Project contact: Gregory Skomal, John Chisholm

The close proximity of Massachusetts to the cooler boreal waters in the Gulf of Maine and the warmer temperate waters south of Cape Cod attracts the seasonal feeding aggregations of a variety of big game species. Extensive offshore fisheries for tunas, sharks, and marlin occur off our coast from June through October each year. Recreational anglers in private and chartered vessels travel miles offshore to catch bluefin, yellowfin, albacore, and bigeye tunas, blue, mako, and thresher sharks, and blue and white marlin. The highly migratory nature, large size, and long life span of these species render data acquisition and biological studies expensive and difficult to execute.

Since 1987, Marine Fisheries biologists have harnessed the efforts of tournament fishermen to learn about the species and size composition, basic biology, and relative abundance of big game fishes off our coast. Offshore fishing tournaments not only provide catch data and biological samples but estimates of effort, which are often lacking for offshore recreational fisheries. Although the number of tournaments held in Massachusetts fluctuates from year to year, there are generally eight to eleven, with most located on the Cape and Islands. While some target a single species or kind of fish, like sharks or giant bluefin tuna, most tournaments offer prizes for a variety of species. All the events self-impose minimum sizes and bag limits while promoting tag and release, so points can be garnered by not only weighing fish but by also releasing them.

Although tournament data are traditionally used by the federal government to monitor landings in offshore recreational fisheries, the Massachusetts Tournament Program is unique. The Marine Fisheries program makes every effort to collect total catch information, which includes not only fish that are landed but also those that are tagged, released, or lost. By working closely with tournament sponsors and tournament participants, Marine Fisheries biologists not only assist in the development of the event but also facilitate complete data collection. This is particularly important when indices of abundance are used to monitor annual changes in fishing success.

The fishing effort collected at each tournament can be used to calculate estimates of relative abundance for each species. In fisheries science, this is typically expressed as catch per unit effort or CPUE, i.e. the number of fish caught for each hour fished. Annual estimates of CPUE can be calculated to show trends in fishing success. Dramatic fluctuations in CPUE may be indicative of changes in regional fish abundance caused by corresponding changes in prey availability, fish population size, or the environment. Program personnel analyze long-term trends in CPUE and summarize these findings in an annual program report.

The Massachusetts Sportfishing Tournament Monitoring Program also collects catch data at the month-long Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. These data allow for the delineation of trends in the inshore abundance of striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, and Atlantic bonito. The comprehensive catch and effort data collected by the Tournament Program are forwarded annually to the National Marine Fisheries Service for inclusion in their national statistics. Well-founded fisheries management decisions must be based on a thorough understanding of the fisheries themselves. The Massachusetts Sportfishing Tournament Monitoring Program provides valuable information about our fisheries that contributes to such a foundation. Tournament organizers and those interested in additional information about the program should contact our Martha's Vineyard Office.