There is a proposal before federal and state fisheries managers that will make it a crime to possess scup next summer. If the regulation is adopted, youngsters all along the Atlantic seaboard won't be allowed to keep their catch.
Next Tuesday, the state Division of Marine Fisheries will hold a hearing soliciting public input on a coast-wide proposal to shut down recreational scup fishing from May to the middle of August. The hearing will be held at the Steamship Authority's conference room in Hyannis from 6:30 to 9 p.m.
Massachusetts fisheries managers are calling the proposal, which is being made by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, absurd. Assistant director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, David Pierce, said this week that what is being proposed is unfair; that it will cause great economic hardship in this area, especially to some charter fishermen who direct their fishing in Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds.
The quickly-called public hearing is preparatory to a region-wide meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, set for Jan. 29 in Alexandria, Va.
The management of scup on the eastern seaboard is a contentious subject. Three years ago, the state of Massachusetts sued and won a court case against the Secretary of Commerce over unfair management of the species for commercial fishermen. This new management proposal is over recreational fishing.
Mr. Pierce told the Gazette: "I am going to that meeting in January with the intent to convince members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council prohibition on scup is unreasonable, unfair and inequitable. It will destroy the recreational fishing for scup in Massachusetts." At the meeting next week, Mr. Pierce said he is expecting to hear Cape Cod recreational fishermen express outrage at what is being proposed.
Mr. Pierce continued: "Massachusetts is nowhere near responsible for the overfishing on scup. The overfishing of scup is being caused by the offshore fishing boats."
Fish that swim along the eastern seaboard are managed by regional councils. The New England Fishery Management Council manages many species of fish that swim in these waters. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council manages scup, fluke and squid. It has been demonstrated in the past that these councils can work together to come up with fair and effective fishing regulations. The recovery of striped bass is a perfect example of a working management system.
Repeatedly, New England fishermen have come into problems with the mid-Atlantic council over the fish they manage in these waters. This is just one more case of that conflict hurting fish stocks and fishermen. Ironically, scup are doing really well in New England waters. Last summer there were plenty of scup in Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound. The bigger issue is about overfishing of scup in federal and state waters off New Jersey and New York.
Last month, Mr. Pierce attended a mid-Atlantic council meeting where the proposed restrictions for 2001 were released. It followed a grim report that too much scup had been taken by recreational fishermen in predominantly the New York and New Jersey waters. Recreational fishermen had far exceeded the quota for scup along the coast, by millions of pounds.
The scup target quota for the year 2000 was 1.2 million pounds. Fishermen took 5.14 million pounds. To prevent that overage from occurring this year, the fisheries managers in the mid-Atlantic states are proposing that there be a closure at a time when scup are in Massachusetts waters.
The issue is made even more complex, Mr. Pierce said, because the mid-Atlantic council has done little to prevent the wasteful killing of juvenile scup during the winter fishery. A number of big name environmental groups have written strong letters of protest about the way the council is managing the scup winter fishery.
Mr. Pierce said: "Both the mid-Atlantic council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) have agreed that the overall commercial quota for scup in 2001 will be 6.17 million pounds. The recreational fishing target will be 4.41 million pounds."
Last year, the Massachusetts commercial fishermen's quota was only 275,000 pounds of scup, a fraction of the overall commercial quota for the eastern seaboard; and the commercial scup season here only lasted two and a half weeks. This year's quota will not be much better.
Most of the millions of pounds of scup caught by commercial fishermen takes place in the winter when the fish are off the New Jersey and New York coasts. When the fishing boats are pursuing squid they are allowed to catch and discard juvenile scup.
"More scup are killed as a bycatch in the offshore squid fishery than we in Massachusetts are allowed to harvest in a directed fishery," said Drew Kolek, 58, a senior marine fisheries biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries. Mr. Kolek is a 29-year veteran of fisheries management. "What is not fair is that the draggers in the squid fishery are allowed to kill all those juvenile scup and they are not penalized. This is politics. The mid-Atlantic squid fishery has more clout than the scup fishermen. The Mid-Atlantic council manages both squid and scup and we in Massachusetts have no voice."
In March 1998, a 90-foot New Jersey dragger was observed to haul on board 150,000 pounds of juvenile scup. Those fish died before they could be returned to the sea. That practice continues. Criticism of the mid-Atlantic council for not taking action to prevent this abuse has come from conservation groups. In the summer of 1999, complaints of the environmental abuse of the resource came from the National Resource Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Center of Marine Conservation, the National Audubon Society and the American Oceans Campaign. The council still has taken no action.
Mr. Pierce said: "The recreational fishing in Massachusetts is nowhere near as responsible for the overfishing of scup than the offshore fishing boats. How can we justify the closing of a recreational fishery of such great economic importance to Massachusetts when the federal government will be allowing the continued discarding of juvenile scup in such large numbers," Mr. Pierce said.
Part of the frustration tied to the scup issue involves the fishermen. Among recreational fishermen, scup management is far down in their list of environmental concerns. Scup is not a trophy fish. When scup are in season, they are not difficult to catch. A drop line with a hook and a piece of squid is all that's needed to catch this fish. Scup can be caught from most piers by youngsters of all ages. Last year, fishermen were limited to catching fish no smaller than nine inches in size and the daily limit was 50 fish.
Ed Jerome is an avid striped bass fisherman and the president of the Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. "For little children that is all they catch. How do you enforce that? Children are going to catch scup."
State environmental police would be charged with enforcing the regulation if it were imposed. Bill McKeon of that agency told the Gazette yesterday that the environmental police already have plenty to do, though they would enforce the regulations if adopted: "There are so many fisheries priorities, closures and management plans. Our scarce resources are already thinly spread out."
The Tuesday meeting will also include a discussion of the recreational season for fluke and black sea bass.