Rule makers and fishermen focus on striped bass

My neighbor's boat was a victim of Irene. I do not expect this setback to affect his determination to win a hat full of pins. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Irene provided a taste of just what the Island could be in for if a hurricane ever took aim for Martha’s Vineyard. Her center passed over New York City more than 250 miles away, but despite the distance the Island experienced damaging wind gusts and surf.

Several times on Sunday a sudden gust bent the trees along my street, and I waited to hear the sharp crack of wood snapping. Once I did, and when I looked out the window a branch lay across my neighbor’s boat.

Steve is a seasonal visitor and enthusiastic fisherman. He visited a few weeks ago and left his boat at the family’s vacation house in anticipation of the upcoming 66th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby that begins September 11.

The boat appears usable. I hope it is, but I know that if it is not he will take to the shore. Weather and lack of a boat never keeps a real Derby fisherman down.

Throughout the storm, public safety officials reminded Islanders to stay indoors away from the danger of falling trees and limbs.

Of course, it was smart advice. And I followed it, because it was not the Derby or deer hunting season.

“You know I’ve fished and hunted in this sort of wind,” I said to Norma as I looked out the window at the trees swaying in the breeze. I said it more as a reflection on nature and man than as a boast. Frankly, Sunday, I was content to be on my couch.

That has not always been the case. Sometimes, fishing has gotten the best of my common sense. I recall lots of times I went fishing during the Derby on days when I thought I would be the only one on the beach, giving me a distinct advantage, only to run into other fishermen with the same idea.

I have sat in my tree stand deer hunting when gusts would set me to swaying back and forth like a human metronome. I knew it was crazy but I just could not resist the chance to be in the woods. Also, big bucks often move on windy days so it is not complete craziness to be in a tree but one has to pick the tree carefully.

The same cannot be said for the knuckleheads who dove into the surf off South Beach Sunday. They could not use fishing as an excuse, unless they had a desire to become fish-food. Even on a calm day South Beach can be treacherous. What could they have been thinking?

I do know what fishermen will be thinking in the weeks ahead: Where can I catch a Derby-winning bass? Good luck.

The annual fall migration, or what passes for it on the Island, and the Derby will motivate even casual anglers to look for a fish in the 40 and 50-pound range, not unheard of but scarce in recent years. The numbers bear that out.

In 2010, the Derby weighed in 147 boat bass and 237 shore bass for a total catch of 384 fish. That was the lowest number since bass were reintroduced to the Derby in 1997 and eight fish less than the previous low set in 2008.

According to a review of Derby records, the boat and shore grand leader bass, 37.60-pounds and 31.87-pounds respectively, were the smallest fish ever weighed in the Derby’s 65 years.

The Massachusetts commercial striped bass season that began the beginning of July ended in mid-August after fishermen had landed 1,155,407 pounds of striped bass, or 108.8 percent of the allotted commercial quota.

From what I heard it was tough fishing for the Island’s commercial fishermen. Much of the action was off Chatham.

Many of the fishermen I speak to agree that the striper fishing is off. Sometimes we sound like a bunch of old men recalling when we start talking about the glory days on Lobsterville Beach when the June run began and the beach would be lined with fly fishermen casting to striped bass.

I am not of the opinion that the solution is to stop the commercial fishery. I think we are all in this together. Instead of fighting for a slice of a diminishing pie I would rather see us cooperate to keep the pie big and round.

Read what the biologists have to say, and all signs point to everything being okay, but then they admit, well, yes, maybe there is something wrong.

A recent Division of Marine Fisheries newsletter report titled, “New Striped Bass Management Measures on the Horizon,” began, “A growing number of anglers and watermen have been voicing their concerns about the status of the Atlantic striped bass resource. Their worries were heeded this spring when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted to consider changes to the management of striped bass that would reduce fishing mortality by up to 40 percent and further protect spawning fish when they are concentrated and vulnerable.”

DMF said it supported the creation of an addendum to the management plan to be developed this year and, if approved, implemented in 2012.

The newsletter added, “The action should be viewed as a precautionary move because none of the multiple triggers in the interstate management plan that can prompt management action in response to deteriorating stock status has been met. According to the last coastwide stock assessment completed in 2009, the striped bass stock is not overfished or experiencing overfishing. The biomass of reproductively mature females in the population was estimated to be 148 percent of the target in 2008 (and hence even further above the threshold level). Similarly, fishing mortality was estimated to be at least 30% below the target (and even further below the threshold).”

Everything is fine, right? Well, maybe not. After touting past peak years in fish stocks DMF described what may be at work.

“The recent decline in abundance is in large part due to reduced juvenile production in the Chesapeake Bay. For the last seven years, the Chesapeake hasn’t produced a particularly strong year class; in fact, the majority of the young of the year (YOY) production during this period has been below average. This has created a void in the age distribution of 2- to 6-year-olds. Striped bass take on average six years to grow to the 28 inch recreational minimum size, and eight years on average to reach the 34 inch commercial minimum size.”

The report said the numbers did not point to fishing mortality and egg production as the cause of lower juvenile production. Instead, it is likely the inability of bass larvae to survive in the Chesapeake area, “which is likely being caused by environmental factors, such as plankton availability, water quality and disease prevalence. Most of the striped bass caught by Massachusetts fishermen are spring migrants from the Chesapeake area that feed here during summer and then return to the Bay area in fall. Our striped bass fisheries have thus felt the consequences of the Bay’s poor larval survival in terms of reduced availability of smaller fish,” the report said.

And the bigger fish? “Additionally, many of the larger fish that migrate may not be coming close to shore during our fishing season, contributing to reduced catch. We suspect that distance from shore more recently is related to reduced prey availability and increased water temperature.”

DMF reported that the recreational catch in Massachusetts is down a whopping 74 percent from 2006 to 2010. At the same time, recreational fishermen are keeping the fish they fish hard for — the harvest increased 10 percent over the same time period.

DMF said the ASMFC is currently working on completing an updated stock assessment that will provide a better understanding of long-term impacts from fewer juvenile fish. The Striped Bass Management Board is expected to take action in November. Once that occurs Massachusetts and other states will begin to draft state rules that conform to the guidelines.

The concluding statement, signed by DMF director Paul Diodati, provided a counter statement to those who had pressed for action prior to this fishing season.

“This plan of action is proactive, prudent, practical and most importantly, completely responsive to the resource and fishery condition we currently witness.”