Martha’s Vineyard senator files striped bass spearfishing bill

Spearfishing for striped bass, now prohibited under state law, would be legalized under legislation filed by Rep. Sarah Peake and Sen. Daniel Wolf, despite concern expressed by opponents that the bass population has been depleted by overfishing.

Senator Wolf represents the Cape, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Ms. Peake represents Provincetown.

“Spearfishing is the most ecologically responsible because you can see what you’re catching before you catch it,” said Charles Matthews, the New England Regional Vice President of Underwater Society of America.

Under current law, recreational fishing with spear guns is allowed for all species except striped bass, which is limited to traditional hook-line fishing. The bills filed by Peake (H 247) and Wolf (S 399) would add spear fishermen to the statute, and subject them to all the same catch regulations as other recreational fishermen.

“We’re not adding another situation. If you’re going to allow recreational fishing, you should allow spearfishing,” said Faye Swenson, president of the Massachusetts Free Divers Club.

Supporters of the legislation testified on Tuesday before the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, telling lawmakers that spear fishermen who might otherwise fish in Massachusetts for striped bass are bringing their tourism dollars to Rhode Island and New Hampshire instead.

Anne Doherty, a four-time national striped bass spearfishing champion from Watertown, said she routinely drives to Rhode Island or New Hampshire to fish on the weekends. “I would prefer to do it in Massachusetts,” she said.

Rep. Anne Gobi, a Spencer Democrat and co-chairman of the committee, asked those testifying in support to address the letters of opposition received by the committee expressing concern that there are not enough striped bass to support a new class of recreational fishing.

Rep. Paul Schmid (D-Westport) also questioned whether the state should wait to expand spearfishing until it is confident that the striped bass population has stabilized.

“I would love to take all of those people underwater and show them,” Swenson said, noting that it makes little difference whether the fish are caught in Massachusetts or Rhode Island because the same population migrates.

Peake, a Provincetown Democrat who sits on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said that striped bass are not being overfished.

“The ASMFC’s determination currently is that overfishing is not occurring, but we are looking at the numbers and there is concern with the robustness of the juvenile fish,” said Peake, noting the commission plans to meet in August to discuss the population strengths of various species to determine whether catch limits or sizes need to be adjusted.

Still, Peake said the health of the striped bass stock should not bear on the legislation she filed, which cleared the House late last session, but died without receiving a vote in the Senate.

“The spearfishing is really about access. These are recreational fishermen who buy a license. It’s just about fairness of access,” Peake said.

Wolf called the fact that striped bass are the only species prohibited to spear fishermen in Massachusetts an “oversight,” and said the risk of catching and killing undersized striped bass is greater from those blindly using hooks and lines, even though line fishermen can release small fish after they are caught.

Fred Jennings, of the Massachusetts chapter of Stripers Forever, testified that catch and release is less likely to harm undersized fish than spearfishing, calling the often-cited 8 percent mortality rate of bass released to the water “overstated.”

“It’s pretty hard to measure the length of a fish before you kill it with a spear,” Jennings said. “My main concern is the decline of the fishery and that now is just not the time.”

Rep. Matthew Beaton, a Shrewsbury Republican, suggested waiting until August when the ASMFC might have a better grasp on health of the striped bass population, but Gobi also said she felt the spearfishing supporters had made a valid argument about fairness and access for all recreational fishermen.