Midseason changes come to striped bass regulations

Stripers Forever cries foul, continues push to designate striped bass a game fish.

Circle hooks are required for bait casting for stripers in Massachusetts. — Courtesy Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries

The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) recently opted to increase the number of fishing days available to commercial striper fishermen in a given week. Per a memo from DMF Director Dan McKiernan, the move was designed, among other reasons, to give commercial fishermen greater access to striper quota and to give fishermen more days to operate in case foul weather hampers use of the smaller craft typically employed in the fishery.

The regulation bumps the previous two-day commercial fishing week to three days, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. 

Stripers Forever, a fishing organization dedicated to striped bass, has come out against the commercial striper fishing regulation change. In an email to Governor Charlie Baker’s office shared with The Times, Stripers Forever called the changes rushed and “illogical.”

In its email, Stripers Forever alleged the added day serves to pressure an already taxed fishery, and the minimum commercial size limit already on the books compounds this pressure. 

“If DMF believes striped bass are ‘overfished, and overfishing is occurring,’” the email states, “increasing fishing pressure on the already beleaguered population at this time makes no sense. The [35-inch] minimum size limit for commercially harvested striped bass all but ensures every striped bass caught for market in Massachusetts is a breeder-sized female — the very fish on which the future of the species depends.”

Commercial and recreational anglers are governed by different regulations. Commercial fishermen can take stripers in number, but cannot take fish shorter than 35 inches. Recreational anglers are permitted one take-home striper per day that must fall into a state slot size — the fish cannot be shorter than 28 inches, and must be less than 35 inches. Fish that fall outside the length parameters for either fishery must be released. 

Recreational anglers who use baited hooks, as opposed to flies and lures, must employ circle hooks. These hooks are designed to cause less damage to a striper’s mouth, and are designed to be less likely to gut-hook a striper (to be ingested by one) and cause grievous internal injury to the fish. 

Stripers Forever national board member Mike Spinney told The Times designation of striped bass as a game fish throughout the Eastern Seaboard is a central aim of the organization. Such a designation would classify the striper fishery as recreational only. To achieve such an end, Spinney said, commercial striper fisheries in states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island would have to be dissolved. Massachusetts has no state designated game fish, according to McKiernan. 

McKiernan noted in his memo that of the roughly 250 comments logged ahead of the regulation change, a concerted effort was made by a national organization to influence opinion. He did not name that organization. “Similar to 2018 and 2019, the comment was dominated by recreational anglers, including an organized write-in campaign by a nationwide organization,” he wrote. “These recreational anglers do not support taking any action to enhance access to the commercial quota, and many expressed a desire to see the commercial fishery eliminated and striped bass given game fish status. Commenters also expressed conservation concerns regarding the proposal. There were several common themes among these comments, including that poor fishing conditions around the Cape and Islands were a harbinger of another collapse, and that the commercial fishery taking large breeding-size fish was exacerbating current stock conditions.”

However, he further noted commercial bass fishermen lent support to the changes. “There were also numerous comments in favor of the proposal from commercial fishing interests,” he wrote. “These fishermen supported the proposal because they would have more access to the available quota, and this would help mitigate against the loss of days to weather and economic conditions in other fisheries that have been depressed due to the pandemic.”

Spinney said the reason commercial fishermen will land mostly female stripers of breeding size is because male stripers aren’t often found over 35 inches. He said the commercial size requirement could therefore unintentionally harm the overall stock. 

McKiernan wrote that larger female fish don’t factor into the size limit regulations for either recreational or commercial fishing. For the recreational fishery, the slot size bolsters efforts to reduce catch-and-release fish deaths, while for the commercial fishery, McKiernan argued, quota calculations, when factored against recreational restrictions, balance out the loss of fish of that size and gender. “[S]ome anglers view the current recreational slot limit as a means of protecting larger, fecund females,” he wrote. “While this may have contributed to why some anglers preferred the slot limit, it was not why DMF favored the slot limit, and why the slot limit was selected as the coastwide management option. The slot limit was preferred and selected because it was modeled to reduce recreational mortality by the required 18 percent while still allowing recreational anglers to be able to retain fish in a size class that is commonly caught. This then leads to the concern that the commercial fishery is contributing to the decline of the stock by virtue of removing large, fecund females. However, these removals are accounted for in the projections of the size structure of the harvest and in the calculations of quota based on a target fishing mortality rate. Moreover, it should be noted that, while the commercial fishery is still allowed to harvest larger fish, the recreational fishery is no longer harvesting these fish, so the net result will be far fewer large fish harvested, even if the entire commercial quota was taken.” 

Steve Morris, owner of Dick’s Bait and Tackle in Oak Bluffs, said he takes no side between commercial and recreational striper anglers, except that he doesn’t want to see regulations that pit the two sides against each other. Morris expressed frustration at the management of the fishery, and said he supports a total moratorium.

When it was pointed out that would likely impact his business, he said that doesn’t matter: “It’s all about the long term.”

While it’s against laws permitting commercial striped bass fishing in Massachusetts, Stripers Forever is onboard with circle hook regulations.

“I think the evidence is clear,” Spinney said, “that circle hooks save fishes’ lives. Circle hooks have been proven to do less damage.”

Another Massachusetts regulation Stripers Forever sees favorably is the prohibition of gaffs in both recreational and commercial striper fishing.

“There’s no good reason to use a gaff on striped bass,” Spinney said. “It’s just doing unnecessary damage to the fish.”