A drastic decline in striped bass stocks has state and federal officials scrambling to protect the fish, but many recreational fishermen say the government isn’t moving fast enough.
“It’s really scary,” said Cooper (Coop) Gilkes 3rd, owner of Coop’s Bait and Tackle shop in Edgartown, who has seen the haul from the annual June catch-and-release striper tournament fall dramatically. “At one point we had somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 fish weighed in on one night. Last year there were 100 and it’s like a staircase going all the way down to last year. It’s just dropped every year.”
Last year, Mr. Gilkes said the annual springtime sea worm hatch in the Island’s coastal ponds — an event that historically attracts stripers by the hundreds — had “just about failed” after years of under-performance.
“It’s mind-boggling that we could get to this point with everybody watching,” he said.
Mr. Gilkes’s experience is supported by national data. In Massachusetts the Division of Marine Fisheries acknowledges that from 2006 to 2010 the catch of small stripers dropped by nearly 75 per cent. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) cited a 66 per cent decline in the estimated recreational catch from 2006 to 2009, and in March called for a drastic 40 per cent reduction in striped bass mortality for 2012 to help replenish the ailing spawning stock in the Chesapeake Bay.
But in an April letter to Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries director Paul Diodati, state Sen. James Timilty of Bristol and Norfolk County pushed for a 50 per cent reduction in striper mortality for this year. The move is backed by the fishing advocacy group Stripers Forever.
“As we look ahead to the season we must focus on protecting what is left of the large 2003 class of breeding females and work to avoid another total crash of the striped bass population,” Senator Timilty wrote.
“It’s a very smart move and why they will not act on it I have no clue,” Mr. Gilkes said in his tackle store on Thursday.
For fisherman and Striper Wars author Dick Russell, Mr. Timilty’s 50 per cent proposal would be a good start, but he isn’t holding his breath.
“It’s a bureaucracy and it takes time to put things in place,” Mr. Russell said. “I’m glad that the ASMFC has finally woken up to the fact that we need to take some steps to address this but I just think it should happen now instead of postponing it for another year. It’s definitely heading in the direction of [the declines of the 1970s] unless they take some pretty severe measures.”
In an e-mail to the Gazette this week, Mr. Diodati said he has received some two dozen letters calling for a reduction in the 2011 harvest and that he shares the public’s concern about striped bass. But, he claims, it is not “possible or prudent” to act this year, citing an updated stock assessment due to be completed at the end of the summer that would guide the agency’s policy.
“Since there is no prior evidence showing that poor juvenile production is a result of excessive fishing mortality or low spawning stock abundance, it makes good sense to review that information prior to taking any management action,” Mr. Diodati wrote.
He also said the ASMFC could at any point freeze state management programs for several years, potentially keeping Massachusetts catch levels far below reasonable limits indefinitely.
“The interstate fisheries management program does not reward a state or offer incentives for taking proactive conservative actions,” he wrote.
The cause for the decline of the stripers is unresolved and hotly contested, but Mr. Diodati cautions that there are material differences between the current crisis and the devastating collapses of the 1970s.
“Today’s resource condition is much different and better than when striped bass stocks became depleted in the mid- to late-1970s,” he wrote. “Then, catches of large (and small) fish went virtually uncontrolled at the same time that young of the year production was plummeting.”
Mr. Diodati said that the numbers of reproductively mature fish remains relatively high, even above management goals and insists that the problems in the striper stock are attributable in large part to poor water quality and disease in the Chesapeake where the fish spawn, rather than overfishing along the coast.
Mr. Gilkes, though, thinks that everyone is responsible for the decline, recreational fishermen included.
“My own personal opinion is I’d like to see them go back to 36 inches for recreational fishermen and one fish a day,” he said. Currently recreational fishermen are allowed two fish a day with a 28-inch minimum. “I think that’s plenty until they’re back. It’s not being managed right. I know what worked last time when they went to 36 inches and they brought her right back. I was shocked at how fast those fish came back,” Mr. Gilkes said.
Mr. Russell also advocates the one-fish-a-day limit. Though he acknowledges that water quality in the six-state watershed of the Chesapeake Bay, which reaches far into Pennsylvania and includes Wahington, D.C., and Baltimore, may be affecting the bass, Mr. Russell implicates two other major factors in the stripers’ decline: poaching and the commercial menhaden harvest.
As the Gazette reported in February, more than 10 tons of illegally gill-netted striped bass were confiscated by Maryland environmental police this winter and a video of hundreds of dead stripers caught as bycatch in North Carolina waters has surfaced on the Internet.
As for the commercial menhaden fishery — the small fish is a staple of the striper’s diet — Mr. Russell said: “It’s basically one company, Omega Protein,” referring to the Houston-based fish oil supplement and fish meal supplier, the largest of its kind in the world.
“It’s true that the water quality is not very good but the menhaden abundance according to the AFSMC’s own data has gone down 85 per cent in the last 25 years,” he said. “The numbers are at historic lows and the striped bass are not getting enough to eat.”
With striper season poised to begin any day, Mr. Gilkes, whose livelihood depends on the recreational fishermen, doesn’t know why the fish have disappeared. All he knows is that he has had enough.
“I just want them back,” he said as he checked out a customer’s lures on Thursday. “I don’t care how they get them back. There are some very dark clouds forming and I don’t like them.”