Wild striper bill coming next week

Justin Pribanic holds up a striped bass he caught and released while fly fishing off Lobsterville Beach in Aquinnah. — File photo by Nelson Sigelman

A bill that would prohibit the harvest and sale of wild striped bass in Massachusetts begins its upstream legislative journey next week in the State House.

The joint committee on environment, natural resources, and agriculture has scheduled a public hearing on House bill 796, "An Act relative to the conservation of Atlantic striped bass," filed by Rep. Matt Patrick of Falmouth, at 11 am on Thursday, Jan. 14, in room 3A.

The striped bass figures large in Island culture. It is the focus of legions of Island and visiting recreational fishermen and supports a vibrant commercial and charter boat fleet. Past proposed changes in the state’s management of striped bass have spawned hot debate and this bill is no exception.

Island lawmakers Rep. Tim Madden of Nantucket and Senator Robert O’Leary of Barnstable sit on the committee that will hear the bill. The public hearing procedure, according to a committee staffer, calls for those who would like to comment to sign in prior to the hearing. There is a three-minute time limit.

Numerous other bills are also scheduled for a public hearing the same day. The committee has some 100 bills to review before March when the current session ends.

The bill as now written prohibits commercial fishing for striped bass and directs the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) to create new rules that would only allow recreational fishermen to take one striped bass per day between 20 and 26 inches in length or greater than 40 inches in length. The so-called slot limit is designed to preserve sexually mature breeder bass but still allow for fishermen to take a trophy fish.

The bill would allow for the sale of aquaculture-raised striped bass.

Current regulations allow recreational fishermen to take two fish per day over 28 inches in length. Commercial fishermen are allowed to take fish over 32 inches in length until the state’s quota, set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is reached. In 2009, fishermen who held a commercial rod and reel bass license took almost 1.2 million pounds of fish.

An avid striped bass fisherman, Matt Patrick has a keen interest in the future health of striped bass stocks. In a telephone call from his State House office Monday, he said his concern about the declining number of fish along our shores coupled with information he received from Stripers Forever, a Maine-based nonprofit that supports gamefish status for bass, spurred him to act. The information included data about the economic importance of striped bass and the decline of the brood stock that is essential to the future health of the fishery

"I just thought it was an appropriate and timely piece of legislation to file," Rep. Patrick said. "I knew it would be controversial."

Mr. Patrick said the public hearing is only a start of a public discussion about how best to manage striped bass. Typically, bills may take several years to move through the legislative process, and they often emerge with many amendments, he said.

Wes Brighton, a Chilmark commercial fisherman who fishes primarily for lobster, said he thinks there is much in the management of striped bass that commercial and recreational fishermen could agree on. In a telephone conversation, Mr. Brighton said his main complaint about the bill is that it seeks to bypass science-based management. Legislation should not be used to bypass the management process set up to address fisheries issues, he said.

Mr. Brighton said the striped bass commercial fishery also provides an entry fishing opportunity for young people that does not exist with many other species, either because the fishery is closed or the cost of a license is too expensive.

Better management of the resource, not closing off one group is the answer, he said. "Even though there are size restrictions and it goes from a two to one bag limit, it’s just a reallocation of who has access to the fishery," he said.