The 2006 Derby: Where were all the fish?
Although fishing during the 2006 Derby was a bit slower than previous years, participation continued to flourish as 3,067 anglers registered for the month-long event. This was largely on par with last year, exceeding 2005 by 17 participants. For the fourth consecutive year, the Derby broke the 3,000 angler mark. Imagine if the fishing was better! The following synopsis and accompanying figure show how Derby participants fared in 2006 relative to the previous 19 years.
Bluefish: From 1990 to 1996, bluefish landings declined from a 20-year high of 1,700 fish to a low of 665 fish. Since then, bluefish have rebounded to numbers comparable to those weighed in the late 1980s. After a 12 percent decline in 2004 and 2005, landings of Derby bluefish were marginally better in 2006 than in 2005. The number of bluefish weighed in 2006 actually increased 2 percent to 1,364 fish. Shore fisherman accounted for only 24 percent of the bluefish catch. This is down from last year (29 percent) but slightly higher than the proportion of shore fish landed during 2000-2004 (18-23 percent). Although fly fishermen weighed only 28 bluefish and 3 percent of the landings, this is only slightly lower than their 20-year average of 5 percent. "Lots of small fish" was the mantra of many Derby fishermen, but this did not pan out in the statistics. The average weight of bluefish landed in 2006 (7.6 pounds.) actually exceeded last year (7.2 pounds), but remained well below the 20-year average of 9.0 pounds.
Atlantic Bonito: From 1987 to 2006, bonito landings have fluctuated between 110-696 fish each year. Since 1995, bonito landings have been depressed, largely due to a conspicuous absence of shore fish. Although bonito landings increased 7 percent in 2005 relative to 2004, 97 percent were landed by boat fishermen. In 2006, bonito were scarce all around and the landing of only 142 fish represents a 60 percent decline relative to 2005 (347 fish) and the third lowest during the 20-year period. Again, boat fishermen accounted for the bulk of the catch (93 percent) as shore anglers weighed in only 10 bonito. The only bright side to bonito fishing in 2006 was that the few fish landed were, on average, larger than previous years. The average weight of bonito landed in 2006 (6.6 pounds) not only exceeded the average for the previous nine years (6.0 pounds), but also the 20-year average of 6.5 pounds. It is difficult to explain the current 12-year depression in Derby bonito catches. This trend and the lack of shore-caught fish indicate that large numbers of bonito have not moved into nearshore waters in recent years. This may be driven by the lack of bait in these areas, but without a stock assessment of this species, we cannot rule out a potential decline in the population as well.
False Albacore: First, a quick recount of the history of the false albacore in the Derby. Recall that daily prizes have not been awarded for this species since 1995 and the minimum length of 25 inches was established in 1998 to reduce landings. This worked effectively until landings increased to 601 fish in 2004. In 2005, the Derby Committee responded with a three-fish bag limit coupled with the minimum size, which reduced false albacore landings 44 percent, to 334 fish. Despite the bag limit and minimum size, good albie fishing was enjoyed by both boat and shore fishermen in 2005, who caught 60 percent and 40 percent of the landings, respectively. This was not the case in 2006. Like bonito, false albacore were not consistently available during the 2006 Derby and this is reflected in the landing of only 107 fish, which represents a 68 percent decline and the lowest catch since 1993. Unlike bonito, however, the few pockets of false albacore around were available to both shore and boat fishermen who accounted for equal shares of the fish weighed. Those false albacore weighed in 2006 were, on average, larger than in previous years. The average weight of 9.3 pounds is larger than the 20-year average of 8.6 pounds and exceeds all other years since 1989. Years with very low albacore landings (1988, 1989, 1993, 2006) seem to comprise large fish and may be indicative of few young fish in the fishery. Unfortunately, the lack of a false albacore stock assessment makes it difficult to examine fluctuations in regional abundance.
Striped Bass: From 1985 until 1992, the striped bass was eliminated from the Derby prize structure for conservation purposes. In 1993, the species was slowly re-introduced with limited prizes until 1995 when it became a fully eligible species with a minimum size of 38 inches. With the decrease of the legal minimum size in 1997, the Derby Committee dropped the minimum bass size to 32 inches. I remind you of this history because when looking at the attached figure you need to ignore the first four years (1993-1996) when comparing landings from year to year. After a 26 percent decline from 1997 (771 fish) to 2001 (570 fish), striped bass landings rebounded 30 percent in 2003 (813 fish) and 2004 (800 fish). In 2005, striped bass landings declined 13 percent to 696 fish, but this may have been due to poor weather conditions during the final week. The number of striped bass weighed by Derby fishermen was slightly lower in 2006, at 689 fish, but we didn't have the poor weather to blame. Although the split between boat and shore fish was about average (63 and 37 percent, respectively), angler complaints about small fish were well founded as the average weight of striped bass declined from 21.5 pounds in 2005 to 19.6 in 2006. This is further evidenced by a decline in the range of striped bass weights in 2006. Last year, striped bass weights ranged from 9-49 pounds, but striped bass only spanned 9-44 pounds this year. Regional differences in the availability of striped bass may be associated with environmental conditions, like water temperature, changes in prey, or changes in the striped bass population size and structure. The results of the most recent striped bass stock assessment indicate that stock abundance is very high. Hence, the relative decline in striped bass weighed during the Derby in recent years is likely related to other factors.
Gregory Skomal is a Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries marine biologist and long-time member of the Derby committee.