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Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine, May/June 2003

 

Striped Bass … A Game Fish? Part One

By Capt. John McMurray

 

            Morone saxatilis. From a recreational standpoint, the species is, without a doubt, the most important inshore fish from Virginia to Maine. They prowl shallow flats and spook very easily, making them challenging sport. They school in the hundreds and launch rapacious attacks on baitfish in extraordinary displays of predatory massacre. They lie deep along the rip lines and quite often hunt in the surf of popular beaches, sometimes coming so far up in the wash that their dorsal fins protrude from the water. They populate our oceans, bays, rivers and even metropolitan harbors. These traits have made the striped bass an ageless quarry for boat- and shore-bound anglers on both coasts. Approximately 3 million anglers fish for striped bass in the United States every year, and they bring millions of dollars into local economies. So why is it that approximately 10,000 commercial fishermen have been allowed to harvest for personal profit a disproportionate share of this important publicly owned resource? In this two-part article, we will examine that question in some depth.

 

Background

            On December 19, 2002, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Striped Bass Management Board held a meeting in Rhode Island to discuss and act on draft Amendment 6 to the Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan. Instead of reducing fishing mortality, a move that nearly three-quarters of those commenting on the amendment requested, the board kept the mortality target essentially unchanged, a move that clearly facilitated its second action -- increasing the coastal commercial harvest by 43 percent. This controversial decision has set off a storm of opposition from angry fishermen, some of whom are questioning the legitimacy of the decision-making process within the ASMFC. In doing so, they spawned a new effort by anglers across the nation to obtain game-fish status for striped bass. However, many are skeptical of the possibilities for success. Noted author Brad Burns leads the new organization he formed, Stripers Forever. No doubt it has a very steep hill to climb, but Burns says, “Nothing is more worth fighting for.”

            The first hurdle game-fish advocates must overcome is convincing decision makers that game-fish status is a legitimate conservation tool -- not an attempt by one user group (recreational fishermen) to take the resource for themselves while the other user group (commercial fishermen) suffers economic hardship and the loss of its livelihood. Many believe that there is no justifiable reason to make striped bass a recreation-only resource if the extra quota taken from the commercial side is given to recreational fishermen to kill. Unfortunately, in regard to Amendment 6, some recreational fishing organizations shot themselves in the proverbial foot when they didn't actively support a lower mortality rate. If recreational anglers accepted the proposition that fishing mortality should be reduced for the good of the population and advocated going to F = 0.25 or even a 0.20 mortality rate (see the January/February 2003 Resource column), they could have more easily argued against the increase in the commercial quota. However, several recreational angling organizations chose to take the position that the population is healthy and that everyone has a right to take some home. Thus, it became inconsistent to argue that the commercial quota shouldn’t be increased to take advantage of the “healthy population” that has allowed the recreational take to skyrocket.

 

If We Don’t, They Will

            However, some game-fish advocates argue that the existence of a commercial industry creates these allocation issues. They suggest that if the commercial striped bass fishery were to disappear, so would the part of the recreational community that feels it must grab more of the resource to keep it out of commercial hands. Tom Fote, legislative chairman of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association (JCAA) claims that the more resources recreational fishermen voluntarily give up, the more backward-thinking managers will reallocate those unused resources to the commercial sector. He believes that in their efforts to self-regulate, anglers who advocate more restrictive conservation measures on the recreational side are punishing themselves. Recreational fishermen, for the most part, understand the value of a living fish and are more likely to impose restrictions on themselves than are those who make their living harvesting them. Therefore, if there were no commercial fishery for striped bass, considerably fewer stripers would be killed on the recreational side. Burns correctly states, “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.”

