Gone Fishin' : Commercial bass season numbers lag
The Massachusetts commercial bass season is proceeding very slowly. Depending on one's perspective and what it portends that could be good or bad.
The state Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) strictly regulates the commercial bass fishery. The length of the commercial season is tied to an annual state quota that is set in keeping with management guidelines provided by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the 15-member body that manages species and implements management plans along the East Coast.
In February, ASMFC issued a report that striped bass stocks along the Atlantic coast are healthy and growing. An interstate management plan designed to protect the highly migratory striper is working and overfishing is not occurring, said Federal regulators.
That may be so, but there is no question that commercial fishermen are taking fewer striped bass when compared with the same period last year.
The Mass commercial striped bass season is a unique fishery. It is open to anyone who purchases a commercial bass license, but it is limited to rod and reel fishing.
Some of the fishermen who hold licenses are content to sell a few fish, for gas money. A smaller percentage is made up of serious fishermen who look to the bass season to fill in a gap between seasonal occupations.
Fishermen and dealers are required to provide weekly catch reports. When the state quota is about to be reached, the season is closed.
Some years, the season has been closed in less than four weeks. DMF has tinkered with the bass regulations for years in an effort to avoid an early-season market glut and to lengthen the amount of time locally caught bass is available for markets and menus.
Current regulations allow commercial fishermen to land five fish on Sunday and 30 fish on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Bass must be a minimum of 32-inches in length as opposed to recreational regulations that allow for two fish at 28 inches.
Photo by Nelson Sigelman
A comparison of landings in pounds for the first four weeks of the 2007 and 2008 seasons provided on the DMF website shows:
What those numbers mean is not clear yet, even to fishery officials. It could reflect less fishing effort, a change in the distribution of fish stocks, or a combination of those elements.
From a management standpoint, it means a longer commercial season - good news for dealers and restaurants.
In a telephone conversation Wednesday morning, Micah Dean, a DMF research analyst, told me that four weeks into the season, 47 percent of the 1,107,828-pound quota has been landed. He said in past years the quota was filled after five weeks.
The average number of pounds landed per fishing day is 35,000 compared to 50,000 last year, about a 30 percent decrease. However, the price paid to fishermen this week is averaging $3.20 per pound compared to $2.56 for the same period last year.
DMF processed 3,900 striped bass licenses in 2007 and 3,576 in 2008. Less fishing effort? That will not be clear until fishermen who purchased a license file annual catch reports.
"It's definitely slow," said Louie Larsen, owner of The Net Result fish market in Vineyard Haven.
Louie said no Vineyard fisherman has brought in a limit and unlike previous years he has not shipped any fish to off-Island markets.
Louie said there appear to be plenty of fish around the outer Cape area but not the Vineyard.
Striped bass fillets were selling for $14.95 per pound in the case on Tuesday. Louie said that was about $3 higher than last year.
He suspects fewer fishermen are plying the waters, in part because of the higher cost of gas. What fish he is seeing are in the smaller range.
Betsy Larsen at Larsen's Fish Market in Menemsha echoed what her brother said. "I would definitely say it is slow," she said.
I tried to reach several commercial bass fishermen by telephone, but had no success. I was not surprised. I was more successful by email.
Scott Terry, a well-known fisherman and artist, emailed me some opinions on the state of the fishery between fishing trips.
"We had an exceptionally odd spring this year, with much colder water inshore than further offshore," said Scott. "Because of this, inshore squid fishing was very off this year as the squid stayed further out and migrated in the warmer offshore water. Thus the larger stripers followed, staying well beyond the three-mile state limit. Poor inshore fishing combined with ridiculous gas prices and reluctance on the part of wholesalers to increase the price paid to fishermen for stripers has greatly reduced the number of commercial fishermen this season.
"I have no doubt there will be a tremendous outrage directed at commercial fishermen for destroying the striper stocks, but you already know my feelings about that. Stocks do certainly need monitoring after a year like this, but it is way too early to make any judgments based on one very weird year."
Scott is not afraid to steer near controversial topics. He disagrees with the blanket condemnation of yo-yoing, a controversial fishing technique that has recently become popular, and said he has devised a method for retrieving yo-yo sinkers that prevents harm to the bass.
He continued, "Chunking is the only method that seems to be effective this year and I have been forced to reduce myself to this method of idiot fishing. I guarantee you this fishing kills many, many more times the stripers than yo-yoing ever will. Nearly every released fish needs to be cut off with only the line visible disappearing into the gullet. "Of course you won't be reading about this in the newspaper just like you won't be reading about the thousands of fish discarded by offshore draggers, which is going to be really bad this year in particular. Draggers call it an 'oops' and you can hear references on channel 10 quite often, as in "I had a pretty bad oops today, but such is life.'"
Many years ago when I had less regard for life and limb I used to scuba dive and snorkel. One of the more frightening moments I remember was hearing the sound of an outboard engine zinging towards me while I was under water.
Nick Bologna of Aquinnah called this week to recount a very scary experience. He was spear fishing for tautog among the rocks off Gay Head from a boat. A red flag with a diagonal white stripe indicating a diver in the water was clearly visible, he said.
When he looked up, a boat "going full steam through the boulder field" was coming right for him. The boat veered off at the very last moment.
"It was very scary," said Nick. The boat operator kept on going and never slowed down.
Nick said he was in about 12 feet of water. Two fly fishermen in a nearby boat witnessed the incident and could not believe what they were watching.
Nick said the occupants of the large center console appeared to have their attention focused on the shore, and naked women or naked men. Who knows, but there is no doubt they were behaving very stupidly, even recklessly.
So here are the Massachusetts rules. Persons scuba diving, skin diving or snorkeling must display a red and white divers flag. Divers or snorkelers must remain within 100 feet of the flag. This flag must be displayed on a vessel or surface float and must extend a minimum distance of three feet from the surface of the water.
If possible, vessel operators not engaged in the diving operation should stay at least 100 feet from a displayed flag. If not possible, vessel operators must reduce speed to no more than 3 miles per hour.
While we were on the subject of diving, I asked Nick about striped bass. He said he had not seen a lot this year. but did see a school of very big fish last year. He is coming across some big scup, however.
Nick said the scup are wary and a tough target. Speaking of targets, I had to ask him if all the talk about a great white shark had made him just a little cautious. After all, he was dressing in a seal costume and swimming in an area where a shark was sighted.
"It definitely made me nervous earlier in the season," said Nick, who stuck to shallow water for a while. Go figure that the biggest risk would come from humans.
Fluke season ends
The recreational fluke season ends tomorrow.