A renewed effort to restrict striped bass to game fish status in Massachusetts is dividing recreational and commercial fishermen.
Legislation was filed on Beacon Hill last month that would ban the commercial sale of wild striped bass in the commonwealth and also place stricter limits on the recreational fishery.
A meeting of mostly commercial fishermen on the Vineyard on Wednesday night saw criticism of the legislation. More than a dozen commercial fishermen gathered at the Dukes County administration building near the airport; the purpose of the meeting was to discuss organizing a group to advocate for local fishermen. But the subject of the striper legislation was not far from hand.
Filed by Rep. Matt Patrick, a Democrat from Falmouth, the legislation is in early form as a bill and has not been assigned a number or a committee.
But it comes at a time of growing concern about the health of the bass fishery; striper landings are significantly down in the waters around the Vineyard and Cape Cod and beyond. Recent science indicates fish spawned and growing in the Chesapeake Bay are suffering from stress related disease.
Mr. Patrick calls the bill a conservation measure. “People get emotional about striped bass. I want to do the right thing. I am concerned about the fishery,” he said when reached by telephone this week.
In addition to prohibiting the sale of wild striped bass, the Patrick bill also would reduce the recreational limit from two fish a day to one, and would only allow fish to be kept that measure between 20 and 26 inches or more than 40 inches. Female bass between 26 and 40 inches are considered important as breeders.
Cape and Islands state Rep. Tim Madden said this week that he is not supporting the bill. “Not at this point,” Mr. Madden said.
Most charter and commercial fishermen, who earn part of their living selling striped bass, oppose the bill.
“That bill should be squashed,” declared Buddy Vanderhoop, a commercial and charter fisherman from Aquinnah, at the meeting Wednesday night.
“Recreational fishermen are already taking 80 per cent of the fish. If they feel that is not sufficient all they have to do is cut their own fishing effort from two fish to one fish per day. On a daily basis I see fishing boats from Rhode Island coming into our waters and catching our striped bass. They are taking money out of our pockets. It is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” he added.
Representative Patrick, a recreational saltwater flyfisherman, has another view. “When I first moved here in 1980 with my wife, it was rare, almost unheard of, to catch a striped bass. Then around 1988 and 1989, they made a comeback and it was wonderful to go fishing. I had never experienced that kind of fishing. In those days I could catch and release so many fish my arm hurt,” he said, continuing:
“Last summer it was very slow. I have noticed a decline in the fishery. I’ve talked to other people and there is evidence all along the East Coast.”
There are few clear sight lines in the issue. Environmental pressures on the species, both organic and inorganic, have begun to emerge. A wasting disease has been identified in striped bass in Mid-Atlantic waters, and there is concern about a dwindling supply of bait fish, such as menhaden, in the ocean. And then there is the bycatch problem: huge mid-water trawlers are reported to be taking large numbers of striped bass in their nets, and then discarding them.
But what the fishermen on the Cape and Islands know is this: there aren’t so many bass around these days.
Cooper A. Gilkes, a respected fisherman who runs a tackle shop in Edgartown and also attended the Wednesday night meeting of fishermen, supports the new legislation.
“They’ve done their homework. I think the striped bass have gone downhill. They say they are hurting. I think the commercial fishing isn’t severely destroying the fishery, but in the end it is catching up. The fish are in trouble,” he said.
Fifteen years ago when the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club hosted a striped bass catch and release flyfishing tournament, Mr. Gilkes said 200 anglers caught and released 1,200 fish in one night. When it was held last June, 217 fishermen caught and released 270 fish. “It was nothing like it was before. I think every fisherman can relate to this.”
Striped bass are commercially sold in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. In other coastal states the fish is restricted to game fish status.
Brad Burns, president of Stripers Forever in Portland, Me., said his organization has been pushing for striped bass game fish status up and down the coast. “We have thousands of members in Massachusetts. We have terrific support voiced in our e-mails. The people that are opposed are those selling striped bass. Naturally you can expect that,” he said. “The level of concern about striped bass is rising. There hasn’t been a successful young of the year class since 2002; there are fewer striped bass out there,” he said, adding:
“Everyone is watching as the population gets depressed. The stock assessments are two years behind. It is obvious to us that the quota will be lowered to zero. The fishery isn’t sustainable. A well-managed recreational fishery is sustainable. The big stink is being raised by a handful of guys that represent their own interests.”
The Massachusetts commercial striped bass quota last year was 1.1 million pounds; fishermen overshot the quota by 52,632 pounds.
On Monday the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission held its winter meeting in Alexandria, Va., to discuss the status of striped bass. An initiative to raise the commercial quota for the Eastern seaboard failed in a tie vote. Nichola Meserve, a coordinator for the commission, said: “The stock is not overfished and it is not experiencing overfishing.” She said the data used was through 2006; the next assessment of stocks will be this year and will include 2008.
Paul Diodati, director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries is the state’s expert on striped bass. Before becoming the director of the division he was charged with monitoring striped bass during a time when the numbers were severely depleted in the 1980s.
Just back from the Virginia meeting, Mr. Diodati said yesterday he is aware of the state legislation. “We, like everyone else, will watch this closely.” As for the state of the fishery, Mr. Diodati said: “It is pretty clear that in Maine, New Hampshire and Massashusetts, striped bass were very depressed last year. But at the same time, places like the Cape Cod Canal had one of the largest years. It was one of the largest years off the coast of New Jersey.” He concluded:
“It is too early to speculate why.”