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Originally published in Saltwater Sportsman March Edition
GAMEFISH, BUT FOR THE RIGHT REASONS
An honest look at why striped bass is not a gamefish…
By Capt. John McMurray
The recovery of the striped bass is the first and one of the only successes stories of east-coast fisheries management. The population collapsed in the 1980s, but is now at or near record abundance, and bass have become, in terms of pounds landed, the most important recreationally caught fish in the nation. Some states still permit a small number of commercial fishermen to harvest this publicly owned resource. Other states have long-standing “gamefish” laws that prohibit it. “Gamefish” proponents have made more recent efforts to enact commercial prohibitions elsewhere, but have been universally rebuffed. New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone has repeatedly introduced gamefish legislation in the House of Representatives, but has been unable to marshal sufficient support to move it out of committee.
Gamefish advocates have up to now clothed their efforts in the rhetoric of conservation. However, commercial interests have been very successful in convincing policymakers that the gamefish movement is nothing more than an effort to shift harvest from commercial to recreational fishers, and exchange the current commercial harvest for a larger recreational kill.
The commercials’ arguments are supported by the actions of the State of New Jersey, which banned commercial harvest but permits anglers a third “bonus fish” in addition to the two bass permitted anglers under ASMFC’s Interstate Striped Bass Management Plan. Spokesmen for the New Jersey angling community justify the increased recreational kill by asserting that the commercial quota has to be “netted out” to the state’s anglers in order to prevent it from being returned to the “coastal commercial pool”, and further excuse their state’s regulations by claiming that fewer fish are killed under the bonus plan than would be harvested if a commercial fishery still existed in New Jersey. However, even a casual reading of the management plan reveals that there is no "coastal commercial pool". Commercial allocation is calculated on a state-by-state basis, and there is no provision for one state’s unused commercial harvest to be reallocated elsewhere. Thus, the commercials’ have successfully convinced decision-makers thus far that sportsmen want to hog the fish for themselves and deny a traditional fishing industry its livelihood.
Current sources of striped bass mortality also confound gamefish proponents. Anglers kill more than three times as many striped bass than do commercial fishers. The mortality attributed to catch-and-release fishing alone nearly doubles the total commercial harvest. Furthermore, angling-related mortality continues to increase as new anglers enter the sport. “It makes no sense to shift the allocation to the people already doing the most damage to the resource” notes Cape Cod commercial John Rice.
Efforts to justify gamefish status based on economic considerations also appear to be based on shaky ground. Stripers Forever, an organization dedicated to obtaining coast-wide gamefish status for bass, retained Southwick Associates to prepare an economic study of the fishery, which ultimately determined that the total economic activity generated by striped bass anglers was more than 26 times greater than that produced by the commercial fishery. However, the ASMFC Committee on Economics and Social Sciences reviewed the study and rejected it in its entirety in May. Stripers Forever founder, Brad Burns, noted in response, “This is largely based on the same kind pro-commercial fishing at any cost rhetoric that has been used to keep regulators from effectively conserving our ground fish resources until they could be wiped out.” Perhaps Burns is right, but it is clear that economic arguments do not yet provide a clear path to gamefish status.
So, is a coast-wide gamefish for striped bass a non-starter? Not necessarily. Based on the most recent stock assessment, overall fishing mortality of striped bass exceeds the target mortality level by nearly 35%, and hovers just below the overfishing threshold. The same assessment shows that the larger, older fish are under too much pressure. Many experienced striped bass anglers are noting a decline in the number of large fish, a sentiment echoed in Stripers Forever’s 2006 survey of its members.
Reducing mortality, particularly on older fish, should be a management goal. Decommercialization of striped bass is a realistic means to achieve it, particularly since decreasing recreational harvest is likely to lead to increased catch-and-release mortality. However, such action is only justifiable if the former commercial harvest is used to increase the population, and not merely transferred to recreational landings as it is in New Jersey. A coastal gamefish law would further eliminate some bycatch-prone commercial gear such as gillnets and would stop the practice of discarding smaller, dead fish in favor of larger ones (“highgrading”) in order to maximize profit. It would also quell a rampant black market in illegally harvested striped bass.
Burns notes, “If the striped bass were a personal-use-only species, the values of recreational fisherman would control its fate. … Sure, a few would be eaten, but a healthy stock and high-quality fishing experience would be the primary values.” Charles Witek, Chair of Coastal Conservation Association New York, echoed those sentiments, noting that “Striped bass should first be managed in a way that makes biological sense and, once that is achieved, managed in a way that brings the greatest overall benefit to the general public. Permitting the continued commercial exploitation of naturally-spawned striped bass achieves neither objective.”
Thus, decommercialization is valuable not because it will permit a bigger recreational kill, but because it is the surest way to reduce overall striped bass mortality, increase the spawning stock, better assure the long-term health of the striped bass fishery and better represent the long term interests of the general public. However, merely replacing commercial harvest with recreational harvest fails to achieve such goals. Efforts to do so harm anglers’ credibility with fishery managers and deals commercial interests a winning hand. Until the gamefish movement realizes that, we will more than likely never see a coast-wide gamefish bill.