Legislature needs to act on striper rules

To the Editor:

Game designation is the most effective management strategy for protecting fish and wildlife from commercially motivated exploitation. Game designation maximizes the recreational value of a species and generates the greatest return possible from a finite, public resource.

In Massachusetts, wild striped bass have a far greater sporting value than market value, by a factor of more than 40:1, yet the fishery is managed primarily as a commercial resource. The result is hundreds of millions of dollars in unrealized economic activity, and a mandated over-harvest that is ruining the fishery.

By any measure, striped bass populations are in sharp decline and are in need of protection from regulated greed. Yet the influence of the commercial market stands in the way of implementing the one common management tool that has saved deer, ducks, geese, grouse, trout — all species that at one time were exploited to the brink of extinction but are now in abundance and the focus of vibrant recreational economic activity simply because they were made game species.

Why has game species protection been so long in coming to the oceans? Perhaps it is because  of a stubborn, vestigial attitude that, despite all evidence, the ocean‘s bounty is limitless. Fortunately, there are examples of enlightened fisheries management. Tarpon and bonefish are now regulated as game species most everywhere, as are redfish. Six Atlantic coast states have already designated wild stripers as a game species. It is time for Massachusetts, where striped bass are the most popular marine sport fish, to do the same.

Unfortunately, eight of the nine regulators that decide how the Massachusetts striped bass are regulated have direct financial interests in commercial fishing or are commercial fishermen themselves. The result of this management bias is that wild striped bass are in a losing battle against relentless legal and illegal over harvesting simply because they can be sold for quick money, both legally and on the black market.

No one wishes to knowingly destroy these fish, but that is exactly what is happening. Designating stripers as a game species will eliminate commercially biased regulations and change the way we define the real value of these fish. However, game designation will never come from the present regulators.

It is the legislature that must intercede and make a policy decision declaring wild stripers to be too valuable to be harvested commercially. It is their position to direct the Division of Marine Resources to manage them for their greater common good as a game species. There is still time to make a choice: Conservation or exploitation?  Game species or commercial? Saving or selling? The question that will decide the answer is: Does the legislature have the interest or the inclination to make this policy decision? Or, will they be intimidated by the vocal minority that wants the current, biased and destructive regulatory system to stay in place?

These fish are too valuable to our tourist economy, too valuable to the hundreds of thousands of recreational fishermen, and we know better than to be complicit in their demise. It is time to support legislative action, game designation, that will save these unique fish and the recreational economic engine they generate.

Dean Clark

Shrewsbury and Marstons Mills

Co-chairman of Massachusetts Stripers Forever