            Arguing in favor of a recreational-only resource, advocates further point to the generally accepted proposition that commercial overfishing, not recreational efforts, led to the collapse of striped bass stocks in the late ’70s. Commercial fishermen counter that a “hard” quota, which supposedly will prevent such overfishing in the future, now manages their industry. They further point out that no equivalent controls on recreational fishing exist and that they can easily demonstrate that recreational anglers kill far more bass than do commercial interests. Further, they argue that the striped bass mortality these anglers cause continues to increase yearly with the number of new anglers entering the sport. Commercial fishermen point to states with game-fish bills such as New Jersey, which has taken the state’s commercial quota and transferred it to smaller size and greater bag limits for anglers as proof that the stripers will not be conserved, but killed by recreational anglers instead. Unfortunately, this argument seems to go a long way with many regulators and politicians. The perception is that a group of wealthy sportsmen want to hog the fish and deny a traditional fishing industry its livelihood. But Fote points out that regardless of the bag and size limits in New Jersey, most anglers choose not to take their slot or trophy fish. Therefore, the number of fish landed is actually far less than if a commercial fishery still existed in New Jersey. Fote also argues that most anglers targeting stripers in New Jersey are not wealthy big-boat owners as commercial interests imply. They are a mix of blue-collar surf casters, small-boat owners and even subsistence fishermen who fish to put food on their tables.

            On the recreational side, one can further argue that biologically, striped bass are a poor commercial target and there are better commercially viable species. Striped bass are a slow-growing fish (females do not mature until age 10). Commercial operations are better directed to fast-maturing species like weakfish, which spawn at a year old. Unfortunately, striped bass have become very popular with high-end chefs and are certainly more sought-after by the fish-eating public than most fast-growing and fast-spawning fish.

 

A Question of Policy

            Then comes the policy question, Who owns the fish? Game-fish advocates argue that striped bass are a public resource and should rightly and fairly go to the public at large first, allowing every citizen a chance to take home a fish. According to Charles Witek III of the Costal Conservation Association New York (CCA NY), “those who take small quantities of such resources for personal use should have priority over those who privatize large quantities in order to turn a profit.” Land-dwelling wildlife in the United States (deer, waterfowl and the like) as well as freshwater fish are managed in this way, and there is no logical reason why marine fish shouldn’t be. Commercial fishermen, however, argue that they harvest on behalf of the public who either cannot or choose not to personally access the resource, but opt to have someone else catch it for them. The commercial interests use this argument to good effect, referencing senior citizens, disabled people or the middle-class upstate homemaker as examples. At public hearings, commercial fishermen accuse “rich sporties” of trying to deny valuable protein to such people just so they can have more fish “to play with.”

            Fote points out that the “providing-food-for-people-who-can’t-gather-it-for-themselves” argument falls flat on its face, once you visit any fish market. Wild striped bass is a luxury fish running $6 to $12 a pound, certainly out of the price range of most citizens without the resources to catch them on their own. According to Fote, such people would be better served buying farm-raised hybrid striped bass, which retail for a much lower price and are undoubtedly healthier for consumption as well. In New York and surrounding states, there is a big health issue with stripers that arrive at the market. Legally, there is no commercial fishing for striped bass where these advisories exist, but unfortunately, there is an illegal fishery, which allegedly supplies fish markets and restaurants in several states. Legal commercial bass fishing in New York is highly regulated. Around 500 commercial striped bass fishermen get approximately 120 striped bass tags each per year, certainly not enough to supply wild striped bass to all the restaurants and fish markets in New York City, let alone the surrounding areas. Enforcement agencies are not able to keep up with striped bass poachers, especially in light of current national security issues.

            In addition to this argument, game-fish advocates point to the nonselective “dirty” gear, like gill nets and trawls, that some commercial fishermen use to harvest striped bass. While some commercial gear is more selective, it all involves substantial bycatch mortality. More disturbing, however, is the propensity of the commercial fleets to high-grade the bass they catch to get a bigger fish and a better market price. According to the New Jersey Star Ledger, North Carolina recently opened the striper fishery to trawlers for several days, limiting their catch to 100 bass each. Columnist Al Ristori pointed out that this amount could have been caught in a single short tow. However, on January 21 and 22, in the Outer Banks, a wintering ground for coastal striped bass stocks, 15 trawlers made one long tow after another, keeping only the largest fish to maximize poundage. Apparently, the trawlers received bad publicity during previous winters because of all the dead bass they left behind. According to Ristori’s source, they solved that problem this year by stabbing the smaller striper’s air bladders so they’d sink to the bottom. He estimates the real death toll must have been three to four times the number of bass brought in. Game-fish status for striped bass would most certainly stop wasteful and destructive practices like this.

