The Future of Fisheries in the Hudson

It is difficult enough to forecast catches from one year to the next for a single species, and virtually impossible to predict the future of Hudson River multispecies fisheries over the long term with any sort of accuracy. Nevertheless, we can comment on some trends.

Commercial fishing is in long-term decline, in the Hudson and many other east coast estuaries. If the status quo were to remain, the future would not look optimistic. However, the restoration of striped bass through a concerted, interstate management program demonstrates that overexploited species can be brought back, and restoration programs are under way for American shad, river herring, and sturgeon in many of the same systems. Fishery management programs in the Hudson use a combination of regulatory instruments (closures, seasons, and limits on minimum size, numbers caught, etc.), focusing on regeneration of a natural stock rather than through hatchery supplementation, although these last are ongoing in a number of east coast states. Further, a number of interagency programs are working to remove toxicants from the river and reduce the inputs. Beside the EPA's PCB removal project in the upper Hudson, programs such as the Contaminant Assessment and Remediation Project, part of the NewYork-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program, are identifying the fate and transport of contaminants in order to remove them. Although serious problems still exist in the Harbor region, improvements have been noted (Steinberg etal., 2001).

Whereas commercial fisheries have diminished in the River, recreational fishing has increased to unprecedented levels. The restoration of striped bass stimulated a wave of angling interest, and sport fishers throng the Hudson during the stripers' spawning season. The projected toxicant cleanups will benefit all users of the resources, including users of stripedbass. However, the conflictbetween sport and commercial resource users of striped bass may widen, unless both can come to an understanding on how management allows sharing of this common resource, as it occurs in marine waters along the entire mid-Atlantic coast. Recreational angling contributes to local economies, but so do commercial fisheries to a lesser, and some think, unimportant degree. But there are noneco-nomic impacts of cultural value in preserving the heritage of commercial fisheries, as well as in promoting stewardship of the resource by all users.

Overlain on the patterns of human alteration of fish stocks and their habitats is the prospect of fundamental climate change, resulting in a warmer Hudson River. Already we may be seeing evidence of this. Rainbow smelt and Atlantic tomcod, both northern boreal species at the southern extent of their range in the Hudson, are disappearing. Smelt have not appeared in utilities' or state fisheries' surveys since the mid 1990s, and tomcod have declined dramatically and appear to be cycling between moderately and very low abundances (DEIS, 1999). On the other hand, gizzard shad, a species known from the Mississippi and southeastern drainages, appears to be increasing dramatically in the Hudson, and is also appearing in estuaries as far north as Maine. Gizzard shad has the potential to become a strong ecological actor in the Hudson fish community, because it can compete for zooplankton effectively, rapidly outgrow its "window of vulnerability" to predation, and can then subsist on detritus and thus not be food limited. How these and other changes in the dynamic fish community will affect fisheries is a research question, but clearly they will have an impact.

The long-term patterns seen in fisheries statistics, and especially the more intensive monitoring studies of the past twenty to thirty years, have taught us much about the dynamics of Hudson River fish stocks, what is possible to know (e.g., spawning stock characteristics such as age and size distributions) and what may never be possible to know precisely (e.g., absolute stock abundances). In many respects, we now have the tools available for sustainable fisheries management. The critical element needed to carry through is strong public and political commitment of resources for continued adaptive assessment and management.

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