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Disappearing bluefish lead to regulators' plan to limit catch

Fishing for bluefish at Wildwood State Park in

Fishing for bluefish at Wildwood State Park in Wading River on July 21. On Long Island, young bluefish, or snappers, are the mainstay of fishing derbies that bring children into the sport. Credit: Newsday / Mark Harrington

A precipitous drop in the abundance of bluefish in New York and East Coast waters has led interstate fisheries regulators to call for unprecedented cuts in allowable catch limits for the once-ubiquitous fish, starting next year.

At a meeting of the Department of Environmental Conservation in Setauket Thursday night, state regulators announced a planned 64% reduction in the commercial take of bluefish for 2020, to 287,667 pounds from this year’s quota of more than 800,000. The DEC, which regulates state waters, reported commercial fishermen this year landed 568,931 pounds.

Most bluefish are harvested recreationally by anglers in coves, bays and beaches, from Maine to Florida. On Long Island, bluefish are prized as a good fighting fish and young bluefish, or snappers, are the mainstay of fishing derbies that bring children into the sport.

A coastal stock assessment showed an all-time low in the recreational harvest 2018, to 13.47 million pounds coast wide, a steady drop from the approximately 50 million pounds reported in 2010 and a far cry from the all-time coastal high 151.46 million pounds reported in 1986.

While fisheries managers say overfishing is the likely cause of the declines, they acknowledged there’s much they don’t know about why bluefish, once prevalent year-round and famous for blitzes — the appearance of acres of bluefish feasting on baitfish such as bunker, with gulls and terns striking from above — visible from spring to fall, are so scarce.

“I wish I knew,” said John Maniscalco, bureau chief of marine fisheries for the DEC, at the meeting. “I can’t answer that question.”

Fishermen at the meeting noted that populations such as bluefish have seen similar cycles for decades, and may be following changing temperature patterns to more northern waters, or deeper offshore sites. 

“They’re temperature sensitive,” said East End fisherman Bob Hamilton. “The fish are moving farther north.”

Reductions in the allowable catch are coming to the recreational sector as well, but DEC has yet to publish recommendations. At present, anglers can take 10 bluefish of any size and another five fish over 12 inches.

Steve Witthuhn, a charterboat captain out of Montauk and a member of the DEC’s Marine Resources Advisory Committee, said one of the options being considered could lower the catch limit to three fish from 15.

Witthuhn said changes in the abundance of bluefish in local waters is stark.

“Those blitzes are over,” he said. “You’re getting no herds of fish. You’re getting little pockets. In Montauk we get bluefish two weeks and then they’re gone. We should get them all year-round.”

The commercial limit proposed by the DEC would cut the daily take to 5,000 pounds of fish per day from January to April, from a current 10,000 pounds, then lower it to 750 pounds a day through October, from a current 1,000 pounds daily. From November through the end of the year, it would increase again to 5,000 pounds.

Fishermen at the meeting raised few objections.

“Nobody’s happy when we do reductions, but it has to be done if you want to keep fishing,” Hamilton said.

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