ASMFC approves 25 percent cut in striped bass harvest

Brothers Ned Casey (left), and John Casey with a large striped bass caught last year during the spring run. One year later, fishing was poor. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Fishermen along the East Coast can expect to see new regulations in 2015 designed to reduce the harvest of striped bass. That comes as welcome news to fishermen who have expressed concerns for several years over a steady decline in the abundance and size of one of New England’s most sought-after gamefish.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a 15-member body responsible for managing fish species and implementing management plans along the East Coast, last week announced its approval of Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.

The changes will require a 25 percent reduction in the Massachusetts commercial quota and a reduction in the recreational bag limit from two fish per day at 28 inches to one fish at 28 inches, or a plan that results in a similar 25 percent reduction in the recreational harvest.

The 2014 Massachusetts commercial striped bass fishing quota was 1,155,100 pounds. The season closed following a reported harvest of 1,128,337 pounds.

The Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) said it will hold several public hearings this winter on the proposed changes to the bass regulations. “As always, input and participation from stakeholders will be an integral part of this rulemaking process,” DMF said in a prepared statement.

ASMFC said the changes are a response to data that showed a reduction in the number of breeding fish, and continuing harvests above mortality targets.

“The Addendum establishes new fishing mortality (F) reference points, as recommended by the 2013 benchmark stock assessment. In order to reduce F to a level at or below the new target, coastal states will implement a 25 percent harvest reduction from 2013 levels,” ASMFC said in a press release. “Chesapeake Bay states/jurisdictions will implement a 20.5 percent harvest reduction from 2012 levels since their fisheries were reduced by 14 percent in 2013 based on their management program. All states/jurisdictions will promulgate regulations prior to the start of their 2015 fisheries.”

According to the ASMFC, the changes in the management plan that has governed striped bass for decades responds to results of the 2013 Atlantic striped bass benchmark assessment that indicated fishing mortality was above target in 2012, and female spawning stock biomass “has been steadily declining below the target level since 2006.”

The ASMFC said that while “the stock is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring,” the number of spawning fish is expected to continue to fall below the set target.

“I congratulate members of the management board for making tough choices yesterday to ensure the long-term health and viability of our striped bass fishery resources,” board chairman Douglas Grout of New Hampshire said. “The board struck an important balance in taking immediate action to reduce fishing mortality back to the target while also recognizing the unique characteristics of the Chesapeake Bay fisheries.  The action will assure a more rapid increase in the abundance of spawning fish which has been declining in recent years.”

Welcome change

Kib Bramhall of West Tisbury, a dean of the Island’s recreational fishing fraternity and a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby hall of fame, has seen striper numbers decline and rebound, only to decline again. In 1981, he set a Derby shore record when he landed a 42.14-pound striped bass on the fly rod.

“I believe that striped bass are in serious trouble again,” Mr. Bramhall said. “The overall recreational catch is down something like 60 percent in the last several years, and the Derby weighed in 40 percent fewer stripers than last year. You can’t make this kind of stuff up.”

Mr. Bramhall said he applauds the ASMFC decision to implement a 25 percent reduction, but he wishes the Chesapeake, where the reduction is set at 20 percent, faced a similar cutback.

“It is fine to limit recreational anglers to one keeper per day,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how individual states come up with size limits.

“It will be largely up to recreational anglers to use peer pressure to enforce new regulations. There aren’t enough EPOs (environmental police officers).”

Not optimistic

Brad Burns, president of Stripers Forever, a Maine based nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to making striped bass a gamefish along the entire east coast, is not optimistic that the ASMFC reductions will  alter the decline in striped bass.

In a newsletter to members, Mr. Burns said the ASMFC technical committee gives the new changes only a 50 percent chance of rebuilding the spawning stock. He pointed to the unwillingness of Chesapeake Bay area commercial fishermen to support conservation measures on the basis that they fish on a stock of non-migratory and plentiful male fish. “This argument is hard to buy since the recreational catch in the Bay has declined from about 6.7 million fish in 2006 to 3.2 million in 2013,” Mr. Burns said.

Bay area commercial fishermen, he said, also claim that stripers are eating too many young blueclaw crabs that the fishermen depend on for the rest of their living. “The truth is that stripers have been coexisting with the crabs in the Chesapeake Bay forever, and many people feel that over-harvest and environmental conditions within the bay are the real culprits in the low crab population,” he said.

Mr. Burns pointed to one high point during the ASMFC hearing. “Paul Diodati, the Director of Marine Fisheries in Massachusetts, made the point that the coastal states had already lost a great deal of money with the striped bass population downturn, and that many anglers have been deprived of highly valued recreational opportunities,” he said. “Listening to ASMFC fishery debates over the years, I have never heard anyone stand up for the value of recreational fishing and the need for a robust fish population to the extent that I did during this meeting. That may be a good sign for the future of fishery management.”

Mr. Burns said there is no telling what the future holds for striped bass. “So while the vote this week mandating regulatory changes for 2015 is a step in the right direction, we would be surprised if those changes will substantially improve the striped bass population, or even make any difference. The battle is a very long way from being over.”

Huge hit

Darren Saletta of Chatham, president of the Massachusetts Commercial Striped Bass Association, which represents the interests of more than 130 commercial bass fishermen, said his organization supports the science the ASMFC has applied to managing striped bass and the goal of sustainability. However, in a telephone call with The Times on Tuesday, Mr. Saletta, a charter captain as well as a commercial fisherman, said he does not agree with a 25 percent cut across the board.

Mr. Saletta said that the recreational fishery, which has experienced uncontrolled growth over the past 15 years, generates little accurate data as opposed to the commercial sector, which is tightly monitored and has been held in relative check when compared with the recreational take. He would like to see the responsibility for a reduction in harvest fall more heavily on the recreational side of the ledger.

“The commercial fishery should be subject to a more modest reduction, such as seven to 10 percent, somewhere in there,” he said. “Twenty-five percent of 1.1 million is a lot of fish, a lot of money. It is a very direct economic hit on a commercial fishery in the state.”

Mr. Saletta said the reduction in the recreational bag limit from two to one will not affect the recreational economy. Fishermen will still fish, he said. “Do we need to take 25 percent from a fishery that is a fraction of the recreational fishery?” he asked. “That’s a huge hit. That’s a lot of money.”