The same week the 68th annual Vineyard derby came to a close, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced results of its 58th annual young of the year survey of striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay. This is the annual measure of spawning success in the region where the great majority of the Atlantic coast stripers come from. A year ago the average number counted in every seine haul was a dismal 0.9, the lowest ever recorded. In 2013, the number was up somewhat to 5.8, but still well below the long-term average of 11.7. Indeed, five of the past six years have seen below-par figures.
“We see that the legal-sized striped bass will be sparse in the next few years,” a Massachusetts fisheries official told the Gazette. (It takes six years for a striped bass to reach 28 inches, at which size the state’s recreational fishermen are allowed to keep two fish a day). Derby fishermen have simultaneously witnessed a substantial decline in the bigger fish. This year’s largest, of 487 striped bass weighed in by a record 3,160 entrants, were 39.94 pounds from a boat and 34.64 pounds from shore. The once-common 50-pound fish are becoming a distant memory.
When you consider that most males don’t migrate and so more than 99 per cent of wild stripers harvested commercially coastwide are females, fewer large, egg-laden spawning fish can only add up to poorer reproduction. Especially when you factor in what’s happening to the time-honored food of choice for the bass, the Atlantic menhaden. The population of these little baitfish that survives their first year is now at less than 10 per cent of historic levels, “a catastrophic decline,” as conservation author H. Bruce Franklin says. Yet more menhaden continue to be caught, by weight, than anything else along the Eastern seaboard. The fleet of a single company, Omega Protein, is pulling out over 410 million pounds a year from the Chesapeake, to be ground up into fertilizer, pet food, feed for farm animals and farm-raised fish, and fish oil dietary supplements for humans. Late last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted for a 20 per cent reduction in Omega’s menhaden harvest. The corporation’s response? Send two more vessels, each capable of holding about a million metric tons of menhaden, to Reedville, Va. Meanwhile, striped bass in the Chesapeake continue to show signs of stress, malnutrition, and disease — well over 75 per cent of the bay’s resident stripers are affected by mycobacteriosis, an infectious disease that ultimately proves fatal.
The situation for Island and Cape fishermen, especially along the flats and the beaches, is grim. A decade ago shallow water locations in late spring on Cape Cod Bay customarily saw hundreds of stripers daily; now it’s 30 to 40 fish, sometimes half that. Some have seen more stripers offshore, maybe due to lack of bait inshore. Some are blaming an increased population of seals that feed on the bass. Some say higher-than-normal water temperatures are the culprit. Many now say that all those reasons are an excuse for business as usual.
Last March, more than 800 Massachusetts fishermen signed a petition calling for a 50 per cent reduction of commercial and recreational fishing for striped bass. One was Cooper Gilkes, a bait and tackle shop owner from Edgartown. “We’re waiting way too long to take action,” Coop told me recently, “while back-sliding to where we were in the 80s. The statistics all show that; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist. We’re working on one big pod of fish out there off Chatham and, if we keep hammering it, sooner or later that’s gonna be gone. I don’t see why the state can’t get it together and do something.”
Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries director Paul Diodati said it was impossible to get the petition implemented in time for the 2013 season. He added: “Unilateral action in Massachusetts might not be sensible. Whatever conservation we are trying to take, it might be compromised by the fisheries elsewhere.” That seems more than wishy-washy, when you recall that Massachusetts was in the forefront with stronger regulations during the striper population crash of the early 1980s and more recently led the charge toward better ecosystem-based management of menhaden.
“There is one solution . . . Stop killing the breeders,” longtime fisherman and conservationist Lou Taborey wrote recently. “Both recreational and commercial fishermen target larger fish because regulations require that practice. A slot limit similar to what the state of Florida has for most of its game fish would stop the killing of females.” Taborey points out that a one-fish-a-day, 22-to-26-inch slot limit would be ideal. If stripers from 28 to 48 inches were protected, that would mean at least eight to 10 years of freedom to spawn.
The commercial interests of course would oppose this. Currently, on three summer weekdays, some 2,500 commercially-licensed Massachusetts fishermen are authorized to each catch 30 stripers a day at 34 inches or longer (and five fish on Sundays). During this summer’s season, it only took three weeks to take the allotted quota of 997,869 pounds. Yet more than 600,000 people fish recreationally for stripers in Massachusetts, whose reported landings have fallen by nearly 75 per cent since 2006.
Do the math, even if you want to just think in economic terms. At the ASMFC’s striped bass board meeting this week in Georgia, there was consensus that the management plan needs to be changed to provide more conservation. Mr. Diodati from Massachusetts proposed reducing the recreational bag limit to one fish (28 inches) a day, while also cutting about 35 per cent of the coastal commercial quota. But his motion failed to sway the other commissioners, and everything got postponed for another year. For the sake of the most majestic inshore fish in our waters, it’s time to raise cain before it’s too late.
Dick Russell is a summer Vineyard fisherman, ocean activist and author of Striper Wars: An American Fish Story (Island Press, 2005).