species.

Other actions can help protect habitat important for forage species, the report said, such as limiting the use of bulkheads and other hardened shorelines that degrade local habitats, and controlling development near the shore, which is increasingly linked to the lost or reduced production of benthic species.

Forage could also be protected by reducing some predator fish populations, such as snakeheads or blue catfish, but managers have little control over other predators, such as birds.

But the emerging information could offer other opportunities for management. The recognition that the little bay anchovy plays a relatively big role in the Bay food chain could promote efforts to better understand it, Houde said.

“The anchovy is so tiny that most people have discounted it as the target of a directed fishery,” he said, “but there have been proposals for bay anchovy fisheries in other areas along the Atlantic coast.”

Although he said such a proposal is unlikely for the Bay, fishery managers might want to consider policies to prohibit a future fishery in recognition of the bay anchovy’s importance to other species.

“Sometimes,” he said, “in the case of a forage fish, it is easier to develop and implement management policies before there is a fishery.”

The workshop report, “Assessing the Chesapeake Bay Forage Base: Existing Data and Research Priorities,” is found at the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee website,; click on “publications.”

The Bay Program’s management strategy for its forage fish outcome is found at

What’s on the menu for Bay’s predators

Drawing on information from the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee’s workshop report, the Management Strategy for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement’s Forage Fish outcome preliminarily identified these as the Bay’s key forage species and groups for a wide variety of predators:

Bay Anchovy
Mantis Shrimp
Young Spot
Young Weakfish
Sand Shrimp
Young Atlantic Croaker
Razor Clams
Atlantic Menhaden

These species were recognized as potentially important forage groups or species, but were not identified as the top contributors to the diets of predatory fish by information presented at the workshop:

American Shad
River Herring
Atlantic Rock Crab
Atlantic Silverside
Blackcheek Tonguefish
Blue Crab
Gizzard Shad
Lady Crab
Macoma Clams
Mud Crab
Small Bivalves

Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship

About Karl Blankenship
Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and Executive Director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991.

Read more about Chesapeake Bay at