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As has been the topic of many of my blog posts, this one is again about fishing for shortnose sturgeon. Unlike other posts however this one isn't about gearing up for the coming Spring season, how to fish them or to show some pictures of anglers making memories. Instead it is to provide local anglers with an information update regarding changes that are likely to take place with our fishery in the near future.
There was a public meeting today in our local area hosted by Mr. Greg Stevens, Senior Advisor for Recreational Fisheries for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. As I understand it, Mr. Stevens is a key decision maker for many of the Federal recreational fishing rules and regulations under which our recreational sturgeon fishery in tidal waters lies. Officers and officials from both our local DNR and DFO agencies were also present as were several recreational anglers like myself.
The discussion itself was very active with participation from most in the room and centered around our sturgeon fishery which has grown in popularity in recent years. While everyone was in agreement with the end goal of protecting the population, not everything that was presented was done so clearly and not everyone was in agreement with every point. As such, some of the changes that are being considered may not be well received by everyone. If you are one of those anglers who does enjoy fishing sturgeon here on the Kennebecasis River, then you will certainly want to pay attention.
Shortnose sturgeon has been classified under the Federal Species at Risk Act a a species of "Special Concern". What this means is that our population is only one step away from being classified as threatened, and if that were to happen there would be no more recreational fishery. Obviously that would be the worst possible scenario to which everyone is in agreement. Essentially anything that can be done to protect the species, while yet continue to allow the fishery to exist has to be considered. The Federal officials did make clear they have no intention of closing this fishery and that they do wish to see people continue to enjoy it for which I am grateful.
The discussion which took place dealt with several facets of recreational fishing including reducing the number of foul hooked fish, eliminating the retention of shortnose sturgeon and ways to improve data collection. Unfortunately the evaluation of the effect of legal recreational fishing as it exists today compared to the effect of other factors such as illegal poaching was not discussed to the level I feel it deserved. It may be the cynic in me but perhaps this is because combating poaching is both difficult and expensive while tightening restrictions on law abiding anglers is relatively easy.
Out of this discussion there appears to be three main changes being considered.
There is a strong likelihood that we will see a new restriction brought in, at least during the peak sturgeon fishing seasons (Spring and Fall) on the main stretch of the Kennebecasis where sturgeon fishing is most popular. Exact details on what may be decided on time and location I cannot speak to. Currently the regulations are the same as tidal fishing regulations in most areas, which are up to 5 hooks per rod, and up to 6 rods per person. The new restriction would be to limit fishing to a single hook per rod, the 6 rods per person remaining.
The reason behind this is that for each additional hook that is on a rod, the chances of a foul hook increase significantly, at least according to anecdotal evidence and to which I agree. I can't argue with the fact that there are a lot of foul hooks taking place, especially with a 3 hook rig as I tend to use. It sounds ugly and unsportsmanlike and anyone who has foul hooked a trout or salmon would attest to the mortal damage being caused to the fish. But will this change actually make any different to the mortality rate of sturgeon? Comparing trout to sturgeon would be like comparing kayaks to cars, and I don't see us adding seatbelts to kayaks anytime soon.
Unlike trout, salmon, bass and other species, a sturgeon has a very tough skin, and the body is covered with 5 rows of bony plates called scutes which I would deem impossible for an angler to pierce with a hook while fishing. When you foul hook a sturgeon, it is like putting the tip of the hook into a piece of pine wood. While you can move the block of wood around with the hook, you almost never see the hook penetrate near to the barb and will often fall out in it's own when there is any slack or if lifted straight up. The damage that happens to the fish is often times non-existent, even less damage I would contend than a hook fully penetrating the mouth. Of the hundreds of sturgeon I have landed, only one has ever bled profusely, and that a few years back from a hook swallowed deep. Since then I use slightly larger hooks to try to prevent such an injury from re-occurring.
All this being said, switching to a single baited hook (single shank, treble hooks still permitted not that anyone would ever fish sturgeon with a treble hook) should not affect the catch rate of sturgeon which are not foul hooked significantly. There are a lot of anglers on the river who only ever use a single hook and they often enjoy great success. So while I do not feel this regulation will have any measurable impact on the population as a whole, I am not particularly opposed to it.