            So in short, arguments for “wholesome” and sustainable recreation, public ownership, stewardship, health of the fish-eating public, and the abandonment of destructive fishing practices and “dirty” gear support game-fish status for stripers. The only primary arguments against it are the need to provide food for people who can’t gather it for themselves and to sustain a traditional fishery. Currently, the voting pubic can go either way. However, within various management councils as well as state governments, the commercial arguments undoubtedly dominate opinions.

          

PART II – STRIPED BASS… A GAME FISH?


Is gamefish is politically feasible, given today's circumstances?  This will be an important question gamefish advocates in each state will have to ask themselves.  While there are certainly some questions about the health of the stock and the current lack of historically large fish, (see Jan resource column) striped bass were not “overfished” in the conventional sense of the word.  Stock assessments showed plenty of small fish around and mortality levels were well below maximum sustainable yield and even a tad under the target mortality.  Therefore, northeastern fisheries managers dealing with crashing cod, halibut, winter flounder stocks, fish truly in bad shape, are not likely to consider reducing the harvest of a fish that is already where they hope cod might be in another decade--if luck holds out.  One ASMFC Commissioner stated clearly at the Amendment 6 meeting that he just couldn't look at a stock assessment that showed the most fish in 20 years, and tell his commercial fishermen that they had to face cuts.

 

Many believe that gamefish status for striped bass doesn’t have the necessary support from decision makers in states where it does not already exist regardless of what majority public opinion reflects.  The recent Amendment 6 decision proves this unfortunate reality. Based on the ASMFC Summary report, 203 comments opposed any change in the commercial allocation, while only 41 supported some sort of coastal commercial increase.  Only in Massachusetts did the comments in favor of an increase outweigh those opposed, and that by the slim margin of 7 to 6, while North Carolina split 13-13, yet the ASMFC Striped Bass Management Board, ignoring the majority of public comments, supported a 43% commercial increase by a substantial majority.

 

According to the ASMFC, 216 comments supported lowering striped bass mortality to F= 0.20 or 0.25, while 81 supported the higher 0.30 (with support for 0.30 higher only in the Chesapeake jurisdictions of Maryland by a margin of 7-5, Potomac R. Fisheries Commission at 6-1 and Virginia at 22-7), but again the Management Board wouldn't even consider such a modest harvest reduction. One can correctly assume that the Commissioners wanted to keep the kill high and increase the commercial quota regardless of majority public opinion, and so they did just that. 

 

A mounting number of anglers believe there is something inherently wrong with the way ASMFC operates.  In the case of Amendment 6, they blatantly showed disregard for the overwhelming number of public comments in support of reduced mortality.  Some claim that the ASMFC invites public comments and has public hearings solely to convince the public that they have some input, when the reality is, they could care less.  Brad Burns points out thatthe ASMFC commissioners make policy decisions as a group, that they could never make individually back in their home states without an extensive public process that they would have to take quite seriously.” Some find it very disturbing the power that some of these ASMFC commissioners have assumed, allowing them to make what amounts to public policy decisions without being accountable to any sort of constituency.  Elected representatives facing the reality of being voted out by unpopular decisions should instead make many of these decisions.  Legislation (which has not yet been tested for constitutionality, and remains vulnerable to challenge) gives the ASMFC authority to enforce its decisions while it is not really accountable to anyone.  The only possibly for change lies in the threat of a potential lawsuit brought on by recreational fishing interests whose often-loud voice, many believe, is purposely not heard. 

 

It’s also clear that those elected officials who appoint ASMFC commissioners don't allow fishery issues to decide their vote.  More than likely, there is not a single politician in those non-gamefish states that would be concerned about being voted out of office because he didn't support gamefish for striped bass.  On the other hand, there is undoubtedly more than one from heavily commercial districts that could lose their seat if they voted on the side of the “rich sporties.”

 

On a state-by-state basis, those states, which have been successful in getting gamefish bills, did so at a time when the resource was dwindling, or commercial harvest was particularly low.  During the fight for gamefish, there was always opposition from the commercial industry, however today, because the stock is considered “healthy” and there are more commercials profiting from the resource, the opposition is much greater. 

 

Maine and New Hampshire’s gamefish laws went into effect during the collapse or early recovery of the stock, when more people believed that commercial fishing was responsible.  Even in the years where striped bass were abundant, those states never supported a particularly large commercial fishery.  The combination of a depleted population and an insignificant commercial fishery made achieving gamefish status much easier for these states back then.

