In an uncommon gesture toward Island fishermen, the state Marine Fisheries Commission brought its monthly business meeting to the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven yesterday afternoon. Beneath the large Stanley Murphy mural paintings of fishing life on the Vineyard, the commission tackled topics that affect the lives of local and state commercial fishermen, such as extending the striped bass fishing season and attempts to resuscitate the ailing herring population.

State officials spoke of the need to tighten loopholes in fisheries management and to tighten regulations for striped bass, alewives, and conch.

“We don’t come over here enough,” commission chairman Mark Amorello told those gathered. Normally the commissioners meet monthly on the mainland.

Mr. Amorello and his colleagues heard about proposed changes that could be made to the commercial striped bass fishery within the next year. State Division of Marine Fisheries director Paul Diodati talked about proposals being considered on the regional level that may require all commercial anglers to tag striped bass they’ve caught before they deliver them to their customers to help prevent fish poaching. He said Massachusetts doesn’t yet requiring tagging, but most states do.

State commissioner Mary Griffin
Mary Griffin, state fish and game commissioner. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Mr. Diodati said the discovery of more than a million pounds of bass in a black market in the last two years—primarily in the Chesapeake Bay area­— fed by the illegal catching of striped bass, is shifting the focus towards tightening regulations all along the East Coast.

Mr. Diodati said his office is also looking at ways to extend the commercial season. He said the division has heard from commercial striped bass fishermen who are concerned about an enormous glut on the market when the fishery opens in July, and shuts down quickly in August. A shortened fishing season can limit bass availability to restaurants during the summer as well as driving down the retail price of the fishing markets.

For the last two years, significant landings of striped bass were made in the waters off Chatham, causing a large portion of the state quota to be landed in that specific area. Mr. Diodati said: “We think that will change.” He attributed the larger landings to a combination of weather and plenty of forage fish.

Any future management of the commercial striped bass quota could include a change in an angler’s daily quota, or the days they are allowed to fish in the week. This summer, commercial striped bass fishermen will fish Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The fishery will open on July 12. It will close when the state quota of 1,057,783 pounds is reached.

An exchange of opinions arose over increased efforts to help restore the troubled river herring. Massachusetts is under an eight-year-old moratorium on the fishing of river herring, also called alewives. Other states have followed. The fish is being considered for possible listing as an endangered species.

Dan McKiernan
Dan McKiernan demonstrates new gauge that determines if a conch meets size standards. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Mr. Diodati said that there is new consensus among fisheries scientists that the fish is in continuing trouble. However, in a recent visit to herring runs in Massachusetts, he said he saw an improvement in the numbers of fish this season. “We have a good return this year,” he said. But along the coast in other states, Mr. Diodati said the fish is considered depleted. He added that state scientists have found new evidence to suggest that the health of the fish depends on the speed that freshwater streams enter the coastal waters.

Mary Griffin, commissioner of the state’s Department of Fish and Game, said the state is looking inland to take measures to improve water flow, so herring can more easily spawn. She said the state has over 2,000 dams, and there are steps being made to remove some of them.

Vito Calomo, a commission member from Gloucester, suggested that the problem may stem from other environmental factors as well. There is some evidence, he said, that river herring are being caught by draggers, as a bycatch.

Warren Doty, president of the Martha’s Vineyard / Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, told the commissioners that the herring picture is somewhat brighter on the Island. Mr. Doty, with a dozen local fishermen seated near him, told the commissioners that Martha’s Vineyard has three successful herring runs. He said that the Vineyard’s runs have good water quality and are well-managed. Despite the well-being of those herring runs, he said, the community saw a dramatic drop in the herring coming back to spawn. He suggested that something was happening to the herring offshore.

Mr. Doty said, “We have a zero bycatch. Shouldn’t everyone be required to have a zero bycatch?” he asked.

Deputy Director Dan McKiernan reported on efforts to cut the fishing effort of conch, the Vineyard’s most valuable resource landed at the dock. In March, the state held public discussion with fishermen about the need to prevent the fishery from being overfished.

Mr. Diodati also said he plans to take steps to require all commercial fishermen to be more punctual about filing their catch reports. It was reported at the meeting that most conch fishermen don’t even submit their catch reports for the year, until they have to renew their license.

Mr. Diodati said because the state oversees so many species that are managed by quota, it needs some kind of enforcement mechanism to get those reports filed when they are most useful. According to a marine fisheries staff report, 95 percent of all harvesters submitted their catch reports a month late.

Twenty-two per cent of the state’s fishermen have yet to file their catch reports for last year, Mr. Diodati said.

Mr. Diodati said wholesalers are far better, but even they are late. Mr. Diodati said 8.6 per cent of the dealers failed to report at all.

If the state doesn’t have the catch reports, he said, they can’t know when a quota on any fish has been reached. Fish under a quota include striped bass, black sea bass, scup, summer flounder and tautog. Poor data can ultimately be very costly to the fishermen. Mr. Diodati said when the state overshoots the quota, the excess ends up coming out of the following year’s quota.