Figures recently released by a federal monitoring program should have more than raised loud alarm bells: total catch of striped bass by recreational fishermen in Massachusetts has fallen by almost 84 per cent over the past six years. In 2006, more than eight million fish were reported taken by rod-and-reel sports anglers. In 2011, the preliminary figure was 1.3 million. Even over the course of a year, the decrease was 690,000 fish, or 34 per cent less than in 2010.

This will come as no surprise to most sports fishermen in our state, including the Vineyard, where a drastic, steady decline in “keepers” of 28 inches or larger has been observed for several years. Coastwide landings are at their lowest level since 2002.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is responsible for managing inshore species from Maine to South Carolina, at a meeting in November considered an amendment to the striped bass management plan with a goal of reducing striper fishing mortality by up to 40 per cent. It would have resulted in new size limits for recreational and commercial fishermen, daily bag limits on stripers, and a reduction in the allowable commercial quota (exceeded in Massachusetts by more than 100,000 pounds last summer).

But the commission concluded that striped bass stocks are basically healthy and that overfishing is not occurring — hence, no change. Later, its striped bass management board did initiate an addendum to look into the illegal harvesting of stripers within Chesapeake Bay. This followed a multi-year covert investigation by an Interstate Watershed Task Force that revealed rampant taking of large females from Virginia waters during the spawning season, as well as over a million pounds of smaller fish above quota limits on the Maryland side. This is only the tip of the iceberg along the Atlantic coast.

There’s another problem in the Chesapeake, where at least 70 per cent of the migrating stripers come from, with mycobacteriosis, an infectious disease that can be fatal. Experts have linked this to poor nutrition. Menhaden stocks, long the staple of the striper’s diet, have plummeted over the past 25 years — a result of overfishing for fish meal and fish oil by the Omega Protein corporation. In a long-overdue move, the ASMFC adopted new fishing limits for menhaden.

The only bright spot is the latest survey of young-of-the-year striped bass in the Chesapeake, which in 2011 recorded the fourth highest reproductive success on record. This was the first decent spawning year since 2003. It will take eight years for these young to reach spawning maturity of 28 inches. By that time, the 2003 year class — the source of most of today’s coastal catch — will be gone.

Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Potomac River and South Carolina already prohibit the sale of wild-caught striped bass. Clearly, there need to be more restrictions on sports fishermen taking spawning-age stripers, especially large females. But given the crisis fishermen know exists — unlike any time since the 1980s, when moratoriums had to be imposed to save them — isn’t it time to take steps toward preserving striped bass for future generations?

Vineyard fisherman Dick Russell is the author of Striper Wars.