 

Connecticut is the oldest "gamefish" state on the east coast, adopting its law in 1965.  The commercial fishing industry, excluding shellfish and lobster fishermen, was never large in most of the state, and most commercial fin-fishermen were concentrated in a few ports near the Rhode Island border.  As a result, Connecticut was never a big commercial striped bass producer, and reported generally small, but regular, harvests.  Therefore, while Connecticut's gamefish law was enacted during a time when stripers were abundant, there were few commercial fishermen around to oppose it.  In addition, Connecticut's bill was passed at a time when saltwater fishing was becoming very popular, striper clubs were popping up all over the state and many wealthy anglers in the western half of the state were willing to lend their influence to the bill’s passage.

 

New Jersey, led by JCAA and Tom Fote is perhaps the best example of recreational fishermen coming together and fighting successfully for a gamefish bill. However, most agree that even New Jersey faced significantly less opposition than they would have if they had tried to enact the legislation today. The New Jersey gamefish bill was put into effect in 1991, again during the collapse/early recovery years.  The state once hosted a relatively large commercial bass fishery, however it diminished significantly with the collapse.  The roll of General Electric and its PCBs that found their way into the Hudson River played a big part as well.  There were many areas in New Jersey where “contaminated” bass were deemed unfit for human consumption.  As a result, a strong state angling lobby led by Fote, coupled with a collapsed bass population and PCB contaminated fish, led the remaining commercial fishermen to believe that the fight wasn’t worth it.  It should be noted that with the resurgence of the striped bass, the Garden State Seafood Association has been actively working to get the gamefish law repealed, an effort which, to date, has failed, again because of JCAA, and particularly Tom Fote’s success in rallying anglers.

 

Two other gamefish states of note are Pennsylvania and Washington DC, whose commercial striped bass industry was negligible and who passed gamefish bills during the crash period.

 

In Massachusetts all commercial bass fishing is hook and line.  While this is generally more selective than other methods of commercial fishing it had the unfortunate effect of creating hordes of “weekend warrior” type “pin-hookers.”  CCA Massachusetts made a bid for gamefish in the late '90s which failed badly, in part because of opposition from alleged "recreationals" who had historically sold their catch.  Massachusetts is the largest commercial harvester outside of the Chesapeake Bay states, taking 766,237 pounds in 1999, 796,159 in 2000 and 815,384 in 2001.  Paul Diodati, the top MA fisheries manager, is undoubtedly pro-commercial, and was successful in convincing other ASMFC commissioners to vote for opening the EEZ for striped bass fishing. A measure that most believe is nothing more than a loophole for commercial fishermen to further exploit the resource for profit. The state is under heavy pressure from commercial fishermen in the groundfish industry who are looking for something to take the place of overfished and increasingly regulated groundfish stocks.  Getting Diodati to support any restrictions on the sale of bass will be a monumental task. 

 

The commercial fishing industry in Rhode Island is powerful, and has considerable government support.  Again, it would be politically difficult to tell fishermen crippled by a collapsing groundfish industry to reduce the harvest of a stock, while not considered healthy by some, is currently at high levels of abundance.  An attempt to shift some "unused" recreational fish to the commercial industry a few years ago failed as a result of strong opposition from the recreational community.  While there is a big difference between not increasing the commercial quota and eliminating it altogether, Rhode Island’s success is encouraging, and some believe that this may be one of the states where gamefish status would have its best chance.

 

New York is second only to Massachusetts in coastal commercial harvest.  While there are in excess of 500 commercial bass fishermen in New York, stripers don't form a large part of any commercial fisherman's legal income.  However, because of its symbolic value, commercial fishermen have and will continue to fight very hard for their share of the fishery.  Striped bass have a deep tradition with East End commercial fishermen of which the late John Cole describes in dept in his timeless book Striper.  Furthermore, the New York Seafood Council is a powerful lobby that has access to some of the most influential politicians in the state. Governor Mario Cuomo was entirely sympathetic to "hard-working" commercial bass fishermen, and didn’t consider anglers a worthy block of voters.  His successor, Governor George Patacki, is equally sympathetic, and his Hudson River roots intertwine with those of a number of commercial fishing families. Furthermore, there is little support for a gamefish bill in the Assembly.  Owen Johnson, the senator who sponsored a failed gamefish bill a couple of decades ago, is now tied closely to the Seafood Council, and has declared his opposition to any gamefish legislation. It should also be noted that Owen Johnson is the legislative ASMFC commissioner. 

