A Common Sense Approach to Groundfish Management


Fishermen Mark Phillips wrote this letter to be read at the New England Fisheries Management Council special Working Group meeting on yellowtail flounder on May 29, 2012. The letter was presented to the council by Ritchie Canastra of New Bedford. Canastra said he presented it, “as an example of a common sense based approach” to looking at groundfish management. The intent of the presentation was to contrast this experience based, on the water historical and near real time analysis of a stock, with the abstract, dated and narrow data bases which management has used to make groundfish management decisions.

Phillips’ letter appears here in its entirety.

My name is Mark Phillips. I love catching yellowtails, and I think I am pretty good at it. I have been chasing them on Georges Bank and Southern New England since January, 1980. Here is a list of a few of the things I have learned about them:

1. They don’t move big distances in one day.

2 . Sometime in March or April they disappear off the bottom and then reappear two weeks to a month later. This happens both on Georges Bank and in Southern New England.

3. We don’t catch the big 2 lb. plus fish anymore-not because they are not there, but because we are no longer permitted to fish the area where they are found. Most of that bottom is in Closed Area 2, inside 30 fathom.

4. Yellowtails and fluke do not like each other, and it is not until recently that you see fluke with yellowtails. That is because the fluke stock is so large, a situation which could also be pushing the yellowtails east into Canada. The eastern fluke boundary used to be between Munson and Nygren Canyons. Now I am not sure exactly where the boundary is, but it appears to have moved much further east.

5. Up until this spring, yellowtails have been starving to death. This spring, they are better, but not great. This tells us that the environmental conditions will not support a larger population, but may be improving.

6. Yellowtails hate dogfish, and very rarely will you catch the two together.

7. Yellowtails like it when the bottom is dragged on. I think it stirs up the worms and junk that the yellowtails eat. They do not like skate wing bodies and monktail heads. You can drag and drag, over and over again, but when you put those dead racks on the bottom, the yellowtails move.

8. Yellowtails are very sensitive to the angle of the net, speed of the tow, and the spread of the net over the bottom. Angle is most important, but speed is second. The best speed for yellowtails is 2.6 knots. No other flatfish is as sensitive to spread as yellowtails. You can put two boats with the same gear together, side by side, and one will catch 200 lbs. and the other 2000 lbs., just by how the gear is set up.

Several things to think about concerning environmental issues with yellowtails:

1. The dogfish issue!! I have seen up to 5000 lbs. of rubber dogs (12 inch dogfish) in a 6 inch square bag. I have seen all of Georges Bank plagued with dogfish of all sizes for weeks at a time, and it seems to be getting worse year after year. They come out of the water column and settle everywhere.

2. There seems to be more small skates than there used to be.

3. Historically, when scalloping was poor, groundfishing was better, and vice versa . My thought is this: Is there a correlation between the food scallops eat and the food of the organisms that yellowtails eat, i.e. one or two steps removed from the yellowtail prey itself?

As far as fishing effort is concerned, the Canadians never caught yellowtails on Georges Bank until they knew there was going to be a shared/transboundary resource. Prior to yellowtails being a shared resource, you never saw a Canadian boat catching yellowtails. When the Hague Line went in, you only saw Canadian scallopers in the area that was closed to US fishermen. Therefore, I have no idea how the Canadians obtained any transboundary yellowtail quota for Georges Bank, because they had no landings history, unless it came from Browns Bank.