It is months away from the start of both the recreational and commercial fishing season, yet already there is change ahead. Fisheries managers, looking at the health of fish stocks, are making a regulatory forecast and some predictions about the availability of fish for the year ahead.
Striped bass, one of the most precious resources in our waters, will likely be more scarce this summer, and anglers who love to catch fluke will likely be able to take more home.
Bluefish, scup and black sea bass are expected to be plentiful.
These are some of the findings in a report card this week on the different fish that swim in local waters.
Mike Armstrong, assistant director for the State Division of Marine Fisheries and author of the report card, said it is likely striped bass may be more difficult to find in the short term but the stocks overall are okay.
He based much of his assessments and forecasts on data presented at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission annual meeting in Boston in November. There, fisheries managers from up and down the coast heard reports on different stocks of fish and seafood. Though a number of recreational fishing groups expressed worries about the health of striped bass, the managers heard science that tended to quell such fears.
They heard a positive report out of Maryland, stating that more juvenile striped bass were spawned this past year, a clear reversal from a seven-year trend of poor recruitment. The managers also heard about arrests of poachers and stepped-up enforcement of fishing regulations along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, Virginia and surrounding areas in 2011.
Mr. Armstong said the commission took no action to reduce the fishing effort, even after the director of the division, Paul Diodati, sought a conservative approach because of poor indexes over the previous seven years. “To other commissioners,” Mr. Armstrong said, “this was not yet the time to put in more restrictive measures.”
Still, Mr. Armstrong forecasts that anglers will see a scarce number of striped bass measuring from 20 to 32 inches. Comparatively, there will be more fish over 34 inches. Though catch rates this year may be down in these waters, Mr. Armstrong said he believes the health of the fish is good.
Recreational fishermen are limited to two fish per day with a minimum size of 28 inches, and that will likely remain the same. Commercial fishermen are required to have a rod and reel and striped bass commercial fishing permit and they are restricted to a minimum size of 34 inches and four days of fishing per week (Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday). They have a bag limit of 30 fish.
Brad Burns, president of the Maine-based striped bass conservation group Stripers Unlimited, said his organization and many anglers will continue their push to protect striped bass by restricting it to recreational fishermen only.
A previous effort to file legislation to achieve such resrictions failed.
There are also two other bills: one that would require the state Division of Marine Fisheries to justify its commercial quota and another — in response to concerns expressed in Connecticut — that asks the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to conduct a long-term study of possible contaminants in striped bass and make a report to the state department of public health.
Even though fisheries managers report with confidence striped bass are not being overfished, Mr. Burns said his organization continues to be concerned because striped bass are scarce in Maine and fewer fish are being caught along the Atlantic seaboard.
However, last year Massachusetts commercial fishermen overshot their striped bass quota of 1,061,898 pounds and landed 1,163,865 pounds. This year’s quota has been reduced to cover that overage.
Fluke, also called summer flounder, is abundant in these local waters, far more than it was 20 years ago. Last fall the National Marine Fisheries Service released a letter calling the resource officially rebuilt, following years of restrictive measures. Coastal fisheries managers had their optimism dampened in a more recent assessment, but the general consensus is that fluke are in a healthy state. Recreational and commercial fishermen might see some relaxing of regulations this year; the state will likely ease the minimum size by as much as an inch for recreational anglers, Mr. Armstrong said. Recreational rod and reel fishermen currently are restricted to a minimum size of 17 1/2 inches, with a five-fish bag limit, and a season running from May 22 to Sept. 30.
“We will liberalize the regulation [at least for recreational fishermen]. We can double our recreational fishing allotment,” Mr. Armstrong said. “There are tons of fish out there,” he said. With a more relaxed minimum size, Mr. Armstrong said: “You will throw back a lot less fluke.”
The fluke quota for Massachusetts this year is 868,226 pounds, less than the 1,156,952-pound quota for last year. Commercial fishermen harvested 92 percent of their quota and landed 1,134,080 pounds.
Peter Herrmann, the chairman of the local fluke fishing tournament held for the 12th year last summer, expressed a less optimistic view of the fluke situation. He said he is worried that fluke have dropped in numbers and in size in just the last few years. Recreational anglers, he said, didn’t see as much fluke in Vineyard waters as they’ve seen in recent years. Lowering the minimum size may make local anglers feel good in the short term, but some remain concerned on the long term whether the decline will continue.
Black sea bass have become one of the top sport fishes in local waters in the last decade, and it is likely the state will relax recreational fishing effort in time for this summer, Mr. Armstrong said. The commercial quota for black sea bass this year is 221,936 pounds, not too different from last year.
Scup, a fish that is often caught around the harbor docks, is in good shape, and anglers can expect to see some relaxing of the restrictions, said Toni Kerns, a senior project coordinator for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Recreational anglers are now limited to a season of May 24 to Sept. 26, a minimum size of 10.5 inches and a bag limit of 10 fish per day.
Bluefish are in a very good state, Mr. Armstrong said. This won’t surprise most local boat anglers, who had far less trouble finding bluefish in their boats than striped bass. There is no minimum size for catching bluefish; but there is a bag limit of 10 fish per day.
Cod, once the most celebrated fish in our waters, is a troubled fish these days. Only a decade ago, there were cod fishermen who pursued the fish south of the Vineyard in the winter. Mr. Armstrong said stocks of cod still continue to have a difficult time in these waters and waters around New England.
Weakfish, once as abundant as striped bass in these waters, remain very scarce. “Weakfish are in very poor condition, and the reasons are unknown,” Mr. Armstrong said.
Tautaug are also scarce, though there is a rebuilding effort under way.
Whether the stocks are rising or lowering, there is one key ingredient to good fishing in Vineyard waters — lots of bait.
A big issue in the year ahead won’t be the fish consumers like to eat, but the location of the bait for them. Big fish can only be found where they eat. More and more fishermen have been raising their concerns about the availability of bait fish: alewives, Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, sand eels and other forage fish.
Mr. Armstrong said alewives and river herring are now under a permanent moratorium. For years, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut have held their own moratoriums on the fishing of these anadromous fish. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took the broader approach and imposed a coastwide moratorium.
Last November the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed to consider whether river herring should be listed under the endangered species act. There are at least four well-managed herring runs on the Vineyard.
Mr. Armstrong said herring in Massachusetts continue to struggle. “We had a setback last year in some of the herring runs in the state, but we do seem to be headed in the right direction,” he said.
The state has taken the step of assigning one of the division scientists to monitor and collect data about bait fish. “There is a new emphasis in looking at forage fish,” Mr. Armstrong said.
The extra effort will please local anglers. Sport fish come to the Vineyard to eat and little else. If there are few bait fish, that has a big impact on whether the larger fish show up.