On the morning of Feb. 18 the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries held a forum at the Katharine Cornell Theatre regarding several fisheries management issues, among them potential regulatory adjustments pertaining to the harvest of striped bass.
Several relatively significant changes were discussed including reduction of bag limits and fishing days, limiting the ability of captains to harvest bass for sale during for hire trips, lengthening the fishing season to compensate for the reduced days and the institution of a point of sale tagging program to allow the state to better monitor catch statewide. Most of the theoretical modifications were relatively well received by the fishermen in attendance, most of whom curiously seem to think that there is little problem with striped bass stocks in general, but rather that the fish have relocated from our waters here on the Vineyard (and almost everywhere else in Massachusetts for that matter) to those of Chatham off Cape Cod because of a proliferation of forage in that area (not because they admittedly harvested millions of pounds of striped bass out of the waters off Gay Head during the fisheries heyday in the late 1990s).
Unfortunately however, the 800-pound elephant in the room — the fact that the population of wild striped bass is on the brink of collapse much like it was in the early 1980s — was never discussed. What are needed to save the striped bass in this state and coastwide are not minor logistical adjustments, but rather wholesale changes to the overall management strategy. The first step in that process is to immediately cut the commercial quota in half and make striped bass a closed-access fishery (grant no new licenses and make those who hold licenses currently prove that a significant portion of their annual income generates from striped bass fishing). The commercial quota currently stands at over a million pounds in Massachusetts. At the average harvest size that’s roughly 60,000 individuals, all of which are broodstock females, as male striped bass generally do not reach the minimum size allowable for sale. Think about that for a second; that’s roughly 120 times the amount of fish taken in the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby last year harvested in a little over two weeks in July. It’s just too big a burden for the current biomass to bear and it needs to stop right now, before it’s too late. All the potential changes discussed at the meeting are completely useless (from a conservation/management perspective) unless the quota is significantly reduced. A million pounds is a million pounds regardless of which days of the week it’s caught on.
The challenges facing striped bass are multifaceted and commercial fishing is in no way, shape or form solely at fault. The recreational regulations need to be completely revamped as well. The current limit for recreational anglers in our state is two fish per angler at 28 inches. This bag limit, much like the commercial quota, should be reduced by half. By reducing the bag limit from two to one fish you instantly reduce mortality by 50 per cent. That’s a big deal and this step is likely even more vital in the short term than the reduction of the commercial quota.
Furthermore, the recreational size limit should be increased to 32 inches. There’s a movement going on now in the recreational angling community called the 1@32 Pledge in which anglers all along the eastern seaboard are pledging to only keep one fish a day at 32 inches, regardless of their given state’s regulations. I’m participating in this initiative, as will be every client who steps on my boat this season. I’d encourage all to do the same. It is progressive action like this that just might bring about the realization amongst officials in this state and others that the time to act is now. More information on the pledge can be found on Facebook.
Alex Friedman, president of the Dukes County Fisherman’s Association, on multiple occasions during the forum referred to striped bass as a sustainable resource. With this statement, Mr. Friedman, I must adamantly disagree; under the current regulatory structure they most certainly are not. This was proven when the population crashed 30 years ago and is being played out now before our very eyes all over again. It’s not to say that the striped bass population can’t remain viable and sustain limited commercial and recreational harvest, but how the fishery is currently being managed is irresponsible, plain and simple, and has us on the fast track to another collapse. Instituting the aforementioned reductions to commercial and recreational harvest and closing access to the fishery are logical and practical first steps in finding out if our beloved stripers can rebound again and continue in their role as the great American game fish to be enjoyed by generations of anglers to come. I for one have faith that they can, but not unless quick and decisive action is taken.
Capt. W. Brice Contessa lives in Edgartown.