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Increase on American Black Duck Bag Limit

Hunting Regulations Icon New Jersey Hunting

By Ted Nichols, Wildlife Biologist

A New Jersey hunter shivers in his Barnegat Bay sneak box as a raw nor’easterly wind rips around the edge of his boat’s spray curtain and down the back of his neck. A lone duck in the distance, nothing but a silhouette against the slate gray December clouds, turns and cups its wings toward his decoys. His Labrador retriever—ice balls forming on her neck and chest fur, eyes fixed on the approaching duck—whines and trembles with anticipation. When the duck is 40 yards distant, the hunter sits up, mounts his gun, pushes the shotgun bead through the bird and is met with the metallic click of a firing pin falling on an empty chamber. Remembering that he had forgotten to reload his gun’s chamber when he set it down to retrieve hot coffee just minutes before, the hunter makes a great recovery by racking the action then making a spot-on shot. Hearing her name, the Lab leaps into the tidal water to retrieve their prize—an American black duck.

New Jersey has always been a key migration and wintering area for American black ducks in the Atlantic Flyway. In fact, over one-third of the black ducks in the U.S. portion of the Atlantic Flyway winter in New Jersey. Second only to mallards, black ducks comprise 17 percent of the annual duck harvest for Garden State hunters and are often referred to as the “bread and butter” duck of the salt marsh hunter.

For the first time since 1982, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will allow states to give their waterfowl hunters the opportunity to harvest two black ducks per day during the 2017-18 season as part of their daily bag limit of six total ducks. Three key elements have led to this change.

First, the number of duck hunters in both eastern Canada and the eastern U.S. has declined since the 1980s. So too has the harvest of black ducks, dropping by more than one-third since the late 1990s (Figure 1). However, during the same period, the black duck population has remained stable.

Second, waterfowl biologists have much better biological information on black ducks than they had during the first 20 years of restrictive black duck bag limits. During the early 1990s, breeding population surveys for black ducks were developed in eastern Canada and the U.S. and have been conducted annually since that time. This time series is long enough to provide reliable information on the trend and year-to-year fluctuations of the population (Figure 2). This survey indicates that the population is currently stable. In addition, an ongoing black duck banding program, coupled with band reporting from hunters, has provided annual estimates of harvest and survival rates. This information has enabled managers to evaluate how harvest affects black duck population dynamics.

Finally, this improved biological data described above has enabled biologists to construct a black duck population model that forms the basis for an International Black Duck Harvest Strategy. The Harvest Strategy, adopted in 2012, prescribes annual black duck hunting regulations in the U.S. and Canada. The three objectives of the Harvest Strategy are:

  1. Maintain a sustainable black duck population;
  2. Maintain a robust black duck hunting tradition;
  3. Maintain the historical and equal proportion of the black duck harvest between Canada and the United States.

These developments have allowed biologists to gain better insight into one of the most debated questions in waterfowl management over the past half century: “What effect does hunting have on the population?” If survival rates of banded ducks are lower during years when harvest rates are high—and conversely, increase when harvest rates decline—then this would suggest that harvest has a significant effect on duck survival and perhaps population size. On the other hand, if there is little relationship between harvest rates and survival rates, this suggests that harvest has a limited effect on population size. The most recent results from the black duck population model indicate that at the current levels of hunting, harvest is not affecting annual black duck survival at the population scale. Accordingly, the Harvest Strategy allows for a more liberal black duck hunting regulations in 2017.

If liberalization of hunting regulations causes black duck survival to decrease and the population to decline, those signals will be detected through the annual monitoring programs and the appropriate regulation changes can be made to ensure that black duck harvest is sustainable over the long term.