With the start of the 65th annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby just days away, fishermen are concerned about the health of the centerpiece fish, striped bass, in these waters and along the coast.
There is perhaps not a fish more watched by commercial and recreational fishermen, not to mention scientists, than the striped bass. The fish is the swimming equivalent of the American eagle.
Striped bass numbers show a changing picture. Landings are down overall in Vineyard waters, according to commercial fishermen, though as near as Chatham their counterparts reported no trouble filling their boats. Moreover, the balance of stripers caught by recreational and commercial anglers is becoming more evenly split; historically recreational fishermen catch the lion’s share.
Regulatory moves involving striped bass are similarly contradictory. Officials at the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission are again proposing to increase commercial quotas for striped bass [for the region], including in Massachusetts.
Meanwhile recreational anglers are regrouping to try again to stop commercial striped bass fishing in this state.
An effort to make striped bass a game fish failed in the state legislature earlier this year. However, a key advocate for game fish status, Bradford Burns of Stripers Forever, said this week he will continue to push to end commercial striped bass fishing, arguing he has the numbers from the National Marine Fisheries Service to support his cause.
“There are nowhere near the striped bass around as there were years ago, and the greatest decline is in the numbers of smaller fish,” he said.
“In 2006, according to statistics compiled by the National Marine Fishery Service, anglers caught nearly 11 million stripers during the first six months of the year,” Mr. Burns said in a press release. “The recreational catch during this time in 2010 is only 2.6 million stripers,” he writes, adding:
“The recreational harvest is much smaller than that, since a large percentage of stripers caught by anglers are released.”
Mr. Burns is the president of Stripers Forever, an organization committed to saving striped bass in a lot of ways beyond game fish status for Massachusetts. Mr. Burns is based in Portland, Maine, where that state has seen a huge decline in striped bass landings in recent years.
Gary Shepherd, a National Marine Fisheries Service research biologist based in Woods Hole, presents a different picture. He agrees there is data showing a decline in recreational landings, but he cites data that the fish in the ocean are still healthy and abundant.
There are issues of concern, Mr. Shepherd said, such as the number of juvenile fish spawned from year to year. But striped bass is not being overfished, he said, nor is the fishery in decline.
The National Marine Fisheries Service data does point to a dramatic decline in catch in Maine and New Hampshire since 2006. But not south of there.
Mr. Shepherd said fisheries managers are seriously looking at concerns about the health of the stock. The stocks are spawned in three places along the eastern seaboard: Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay and the Hudson River. The numbers of fish spawned each year in each of these three places hasn’t been as good as it was a few years ago.
“For those in Maine and New Hampshire, the perception is that the stocks are crashing,” Mr. Shepherd said. “But if you look at the numbers in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts, the numbers haven’t dropped a whole lot.”
Last year the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission came out with a stock assessment for striped bass, which describes the fish in healthy status, and still in need of continued monitoring. The 281-page document is full of science, spreadsheets and data from the different states that monitor the stock at all ages. The commission is the regulatory agency overseeing the stock and how it is fished by the coastal states.
The Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission is seeking public comment this summer on new provisions for the management of striped bass in the years ahead. The latest proposal (called Draft Addendum II to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan) calls for allowing for more commercial fishing. It also suggests a new definition of when striped bass stocks are considered to be in trouble, based on the data collected about juveniles.
Nichola Meserve is a striped bass fisheries management plan coordinator with the commission. “It is true there has been a decline in the recreational harvest and catch for the last several years,” she said.
However, both Ms. Meserve and Mr. Shepherd point out that in 2006 there were meanwhile a lot more fish in the ocean. Of the 3,802,796 fish caught in 2006, recreational fishermen caught 72.4 per cent of all the fish harvested (2,753,209 fish).
Mr. Shepherd said the numbers that Mr. Burns uses for 2010 are too preliminary to cite.
However, he said, he can make the same but more detailed observation using the more complete 2009 results. The total harvest, at 2,955,009 fish, is lower than previous years. And the recreational share has dropped. In 2009, recreational fishermen harvested 1,919,682 fish. Commercial fishermen harvested 1,035,327 fish.
In 2009 recreational fishermen caught less fish than they did in 2006, and their share of the total was less.
Interestingly, commercial fishermen caught about the same amount of fish in 2009 as they did in 2006; theirs is now a larger share of a smaller catch.
The big issue facing the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission this year is less about how healthy the striped bass are — the commission holds that the fish is doing fine — but how fairly to allocate the resource.
Mr. Burns said: “The ASMFC is a compact of states all up and down the East Coast. They as a group don’t have bad intentions. They aren’t there to do bad things, but I think they are in a position that, they saved the striped bass in the 1980s, [so] the last thing they want to admit is that there is something wrong now.”
If the commission’s proposed management scheme for next year meets approval, commercial striped bass fishermen in Massachusetts would likely see a bigger quota next year. This year Massachusetts commercial fishermen overshot their quota and landed 1,222,423 pounds — above the quota of 1,128,577. The fishery closed August 23. The new Massachusetts quota will be determined over the winter.
Pointing ahead, Mr. Shepherd said: “The projections for next year will show better landings in 2011. There will be a decline after that. Some year classes are strong and some are not.”
Comment on the proposed regional changes for the management of striped bass by writing Nichola Meserve, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, 1444 I street, NW, 6th floor, Washington, D.C. 20005. The deadline is Oct. 1.