Striped Bass: Taking Stock

On the eve of the opening of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, it is useful to pause and take a quiet moment to look back over the last twenty-five years. So much has changed about the striped bass, the anadromous fish whose presence in the cold salt water off the coast of New England is as long and as storied as the codfish. In Nineteen Eighty Four, the striped bass fishery was in deep trouble. Severe pollution in the Chesapeake Bay had all but wiped out the bass in their spawning grounds. Marine scientists, fishermen and politicians sounded an alarm.

Protection measures were enacted by the federal government with the Massachusetts legislative delegation, including the late Gerry E. Studds and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, at the front lines in what would shape up to be one of the most visible and important environmental battles of modern times.

A moratorium was enacted on the taking of bass, and for nearly a decade the bass and bluefish derby on the Vineyard did not include one of two fish that gave the venerable fall fishing contest its name. Meanwhile, there was widespread disagreement over what should be done to protect the bass.

Today the striped bass is one of the great conservation stories in the last quarter of a century. Indeed, the recovery of the striper may be one of the only hopeful developments in the Atlantic fishing industry which has been in a depressing state of collapse for the last decade, decimated by years of overfishing and political gridlock among fisheries regulators.

Twelve years ago federal marine fisheries officials declared the striped bass officially restored, calling for a widespread relaxation of the stringent conservation measures that had been in place for a decade.

Today the debate continues over just how much or how little striped bass should be regulated, especially when it comes to commercial fishing. There is an uneasy tension between commercial and recreational fishermen, many of whom believe that striped bass should be restricted to game fish status.

Meanwhile, the derby begins on Sunday and for the next month thousands of sport fishermen will be out in boats and on the shores of the Island casting for the big one.

The derby is the Vineyard’s fall classic and there are plenty of bass running thick again in Island waters. And the story of the striped bass is to be continued.