 

Delaware, while a small coastal state, has a commercial quota higher than Rhode Island's, guaranteeing some stiff commercial opposition.  Maryland harvests a greater poundage of striped bass than any other state. This is a commercial fishery with great monetary value, and the commercials will undoubtedly fight hard to keep it.  Whoever controls the Potomac River Fisheries Commission controls the vote.  Right now, the commercials do.  If anglers could gain control, they could possibly put in a gamefish measure.  In Virginia they usually harvest slightly less than Maryland, but have caught up in recent years. Although recreational fishermen, lead by CCA Virginia, have improved the situation in the past few years, they're a long way from parity with the commercials.   This is a hugely valuable fishery, and it will take a long and bitter fight to shut it down.

 

North Carolina is on the same plane with Massachusetts and New York.  They are now actively trying to open the EEZ, so their boats can access the migratory fish wintering over off the Outer Banks.  The state government is very pro-commercial, both at the executive level and in the Senate where, like Johnson in New York, Senator Basnight takes very, very good care of "his" commercial fishermen.  Bass are not an important recreational fish here, further skewing the balance. 

 

On the national front, Congressman Frank Pallone from NJ has repeatedly introduced striped bass gamefish legislation in the House of Representatives.  Up to now Pallone has been unable to move it out of committee and onto the floor, for the most part, because of lack of support. 

 

In view of all the information, getting coastal gamefish status will be a monumental task, unless the stock collapses again.  Many believe that this is a distinct possibility if we have several successive poor spawning years (which has historically been a natural occurrence) while fishing at the current mortality level.  However, many refuse acknowledge this because inevitably it would mean further restrictions for anglers.   Today, in light of the current abundance and the refusal of the angling community to acknowledge the fact there are less spawning fish around, any fisheries manager who tried to put in a regulation barring the commercial harvest of striped bass will be inviting a lawsuit claiming that it is "arbitrary and capricious" in view of the current abundance.  Many believe it would take another total collapse to make gamefish by regulation a possibility, and that would assume a friendly governor who would not block the attempt. 

 

However, achieving this enormous feat is entirely possible if gamefish advocates focus their efforts on the legislative front.  The fact is that striped bass anglers out number commercial fishermen 300 to 1, and could easily overwhelm the commercial lobby if they got together and tried.  Unfortunately, anglers in the non-gamefish striper states have so far lacked the cohesiveness dedication to do so.  Up to now, they've been unwilling to match the commercial industry dollar-for-dollar when it comes to hiring lobbyists and putting pressure on elected officials.  When you look at the paid membership numbers of various angling advocacy groups who have lobbyists in Washington, DC, compared to the number of anglers in the US, you’ll see quite a discrepancy.  If a decent percentage of the 3,000,000 or so anglers who fish recreationally for striped bass made a personal effort to write their senators, congressmen, governor, state senators and assemblymen, attend public hearings, submit written comments to the various plans etc… the voting block would be dwarf the commercial fishing one.  Even if each of those 3-million anglers joined an angler advocacy group (Stripers Forever, CCA etc..) the amount of money pumped in, and influence involved with such a gigantic membership base, would create a force that no public official could ignore. 

 

Enter Stripers Forever:  The mission of Stripers Forever - its only mission – is to aggressively generate enough political pressure to achieve gamefish status for the striped bass.  This new organization hopes to unite the entire saltwater angling community behind this effort.  If this new group reaches a decent percentage of the 3,000,000 or so anglers who fish recreationally for striped bass and motivates them to make a personal effort and follow through on the actions required, it can succeed.   If this group succeeds in rallying anglers, achieving gamefish status for stripers will still be a knock down drag out, time consuming and overall uphill battle…  It will take years of intense focus on the issue by angling advocates.  Important battles are won only after long struggles.  The idea is to start a movement that gains momentum and will eventually be impossible to stop.

 

Contact info for Stripers Forever and CCA…