Striped bass, one of the most prized fish swimming in Vineyard waters, the focus of fishing tournaments and the dish on many dinner tables, is in decline here, that much is agreed. But what to do about it? That is not, and the divided opinions are lining up around new restrictions proposed to protect the fish.
Legislation was filed in January this year on Beacon Hill, calling for the state to end commercial fishing for striped bass and to limit recreational fishermen to one a day. Filed by Rep. Matt Patrick, a Democrat from Falmouth, the legislation has broad support from the recreational community on the mainland.
The Vineyard fishing community, however, is divided on the plan.
The Dukes County/Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Association opposes it. Its cochairman Warren Doty said, “Our position is we have a very good management plan in place for striped bass.”
Menemsha charter fisherman Scott McDowell, however, said that for most of his 19 years in the business, “I thought there was room for both commercial and recreational fishermen. But now what I am seeing . . . the Rhode Island fishing boats near Gay Head, they are ruthless. I am solid for game fish status, if the state doesn’t come up with a better way to manage fishing. There is no enforcement out there.”
Next month the state joint committee on environment, natural resources and agriculture will hold a hearing on the game fish bill.
Other states have made striped bass a game fish, including Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C. and South Carolina.
Meanwhile, this summer Massachusetts commercial striped bass fishermen landed 1,160,453 pounds of fish.
The legislation proposes not just closing of all commercial striped bass fishing in the state, but further limiting recreational fishermen to one fish a day; today the limits are two fish per day, each no smaller than 28 inches. The new legislation proposes to limit future recreational fishermen to one striper between 20 to 26 inches long, or one “trophy fish” of 40 inches or greater.
Fishermen who participate in the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby would not be affected, other than some kind of change in the minimum size allowed at the weigh-in station. The derby has a self-imposed minimum size of 32 inches, more restrictive than the state 28-inch minimum.
Consumers looking for locally caught striped bass would not be able to purchase it. Only out of state striped bass would be shipped in.
The Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club holds a spring striped bass catch and release tournament; organizers have tracked fish caught and released since it began 18 years ago. In 2009, this year on May 30, 234 anglers caught and released 270 fish. In 2008, 193 fishermen caught 146 striped bass. In 2007 some 200 fishermen caught and released 484 fish.
But in 1996, 272 fishermen caught and released 879 fish.
Cooper A. Gilkes 3rd, of Edgartown, is an avid fly-fisherman who owns a tackle shop and has been a co-chairman of the fishing tournament since it started. “We have a striped bass fishing derby in the spring and in the fall, the numbers are declining like a staircase,” he said.
“All you have to do is read the stats that are coming in . . . . Biologists are saying all is fine, that there is no overfishing, and they know more than I do. But when we have derbies like we have been having ... I feel something is wrong.”
Mr. Gilkes said he favors gamefish status.
Fishermen on both sides of this political fence are concerned about the decline in both striped bass and the fish they feed on.
Striped bass are one of the most watched species of fish swimming along the Atlantic seaboard. Every year fisheries scientists do a water sampling at a number of spots in the Chesapeake Bay in the summer to see how many fish were spawned that year. It is called the young-of-the-year index, and for several years the numbers have been poor.
This fall the index reported below-average recruitment of juvenile Chesapeake striped bass. The 2009 index came in at 7.9, better than last year’s low of 3.2, but below the average of 11.7.
Advocates of more protection for the striped bass argue that the numbers reflect a decline in future stocks over several years.
Massachusetts fisheries managers argue that the variability is worthy of note, but not severe enough to close commercial fishing in the state.
Fisheries managers with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which oversees the health of striped bass along the coast, state that striped bass are not being overfished, but their scientists do report that there are not as many juvenile striped bass swimming along the coast.
Mr. Doty said the management plan for striped bass “is based on scientific stock assessments for the entire East Coast. Massachusetts cooperates completely with that plan. We want to stick with that plan.”
He said the Dukes County/Martha’s Vineyard association is made up of 75 active members, mostly commercial but also some recreational fishermen.
Mike Armstrong, a fisheries biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said the striped bass numbers are down all along the coast, and not due to overfishing. He believes the decline is tied to several years of poor recruitment of juvenile striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay, where most of the Vineyard fish originate. “I point the finger at Mother Nature,” he said.
All it takes is just one strong year class to assure the future of the stocks, fisheries managers report — but there hasn’t been a strong year class of juveniles since 2001 and 1996. Those fish are adults now and represent the bulk of the big fish that are out there. Anglers are concerned that without a good year class ahead, the future of the fishery is in trouble.
But Lev Wlodyka, a West Tisbury commercial striped bass fisherman and derby-winning legend, said protecting striped bass requires more scientific attention and is more complex than just shutting down the commercial fishing in this state.
“When a fisherman isn’t catching a fish, he says: ‘Somebody has killed all the fish,’” Mr. Wlodyka said. He blames the decline on the scarcity of spawned fish over many years, and the availability of bait.
Bait fish that used to bring the striped bass into our waters — including river herring (alewives), menhaden (also called bunker), sand eels and scup — have been in decline here, too.
“Look, it is a bigger problem. If people were as passionate about the other species in our waters, they’d have seen this problem solved years ago. It is delicately balanced,” he said.
Mr. Wlodyka said he has angler friends who have gone to the usual hot spots, the herring runs and the jetties, and they just aren’t seeing bait. “We’ve seen a lot of striped bass gulping down krill. They are eating like whales because there is nothing else to eat.”
Massachusetts is into the fourth year of a statewide moratorium on the catching of river herring. There are also moratoria in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Mr. Armstrong said in the past two years he has seen an increase in the number of herring returning to spawn. The recovery coincides with action taken in the Gulf of Maine to kick out fine-mesh draggers targeting sea herring, a different but similar species. The state wide moratorium is to expire in January of 2012.
Sen. Robert O’Leary and state Rep Tim Madden sit on the committee that will hold next month’s hearing on the striped bass proposal. Senator O’Leary said he is opposed to the bill. Mr. Madden has said he is leaning against the gamefish status.
Coincidentally, the state’s Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, which sets the rules and is responsible for managing the stocks in the state, will take up the decline in striped bass at its Jan. 14 meeting. The chairman of the commission, Mark Amorello, wrote a letter opposing the legislation.
The advisory commission is charged with coming up with the state’s fisheries regulations for the coming year. Even if the gamefish legislation fails, state regulators may enact new restrictions for commercial and recreational fishermen here.
Mr. Armstrong said they are closely aware of the concerns being expressed by anglers about the striped bass in these waters.