Retention Size - Catch and Release Only
During the discussion with the group, the topic of the 120 cm minimum retention was raised by Mr. Stevens in that he seemed to imply the length was intended to be fork length and not tail length as everyone has been accustomed to. It was expressed that the current regulation may be changed to either state retention size would be 120 fork length, or the 120 cm tail length would be increased. Either would essentially eliminate all legal retention of shortnose sturgeon. This is a position I am very disappointed in.
I asked Mr. Stevens directly after the discussion, if the intent is to eliminate all retention of the fish, why not make a no retention rule? The answer was because that would be more difficult to do legally as a change in federal law required to remove the bag limit. Changing the minimum size limitation on the other hand is something they can do very easily and is in essence a backhanded way of making the entire fishery catch and release.
Now I catch over 100 sturgeon a year, and I have several friends who catch as many or more, and the number of sturgeon we catch which are legal to keep is roughly around 2%. I only witnessed two or three fish that large in total this past year. Of those I have witnessed that were 120 cm or more, the vast majority are returned to the water (including my one 50"er last Spring). I generally do like to keep one a year as a treat for my family, though I didn't retain any in 2016. Going forward it looks like no one may be able to retain a sturgeon again.
Now I ask, what effect with this have on the population? Currently, with only the very oldest sturgeon available to be retained (those with just a few years left in their lifespan), can the impact of recreation fishing really be significant? Personally I feel recreational anglers legally retaining the rare 120 cm fish is not having a measureable effect and that preventing even the possibility of catching a fish that is legal to retain will have a detrimental effect on the participation rates for the fishery. Look what happened the the salmon fishery participation rates in NB when it became catch and release only as an example.
Marine Recreational Fishing License
Finally the third significant change being considered, not for 2017 but perhaps soon thereafter is the introduction of a new Marine Recreational Fishing License. The goal here, as stated by Mr. Stevens, is not to be a money grab, he did want to make that clear, it would be in the $10 range. Rather, it would bring with it a possible mandatory reporting system for species not currently covered by provincial laws, for example sturgeon, stripers and mackerel.
The goal here would be to have a system where recreational anglers for species like this in tidal waters would report their catches and with that information the Federal department would be better able to assess shifts and changes in the population.
I am a science guy (degree in Computer Science, minors in Math and Physics) so I firmly believe that gathering more information is always a positive thing. That is, of course, as long as the information is judged through sound scientific means and not political or other bias. Statistics after all can be easily skewed are commonly used to re-enforce some of the biggest untruths we are told by political figures.
Would a new license and mandatory reporting scheme for fisheries like the striper and sturgeon fisheries on the Kennebecasis work? Would it be effective for say recreational mackerel fishing? Or would there be more effective ways for this information to be gathered?
So, there you have it, the three big changes that may be coming to our fishery. What do you think? I feel that targeting the recreational angler with new regulations and restrictions simply because the fishery has become more popular is a poor direction to take. If protecting the species is really the ultimate goal then the focus should be on main threats, of which I would consider poaching and illegal fishing to be more significant.
Note, by the Federal Governments own 2016 report, that the threat level posed to shortnose sturgeon by directed recreational fishing has been deemed as 'Medium' but with a 'Low' level of certainty. "Low: there is a plausible link with limited evidence that the threat has stressed the population." In comparison the threat to the population posed by illegal fishing in this same report has been deemed Low, meaning the Federal Government believes that recreational anglers are a greater threat to the species than poachers. I personally find this absurd, but that is only based on my own experience and observations. If more people reported poaching of sturgeon, perhaps it would become a greater concern to the Federal decision makers and more action would be taken there.
So what can you do if you feel strongly, one way or another about this subject? Well I know from the discussions today that my blog here is closely followed by the major stakeholders. Feel free to leave your comments below. Keep comments polite, refrain from insults and profanity or I will remove your comment. I welcome differing opinion to mine, but keep it above the belt. Do not feel compelled to leave your name, though I suspect having your name behind your comments may help it carry more weight with those who may be watching. If you do wish to contact Mr. Stevens directly, please e-mail me and I will try to assist.