After the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby committee voted unanimously to remove striped bass as an eligible species for the 2020 Derby, officials are looking to support the recovery of the fish in any way they can.
Derby president John Custer told The Times in an email that the committee considers appropriate conservation measures for all species of fish each year, in the context of weigh-in numbers from prior years.
According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, from 2004 to 2014, commercial landings of striped bass averaged 6.8 million pounds (1 million fish) per year. From 2015 to 2018, commercial landings decreased to an average of 4.8 million pounds (611,000 fish).
From 2004 to 2014, recreational harvests averaged 4.6 million fish per year. From 2015 to 2018, annual harvest decreased to an estimated 2.9 million fish, due to the implementation of more restrictive regulations.
“For the past few off-seasons, we have discussed potential adjustments regarding striped bass, mindful of growing concerns about the species,” Custer said.
Last year, the Derby committee increased the minimum keeper size for stripers to 34 inches, but following that competition, Custer said it was obvious that further actions were necessary to ensure the survival of the species.
Massachusetts also imposed a modest cut to the commercial allowances for striped bass in 2019, and required the use of circle hooks, as opposed to J-hooks that can result in gut-hooking the fish (if the fish accidentally swallows the hook, it can be embedded in its stomach).
Offset hooks, or hooks where the barb is slightly askew, were banned as well, because they increase the chance of foul-hooking a bass (when the hook is lodged in the fish’s body).
Anglers were also encouraged to use single-hook lures and plugs, and put away their tackle with more than one treble hook.
Although the committee has discussed the possibility of eliminating stripers from the Derby in the past, Custer said it wasn’t deemed necessary until this year.
According to the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), recreational and commercial fisheries across the commonwealth take over 175,000 striped bass each year.
The bass is native to the U.S. and Canada. It is found from the lower St. Lawrence River in Canada to Northern Florida, and along portions of the Gulf of Mexico.
In Massachusetts, striped bass were food for native Americans in pre-colonial times. They have been an important natural resource since the Pilgrims came to Massachusetts in 1620, according to the DMF website.
As an avid fisherman, Custer said he has encountered fewer large bass at some of his favorite fishing spots in recent years. But in the springtime, Custer said, he has noticed a “tremendous number” of schoolies, or baby striped bass, which he said is a promising sign for upcoming years.
According to Custer, this isn’t the first time the species has seen diminished numbers. “I’ve heard some say that the situation was far more dire in the 1980s than it is now. And the fish recovered then, fortunately,” Custer said. “I believe there is so much more good information from fisheries scientists now than was available 35 years ago. So I’m hopeful and optimistic.”
Custer said he has received nothing but support and praise from the Vineyard community for taking stripers out of the Derby. He said people understand how important the species is to the Island and the fishing community at large.
“I trust that people will recognize just how important the striped bass is, for all of us, and do their part to reduce pressure on the fish as part of the recovery effort,” Custer said.
As a result of the removal of stripers from the competition, Custer said a number of changes need to be made to the rules and regulations of the Derby, and the committee will discuss these alterations at upcoming meetings.
In terms of dynamics of the Derby, Custer said he hopes participants will think about striped bass, even when they aren’t fishing for them.
“The species deserves and needs our attention, so even if stripers are not part of the 2020 Derby, in terms of being eligible for weigh-in, they remain an important part of what we are about, including conservation,” Custer said. “So we still want to celebrate striped bass. Out of sight, but not out of mind, so to speak.”
In the near future, Custer said, he hopes numbers of stripers recorded by scientists will reflect a jump in the population numbers, indicative of the success of the Derby committee’s efforts, and the efforts of the entire Island fishing community. “I am certainly hopeful that the species fully recovers. When it was so declared in the 1990s, many will likely agree that enough protective measures were not put in place, resulting in trouble again that we currently are faced with,” Custer said. “So we need to be cautious and thoughtful. I do hope that striped bass will again be part of the Derby. I’m optimistic they will be.”