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Status and Harvest Management of Sea Ducks in NJ

 

by Ted Nichols, Principal Biologist
Waterfowl Ecology and Management Program
August 5, 2016

Sea ducks include long-tailed ducks, scoters (black, surf, and white-winged) and eiders, and in New Jersey are primarily found in the ocean and back bays during fall and winter. Most sea ducks breed in the boreal forest or tundra regions of Canada and Alaska. Sea ducks provide both great birding and hunting opportunities.

Federal harvest survey data suggest that New Jersey hunters annually harvest about 1,800 scoters, 1,500 long-tailed ducks, and 50 eiders. Sea ducks comprise about 4% of New Jersey's total duck harvest. Observations by biologists, avid sea duck hunters, and bird-watchers, suggest that the peak of the scoter migration occurs about October 31 while the long-tailed duck migration is less pronounced with most birds arriving in December. Eiders, a very small part of the state's sea duck harvest, usually arrive in December or even January. Harvest survey data indicates that about half of New Jersey's scoter harvest occurs in the ocean during October and November, prior to when the "regular" Coastal Zone duck season is open.

Since the 1960s, sea ducks were largely considered under-harvested resulting in bonus bag limits and/or the maximum season length (107 days) allowed under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. However, the population dynamics of sea ducks are not well understood relative to other North American waterfowl. Further, due to their widespread distribution both during the breeding and wintering seasons, sea duck populations are difficult to monitor compared to other waterfowl species.

Sea ducks have low reproductive rates because of small clutch sizes and delayed sexual maturation since many do not breed until they are 2-4 years old. Over the past decade, this has led North American biologists to become increasingly concerned about the status and harvest pressure on sea ducks. These factors, along with technological advances in boats and hunting efficiency, caused Atlantic Flyway biologists to examine the sustainability of contemporary sea duck harvest.

During 2015-16, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) completed an extensive analysis in a report entitled, Implications of Demographic Uncertainty for Harvest Management of North American Sea Ducks: Guidance for Prioritizing Sea Duck Joint Venture Research and Monitoring Investments (pdf, Sea Duck Joint Venture). This report suggests that the current harvest levels on sea ducks may not be sustainable over the long term. As a result, the Atlantic Flyway Council and Service agreed that a 25% harvest reduction was warranted for sea ducks in the Atlantic Flyway beginning in 2016 in special sea duck areas. The harvest reduction will include a season length reduction to 60 days and a bag limit reduction to 5 birds. Sea duck harvest opportunity remains relatively unchanged in "regular" duck zones, such as the Coastal Zone, where sea ducks count as part of the 6-duck daily bag limit.

In light of the upcoming shorter season in the special sea duck area, the Division of Fish and Wildlife and Fish and Game Council took two actions during 2016. First, the definition of the Special Sea Duck Area was changed to the Atlantic Ocean in order to simplify sea duck regulations in New Jersey. This change will allow more season date setting flexibility because the ocean (Special Sea Duck Area) is more clearly separate from the "regular duck" Coastal Zone. Further, the "bay waters 1 mile from shore" clause used from 1987-2015 was confusing and seldom used by duck hunters. At inlets and bay (e.g. Raritan and Delaware Bays) mouths, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) Demarcation Lines shown on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Nautical Charts and further described in 33 CFR Part 80 will be used as the boundary between the Special Sea Duck Area and Coastal Zone waters. (See Migratory Bird Hunting Zones for area information.)

Second, during the winter of 2016, the Division conducted a hunter survey whose objective was to determine dates when New Jersey hunters would prefer to hold hunting seasons for sea ducks in the Atlantic Ocean. A survey link was e-mailed to nearly 1,000 hunters who indicated in Harvest Information Program (HIP) screening questions that they hunted sea ducks in New Jersey during 2013 or 2014.

Surf scoter
Black scoter
Long-tailed duck
Sea ducks, top to bottom: Surf scoter, black scoter and long-tailed duck.
Click on each for larger image.

Hunters were asked if they pursued sea ducks in the ocean (affected by the regulation change) or simply hunted sea ducks along with "regular" ducks in the Coastal Zone. Hunters were given 4 choices for season date selections and 18% of hunters responded during the survey. Roughly half (54%) of hunters took at least one trip into the ocean to hunt sea ducks annually while the remainder (46%) only hunted sea ducks in the "regular" Coastal Zone. A strong majority (47%) of those who pursued sea ducks in the ocean selected a season date coinciding with early November to mid-January (see table).

Special Sea Duck Hunting Area Season Date Preference Survey Results
Preference All Hunters Ocean Hunters
Oct. 22 - Dec. 30 16% 22%
Nov. 5 - Jan. 13 35% 47%
Same as Coastal Zone ducks 25% 23%
No preference 25% 9%
Hunters in boat with scoter decoys

As a result of the survey, the Fish and Game Council selected the Nov. 5 - Jan. 13 season dates for the 2016-17 sea duck season.

Season length restrictions to 60 days in the Atlantic Flyway will likely remain in effect for several years to evaluate if the targeted 25% harvest reduction is achieved. Further information and research on sea ducks can be found at the Sea Duck Joint Venture website, http://seaduckjv.org.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

2016-2017 Migratory Bird Seasons Summary (pdf, 20kb)
2016-17 Hunting and Trapping Digest
Harvest Information Program (HIP) Certification Information
Waterfowl and Migratory Birds in New Jersey

Black scoters in flight

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Last Updated: August 5, 2016