May 1, 2008

Commercial fishermen question king mackerel data


Kelly Schoolcraft sees big holes in the database that scientists are using to assess the health of South Atlantic king mackerel.

“I’ve never had a scientist measure the mackerel I’ve caught, and I’ve never seen scientists sampling mackerel at the fish house,” the commercial fisherman said.

Schoolcraft, a resident of Frisco, has fished for king mackerel since 1983.  He runs his boat, the Country Time, out of Hatteras and steams as far as Wrightsville Beach in search of kings.

Schoolcraft and other Dare County fishermen question whether scientists will be able to accurately determine the status of the stock without biological information about fish caught off North Carolina by commercial fishermen.  

In 2006, North Carolina commercial fishermen landed more than 1 million pounds of mackerel.

“North Carolina is a pretty big producer when it comes to king mackerel, and Dare County is a big player in the fishery.  I’d think it important to measure and sample fish caught here,” Schoolcraft said.

Stock assessments are based, in part, on information collected by port agents who measure the size of mackerel and take biological samples.  The samples are sent to a fisheries science laboratory where scientists calculate the age of fish by counting the growth rings in ear bones, and then correlate age to length sizes.

Scientists like to see a good spread of fish of all age groups in the population.

The updated assessment will incorporate data collected after 2003 when the last assessment was done.

But, little new data on king mackerel landed by commercial fishermen in North Carolina – and likely none on mackerel landed in Dare County – has been collected.

Schoolcraft pointed out that the samples from fish caught by commercial fishing gear and sent to National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) Panama City Laboratory for age analysis came almost exclusively from Florida.

Since 2003, the Panama City Laboratory has aged four fish taken by commercial hand-line gear off North Carolina, 1,946 fish from Florida, and none from South Carolina or Georgia.

No fish taken by gill nets have been aged since 2002.

John Carmichael with the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council said scientists were aware of the shortage of data from the Outer Banks gill net fishery.

“That’s a small part of the total fishery, though, so it might not be a large bias,” he said.

The Panama City Laboratory has aged 1,005 fish taken from recreational fishing tournaments in North Carolina since 2003, but commercial fishermen said those fish are not representative of their catches.

“Most often tournament fish are large female spawners, not smaller fish, so a bunch of age-groups could be missing from the data,” said Schoolcraft.

Carmichael said the database probably includes enough information on the length of fish taken by hand-lines in North Carolina.

But even in the Morehead City area, length sizes of mackerel caught by commercial fishermen haven’t been routinely collected by a federal port agent since about 2001.

And commercial fishermen here point to the snowy grouper fishery as one example of significant regional differences.

In 2005, scientists said that 50 percent of the snowy grouper landed in the South Atlantic weighed fewer than five pounds.

Hatteras fishermen at one fish house tallied up their landings information and found that only three percent weighed fewer than five pounds.

But their catches were never measured or sampled by port agents.

In February, 2006, Bill Hogarth, director of NMFS at the time, promised fishermen that the federal agency would authorize two additional port agents for North Carolina.

But two years later, Hatteras fishermen say they have yet to see a federal port agent at the fish houses.

The next step in the development of the king mackerel stock assessment takes place May 5 – 9 in Miami, Fla., when the SouthEast Data, Assessment, and Review group meets. 


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