Farewell Sunday on Martha’s Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard rested quietly in the golden haze of her warmth,

Her sandy thighs cooling in the wide blue-white wash of the sea.

The passions of the night had wearied her,

But her rest was peaceful and she glowed,

Like burnished gold in the late morning, easy warming,

Sun of this so fine a Sunday.

A grey dorsal cut the crest of a Katama bound roller,

My plug reached out to pop and gurgle thru the wash,

And the last bass came and went in one lovely rolling splash.

— Written by Al Reinfelder after his first Vineyard visit in September 1967

For 35 summers, I’ve been sport fishing for striped bass off the Vineyard, in every tide and time of day and type of weather — plugging away, literally, in pursuit of this most intelligent, wily and beautiful of all in-shore fish. In the early 1980s, when suddenly the bass were nowhere to be found, I became a leader in a coastwide campaign to try to save them. It worked, and striped bass achieved what has been called the greatest comeback of any ocean species. Now this magnificent creature is facing another crisis, and if we don’t act soon, I fear we may indeed see that last bass come and go.

What I have to say in this column will not be popular with many on the Island. The Vineyard’s Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is a venerable autumn institution, dating back to 1946. However, there was a period (1985 through 1992), when stripers were eliminated altogether from the competition for conservation purposes. I was among those calling for such an action, because it seemed unconscionable to keep offering prizes for killing a species that was then being overfished into oblivion.

They came back because striped bass fishing was all but shut down by the Atlantic coastal states for five years or more. But today, the signs of another crash on the horizon are unmistakable. The annual juvenile index of spawning success in the Chesapeake Bay, from which most of our stripers originate, has been well below the long-term average in three of the past four years. This likely means there aren’t enough mature females in the vicinity. Tellingly, the latest marine recreational catch statistics from the National Marine Fisheries Service reveal that the number of striped bass taken annually along the Atlantic coast has gone from 28.6 million in 2006 to 9.8 million in 2009. (In Massachusetts, the drop has been from nine million fish to 2.8 million over the same three years). These are the lowest figures recorded since the fishery was declared recovered in 1995, and the sport fishing catch between 2003 and 2009 fell by more than 50 per cent.

On the Vineyard, the story has been much the same. Consider that, in the Island’s yearly June catch-and-release striper tournament, 15 years ago 200 anglers let go 1,200 fish; last year, 217 fishermen released only 270 fish. In the last two fall derbies, as bait-and-tackle shop owner Cooper Gilkes 3rd told the Gazette, “The numbers are declining like a staircase.” The Gazette also reported that the commercial striper season that ended here in August was the worst in a long time. A charter captain I know in Rhode Island says the same is true in his state.

One factor is overfishing of the striped bass food of choice, Atlantic menhaden, whose population has plummeted since the early 1980s by an astounding 86 per cent. A single large corporation, Omega Protein, makes fish meal and fish oil out of the little baitfish, while malnourished stripers increasingly fall prey to an eventually fatal mycobacterial infection in the Chesapeake Bay (as many as 75 per cent of the male striped bass in the bay have been identified with the disease).

Last winter, it was reported that more than 100 boats were fishing for over-wintering female stripers off the Virginia and Carolina coasts. Obviously, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission needs to be doing something about that. But we, too, need to think about the effects of putting too much pressure on the big breeders. The larger the fish, the more eggs she is capable of producing. While some female stripers do spawn as young as five (at approximately 24 inches), these have very few eggs compared to a 45-inch bass that carries literally millions. The eggs in the older, more mature fish are also larger in size and so produce more robust fry with better chances of survival, according to several scientific studies.

Additionally, a 2002 study published in the journal Science found that, within only four generations, taking out too many larger fish produced a smaller and less fertile population, a genetic change that may be irreversible. According to scientists David Conover and Stephan Munch, a maximum size limit was actually better than a minimum one — because catching smaller fish increased the average size of fourth-generation fish to nearly double that of fish in populations where only the larger ones had been taken. One reason was, understandably, that larger adults have a greater reproductive potential.

Several states — including Maine, New Hampshire and New York (in the ocean fishery) — have in place 40-inch maximum size limits for keeping a striped bass. A 40-to-41-inch striper is usually 13 years old and weighs between 31.5 and 41.4 pounds. At and above that size are clearly the most fecund females, precisely the fish that derby anglers are being encouraged to catch. (Last year a 44-pounder won the derby). Isn’t it time that Massachusetts started considering a maximum size limit to protect the big spawners? And isn’t it time, given the lack of these same fish, for the Vineyard derby to once again think about preserving the species — rather than allowing 3,000-some fishermen to spend five weeks weighing in their daily bounty? Aren’t we encouraging the killing of fish that would not — and should not — otherwise be taken?

In Florida, the Keymorada Invitational Fly-Spin Tournament is a charity event that, over the past six years, has raised over $2.1 million to benefit the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. It is no-kill, and participant guides are issued a disposable camera to photograph the fish, preferably in the water and sometimes alongside a yardstick. The camera must be returned to the tournament operators by a specified time each day. Perhaps it’s time for Vineyard Derby organizers to take a page from that book. Better protecting the large, egg-bearing females seems the least we can do for a great fish that’s given us so much, and that is once more in jeopardy.

Dick Russell is the author of Striper Wars: An American Fish Story.