Are stripers threatened?
January 25, 2010
When saltwater fishermen go fishing, the No. 1 prey they're angling for is striped bass. To their dismay, Massachusetts fishermen caught many fewer striped bass last year than they did three years ago — 2.6 million compared to 9 million — and they're saying, "Something must be done."
Rep. Matthew Patrick, D-Falmouth, has responded with a bill that would override the existing management plan for the species. It would end commercial fishing for striped bass (20 percent of the total catch), reduce from two to one the number of fish that the recreational fisherman could take home, and alter the size limits in an effort to protect the egg-laying females.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages the management plan, says it's working fine. The commission counts the fish by seining the little ones as they leave the spawning grounds; the 2009 assessment produced the conclusion that "striped bass are not overfished and overfishing is not occurring... ."
The spawning stock (the large fertile females) remains above target levels, it says.
It's the view shared by the experts of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service and its Northeast Fisheries Science Center at Woods Hole, and the scientists of the state Division of Marine Fisheries.
Jeffrey Kasner of Stripers Forever, an advocacy group headquartered in Boston and the source of Patrick's legislation, is not impressed. Those people "don't have a good track record," he says. Rep. Patrick notes that the fishery managers are the people who were in charge as the striped bass population crashed in the 1970s and '80s.
That was three decades ago. Should we assume that the fisheries professionals haven't learned anything? Well, they learned enough to guide the striped bass stocks back from fewer than nine million fish in 1982 to more than 70 million fish in 2004, one of the great success stories of fishery management.
Gary Shepard of the Woods Hole center points out some facts: in Connecticut and New Jersey, catches increased to peak levels last year. Most of the striped bass in the Bay of Maine spawn in the Chesapeake Bay, which has pollution problems. There's evidence that the movement of bass schools is changing, putting them into federal waters where fishing for them is prohibited.
For a decade, the recreational striped bass catch in Massachusetts has bumped along above and below 6 million. In 2006, it zoomed to almost 9 million, then plummeted last year to 2.6 million. A spike in the data, up or down, may or may not signal a trend.
But brushing all that aside, Rep. Patrick and Stripers Forever believe a legislative makeover is needed.
It probably won't go far in its present form, Patrick acknowledges. The chair of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture said he didn't hear much support for the bill at a recent hearing, and he did hear a lot of opposition.
It's just as well. When the professionals who manage the striped bass say they're flourishing, we should listen, wait and see.