An American president rarely speaks on a fisheries issue, but George W. Bush did so two weeks ago.
President Bush recently came out with an executive order directing the National Marine Fisheries Service to prohibit the commercial harvesting of striped bass and red drum in federal waters. A moratorium already is in place on the catching of striped bass in federal offshore waters for all commercial and recreational fishermen, so nothing changes.
But in an Oct. 20 speech in Maryland, the president called on states to look into making striped bass a game fish only. That would end the buying and selling of locally caught striped bass.
Paul Diodati, director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said in a telephone conversation with the Gazette yesterday from Maryland that fishermen should expect no change in fisheries management as a result of the president’s action.
Mr. Diodati on Wednesday was attending meetings of fisheries officials with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. One meeting on striped bass management included discussion on how to interpret the president’s action.
The director said a number of recreational fishing groups will welcome the president’s effort to encourage game fish status for striped bass and red drum.
“I have not taken a position,” Mr. Diodati said on whether striped bass should be a game fish. (Red drum, a southern fish, does not swim in these waters.)
In the last 15 years, he said, there have been three attempts to make striped bass a game fish in Massachusetts: first with a petition, the other two with a legislative effort.
“But each time it has come to public hearing, it is not widely supported,” he said.
In Massachusetts, commercial striped bass fishermen are restricted in when and how many fish they can catch. The season usually begins a few days after the Fourth of July and it lasts almost to Labor Day, based on a quota. Commercial fishermen also have a minimum size for fish they catch and days in the week when they can and can’t fish. And they can only catch a fish with a rod and reel.
What if the state designated striped bass a game fish?
“Financially it wouldn’t be a big deal for me,” said Louis Larsen of the Net Result, a fish market in Vineyard Haven. “People will still buy fish. But for a few guys on the Vineyard it would have a huge impact.
“People come into this store and they want to buy something local,” Mr. Larsen said. “There is this whole new emphasis on local product. Striped bass is local and it is an awesome success story. Look at the state of the fish. When the fish was in trouble, we left it alone and it came back. I wish they would do that with other fish.”
Federal waters are close to the Vineyard. One popular fishing spot that attracts Island anglers is known as The Hooter, a channel buoy that marks Muskeget Channel. It is halfway between the Vineyard and Nantucket, and is in the vicinity of the three-mile line between state and federal waters.
The center of Nantucket Sound, including Horseshoe Shoal, is also federal water. But Massachusetts does have fishing jurisdiction in that area, so striped bass fishing is permitted there.
Fishermen along the eastern seaboard are already prohibited from harvesting striped bass in the Exclusive Economic Zone, waters extending from three to 200 miles offshore.
Federal waters have been closed to all striped bass fishermen since 1990, as part of an emergency measure, The Striped Bass Conservation Act, which was written to protect the fish when they were in serious trouble.
National Marine Fisheries Service fisheries managers are aware that fishermen are illegal harvesting striped bass in federal waters. Last winter alone, there were 60 arrests in waters off Virginia.
With the illegal harvest on the rise, federal officials have increased fines from $50 to $100 per fish, up to 10 fish for first-time offenders. An Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission report stated that increasing the fines has helped cut down on the illegal fishing.