by Jerry Vovcsko
The Cape Cod Times recently published a story noting that as of the third week in August, striped bass is still on restaurant menus and being sold in fish markets. That's a situation that hasn't existed for six years and with 33 percent of the total striped bass quota — nearly 368,000 pounds — still left to be caught, it appears restaurants may be able to keep stripers on their menus right through the summer, maybe into fall.
That's good news for fishermen who are getting between $4 and $5 per pound, up from the three dollars a pound that was the going rate last year. The news is less pleasing for consumers, however, as the price to retail customers is a whopping $17 to $26 a pound. The time may well be coming when customers will have to settle for lobster because striped bass is too expensive.
The current striped bass season is now more in line with what the state Division of Marine Fisheries had in mind when it dramatically changed striped bass regulations this spring. The DMF wanted to bring some order to the commercial striped bass fishery for years. That was especially true over the past two years when the state bass quota, which used to last for months, was filled in just 16 days as fishermen flocked to a relatively small area near Chatham. The glut of stripers flooded the market, resulting in reduced prices for fishermen and it wasn't especially good for consumers as striped bass disappeared from seafood cases and menus by the third week of July.
This spring, the DMF implemented new regulations that cut the number of fishing days each week from four to two, and lowered the daily limit of striped bass per fishermen from 30 to 15. Commercial surf fishermen fishing from the beach could only take two fish. The strategy appears to have paid off, although it was probably helped when the big "bite" off Chatham did not happen this year. There are also fewer adult fish, something the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission wants to address with a new management plan that could ask for a 25 percent cut in the commercial quota for next year.
Striped bass were brought back from record lows in the 1970s to record highs in the 1990s and are still considered a healthy fish stock, but fishery managers worry about environmental and other factors in their breeding grounds in the mid-Atlantic states that have resulted in years of low numbers of juveniles reaching spawning age which translates into fewer adult fish coming north.
Maybe DMF's plan will eventually prove effective in protecting striped bass stocks but it sounds disturbingly familiar to me. It's pretty much the same approach that Canadian officials took in managing the Atlantic cod fishery and that turned out to have disastrous consequences when those same officials ultimately had to close the cod fishery putting every single fisherman on the dole and shutting down ALL cod fishing activity, including recreational and even subsistence fishing. Sure hope the prospects for the striped bass fishery don't go the way of the cod.
Oh, and speaking of cod,
the level of codfish spawning in one of the most critical fisheries in the Northeast is at an all-time low, putting more pressure on a fishery already dealing with declining catch and dramatic quota cuts. National Marine Fisheries Service scientists say the amount of cod spawning in the Gulf of Maine is estimated to be 3 to 4 percent of its target level. That number has declined from 13 to 18 percent three years ago.
Low levels of reproduction in the fishery are holding repopulation back, scientists say. They are investigating what might be driving down the numbers of cod but believe temperature change — which they have also linked to a declining Northern shrimp stock and northern migration of herring — may be one factor. A recent assessment of the Gulf of Maine cod shows the fish spawning at levels lower than seen in data stretching back to the 1930s, scientists say. Records of cod catches dating back to the 19th century indicate the population has never dipped this low before, according to Russ Brown, deputy science and research director at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.
Before the 2013-14 fishing season, federal regulators cut the Gulf of Maine cod harvest quota by 77 percent, to 1,550 metric tons, in the hopes of spurring growth in the fishery, and that's still in effect. Instead, however, commercial catches have plummeted, with Maine dropping from more than 560 metric tons of cod in 2009 to less than 130 metric tons last year. Massachusetts, the most productive cod-fishing state in the Northeast, fell from 6,810 metric tons in 2011 to 4,075 metric tons in 2012, federal data show and the number of fish surviving their first year has also dipped since 2009. Which is to say, no news regarding the cod fishery sounds promising and time to fix the situation may well be running out…if humans aren't able to find a suitable answer, Mother Nature may just step in with far more Draconian results.
The recent mackerel bonanza that triggered daily striped bass blitzes in the Cape Cod Canal appears to have petered out now and the easy
pickings that prevailed last week have become things of the past. There still bass in the big ditch, yes, but they're not showing up en masse these days. So it looks like it's back to deep jigging with plastic and jig combos or working needles on the surface in the early morning hours. A few Old School types have done well for themselves with eelskin rigs worked during the night hours but those ladies tend to be close-mouthed about where they fish and what they catch.
Vineyard Sound has seen increasing numbers of bonito showing up and cruising along driving baitfish and providing great sport for anglers employing light gear. There's nothing quite like the sizzling runs the funny fish display when they're hooked on less-than-heavyweight-tackle and allowed to show off their speedy antics.
Bluefish continue to make up the bulk of catches in the Sound these days as stripers require a bit more savvy and experience to hook up with. A few anglers have done well on bass around Quicks Hole and Cuttyhunk recently but nothing spectacular in the way of size. There have also been striper reports over near Chatham and Monomoy. Last year at this time there were huge numbers of striped bass showing up east of Chatham which pleased anglers as well as the resident seal population; this year, not so much. Action seems to be picking up along the outside beaches especially between Truro and Race Point. The surf lads working live eels in the wash around Head of Meadow Beach have been taking a few Large on the outgoing tide between dusk and dark.
The appearance of a Great White shark – estimated at 12 to 14 feet – just off Duxbury Beach caused considerable excitement over the weekend. Locals know that Mako and Thresher sharks are fairly common in Cape Cod Bay but Great Whites had so far kept their appearances limited to the Atlantic side around Nauset and Chatham. Having them show up in the Bay is not good news to swimmers and kayakers. Vacationers on the beach at Duxbury got into the swing of things with the message they wrote in the sand: "You're gonna need a bigger boat!"
Where's Quint when you need him?