Derby Number 65

The sea and coastline around the Island have been roughed up by hurricanes and tropical storms this September, beginning last weekend when Earl blew through and again midweek when more tropical disturbances cropped up. The weather has been unstable: thunderstorms crashed down on Edgartown on Wednesday while West Tisbury stayed dry and sunny.

But the forecast calls for weather patterns to settle down by Sunday, just in time for the opening of the sixty-fifth Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.

The derby is the Vineyard’s Fall Classic, and everywhere there are signs that the best fishing season of the year has begun: business is brisk at bait and tackle stores; Steamship Authority ferries are booked heavily with reservations for pickup trucks and oversized off-road vehicles that will be loaded with saltwater casting rods of every description when they arrive on Island. These are serious fishermen who plan their vacations around the Vineyard fishing derby; many return year after year. They meld with the Island fishermen who also fill out derby rosters. They are carpenters, electricians, plumbers, lawyers, health care workers, artists, homemakers, senior citizens and grade schoolers — fishing on the Vineyard knows no class lines, professional, age or color barriers.

In that regard, it is one of the great equalizers.

Because everyone can do it — you don’t need a lot of money or a fancy boat or vehicle (although it is true that many fishermen have these things) — all you need is a rod, a bucket of lures, a peanut butter sandwich and thermos of hot coffee.

Oh, and some luck.

And with all that, you can be on top of the world, standing on the jetty along State Beach or at East Beach or in Menemsha, casting into the inky water by the faint light of a crescent moon, no sound except the soft whine of line and click of bail as you cast, and then slowly, rhythmically reel in. Fishing is like meditation; the world goes away when you do it.

Until you get a fish on. If it’s a bluefish the hit will be hard and your reel will be screaming as the chomper runs away with the lure. If it’s a striped bass you will feel the fish take the lure and after that it’s all finesse, reeling, reeling, coaxing, coaxing, the outcome never certain as to who will win the contest: fish or fisherman. For that reason, among others, striped bass is highly prized as a gamefish.

But as the 2010 derby opens, there is a growing undercurrent of tension around the taking of striped bass. Numbers from the National Marine Fisheries show a steep decline in bass landings over the last three years, both nationally and in Massachusetts.

Conservationists and fishermen alike are sounding an alarm, as well they should. Dick Russell, author, longtime Vineyard fisherman and conservationist, argues convincingly in a piece on the Commentary Page in today’s edition for some kind of moratorium on the taking of stripers in the annual derby — perhaps a shift to catch and release for that part of the tournament.

It cannot happen this year, of course, but it is a worthwhile topic for the derby committee to take up before next year.

There is plenty of precedent for a time-out on striper landings: beginning in Nineteen Eighty-Five, striped bass were removed from the derby for seven years as conservation measures were put into effect from the Chesapeake to Maine. The measures were effective and the striped bass recovered.

Now the stripers are in trouble again, and it’s time to do something about it. We look forward to hearing the discussion, on the shores that will be lined with fishermen for the next month, angling to catch the big one, at headquarters where the fish are weighed in daily, and in the derby committee, which should help point the way on this important topic.