Fishery managers weigh options as blueline tilefish boom in mid-Atlantic
An angler in Lewes set a new state record with a blueline tilefish caught earlier this month -- even as regulators scramble to get control of the region's booming tilefish harvest.
The record-setting fish was caught 65 miles off Delaware's coast in Baltimore Canyon. It tipped the scales at 19.7 pounds -- and it's not the only one that local anglers have hauled in recently. Once most common in the Southern Atlantic, bluelinetilefish have begun to make a splash further north.
Stewart Michels is a marine fisheries program manager with Delaware's Division of Fish & Wildlife. He says the species is a whitefish sold domestically.
"It's a sedentary fish for the most part -- bottom-dwelling, slow-growing, so that makes it susceptible to over-harvest," he says. "We don't have a lot of data for the species; it's a data-poor species, and particularly north of North Carolina, there's not a lot of data available."
That kind of data helps fishery managers set catch limits. But in the past, blueline tilefish were caught so infrequently in the mid-Atlantic that the harvest wasn't controlled by regulators at all.
"But here in the last few years, landings have spiked dramatically," Michels says.
North of North Carolina, catch rates jumped from an average of 11,000 pounds of fish a year, to 217,000 pounds in 2013, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
There's two reasons it might have happened. One is a drastic cut in catch limits down South, prompting fishermen to land more tilefish in the unregulated mid-Atlantic. The fish might also be spreading north as the ocean gets warmer, says NOAA Fisheries policy analyst Tobey Curtis. And either way, he says:
"We consider it a true sort of fishery emergency, where the fish are being harvested very heavily without any controls whatsoever," Curtis says. "So in order to protect the stock and reduce the risk of overfishing the stock, we had to implement these emergency regulations and sort of pump the brakes on the fishery landings."
That meant putting a 300-pound commercial limit on blueline tilefish in the mid-Atlantic in early June, as well as a seven-fish limit for recreational anglers. Fishermen also need a permit to land the more abundant golden tilefish before they can catch bluelines.
Stewart Michels says the commercial boom has been centered in New Jersey. But he says the new limits did prompt a rare stir among sport fishermen in Delaware.
"The comments were: 'Look, something needs to be done about blueline tilefish, because we've got boats coming in, and each guy on that boat's got 10 tilefish apiece, and it's out of control,'" he says. "And other guys are saying, 'There is absolutely nothing wrong with blueline tilefish resource, and you guys need to leave it alone.'"
Regulators will be weighing comments like those as they try to decide if blueline tilefish are here to stay in the mid-Atlantic -- and what the catch limits should be long-term.
NOAA and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council are each taking public comment on blueline tilefish management plans through July 6. DNREC is accepting comments on a state-specific management plan through July 9.