In a sudden and dramatic shift of position, the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby dropped the threatened striper out of the fall tournament.
The announcement came yesterday in a formal statement released by the derby committee chairman Ed Jerome and puts to rest a running controversy that has plagued the derby for at least the last two years.
The decision to remove the striped bass from the derby comes after months of heated debate within the derby committee. The decision also follows a recent public letter from Leo P. Convery, president of the Island chamber of commerce, in which he defended the tournament catch of striped bass and blasted the Vineyard Gazette for its coverage of the controversy.
The intensity of the dispute over the striped bass in recent weeks forced most derby committee members to a public posture of no comment on any matter relating to the national competition.
The formal statement removing the striped bass and all prizes for the catch of the declining fish declared:
“The Derby committee and the Chamber of Commerce wish to re-emphasize their support for the recreational fishermen who fish for striped bass under the current conservation regulations set forth by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
“However, because the inclusion of striped bass has placed our sponsors in a difficult position, we have agreed to delete the striped bass from the 1985 Derby.”
Signing the statement were Mr. Convery, Mr. Jerome and Carol Koser, chairman-elect for the 1986 derby.
The statement was released after the derby committee voted the striped bass out of the competition during a reportedly stormy session Monday night. The vote also came after a growing number of national sponsors announced they were withdrawing their support for the derby so long as the imperiled striped bass was kept in the competition for the awarding of prizes.
“It was a near unanimous decision,” Thomas M. Taylor, a derby committee member, said yesterday.
“It was an either do-or-die situation, which was unfortunate. All the national sponsors were withdrawing. It was as if someone put a rope around the head, had a door beneath our feet and said: `Do it or else we’ll open the trap door.’ “
Withdrawals from the derby began last month. The first was Salt Water Sportsman, a nationally recognized magazine which has promoted the derby for years. A recent letter written by Edward F. (Spider) Andresen, the magazine publisher and a resident of Chilmark and Boston, said: “I do have to let you know that Salt Water Sportsman cannot, in good conscience, be a part of the derby as long as striped bass are included . . . Should your committee reconsider this matter and delete stripers, we would be delighted to reinstitute all our previous support.”
In the weeks that followed, Joseph (Joel) Lawler 3rd, president of Boston Whaler, held open the possibility withdrawing his company’s key sponsor­ship of the derby. He made special trips to the Vineyard and met privately with derby committee members in an attempt to bring about a shift of position on the striped bass issue.
Last week, Daiwa, Shakespeare and Zebco, three major manufacturers of fishing tackle and rods and reels, withdrew support because of the commit­tee’s determination to keep the striped bass in the derby. Five other major sponsors were in the process of withdrawing when the committee met and voted last Monday, according to sources.
Dan Purdy, an Edgartown derby committee member, said: “It is now a time for people to help us out. For those people so adamant about taking the striped bass out of the derby, they should now come to our aid and offer to help. Okay, Spider, you won your point, now come out and give us a hand.”
Mr. Andresen said: “That is precisely what I have in mind. We will now put our money where our mouth is. I am sorry for the controversy that this whole issue has caused, but I’m confident that this recent decision is the best one for the striped bass, Martha’s Vineyard and the derby.
“As I said in my original letter to Ed Jerome, our magazine now stands ready to fully support the committee and the derby in any way we can. My attitude is to make this into something positive as quickly as we can.”
Last year alarm signals came from the scientific community up and down the coast over the serious decline of young striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay, the primary source for the species.
State and federal lawmakers pressed for major legislation to protect the striper. Last year, by mid-summer, derby committee members, aware of the growing problem, said the start of the derby was too close to change the position on the striper. But members said privately there was ample time to reconsider the striped bass position before the 1985 derby.
To the surprise of many, the committee early this year announced it was retaining the striper in the competition. It cited a letter from a top official of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, which stated extra effort wasn’t necessary.
“We sincerely felt that the fisheries management people had taken care of the problem,” Mr. Taylor said. The derby committee this spring received a letter from Randall B. Fairbanks of the state marine fisheries division. Mr. Taylor said the committee believed everything was on track. “With Randy Fairbanks’s letter and the tremendous number of fish seen in the waters last fall, we honestly thought there wouldn’t be any trouble. It was an honest impression.”
Mr. Taylor charged the press and the national sponsors for forcing the sudden shift of position.
Mr. Taylor said: “I still wonder if the fish are going to be helped. All it is going to change is the moral problem, and in my estimation that is not going to educate people on the real plight of the striped bass. It is still the responsibility of the fishing community to educate the public about the plight of the striped bass. That will help the fish more than taking the fish out of the derby.
“The best way to correct the problem is by removing the striped bass from the commercial market place and making it a solely recreational fish, nationwide.”
Kib Bramhall, a leading fisherman, a resident of North Tisbury and a critic of the derby’s past striped bass position, said: “I am really delighted. The striped bass has done so much for us and the derby — for years. Now it is time for us to do something for the striped bass.
“I think and believe strongly that this year’s 40th annual tournament will be a great success without the striped bass.”
Jack Koontz, who owns and operates Derby Jack’s Fishing Tackle in West Tisbury, said: “With all the work done over the years to make the derby a fishing contest, with numerous fish categories to enter in, it is no longer just a striped bass derby. Without a doubt this year’s tournament will be fine and fun and very competitive among all the fishermen. The derby committee deserves considerable credit for reconsidering their position. I am flabbergasted. I am very pleased.”
Ruth Burnham of Larry’s Tackle Shop in Edgartown said: “Obviously, I am more than pleased with their decision. I think the derby’s attitude and their realization has changed. They recognize now that sponsors, whether small or large, were put in a difficult position because of the conservation issue.”
Last year Mrs. Burnham donated her usual prizes to the derby, but requested that none of them go for the catch of striped bass. And of the derby posture on the striped bass, she said: “I will rethink my position regarding the donation of prizes into the new derby structure.”
Mrs. Burnham praised the derby committee for its decision and said: “The derby committee now has their work cut out for them in restructuring the awards.”
Mr. Purdy said: “Let us all pull together now and try to salvage what we can of the derby. After all it is our 40th year.”