Before summarizing the new catch limits set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (AMFSC), let me start with a simple observation: This was the worst year of striped bass fishing in New England I have ever experienced. I’m not alone in that observation, either.
Standing on the bow of a boat this summer off Cape Cod, one guide declared, simply: “The game’s over.” Another friend, former guide, and seemingly incurable fishing bum, declared this summer the best albie season he’s seen, and the worst striped bass season he’s experienced.
Starting an article that will, ultimately, argue for a more rigorous, science-based approach to marine fisheries management by citing an anecdote is, I know, not a best practice. But these collective personal observations do reflect the collected science: namely, that striped bass have not recovered, as the ASMFC erroneously declared a few years ago. In fact, striped bass continue to struggle to rebuild their population to sustainable levels across the east coast of the United States.
In expectation of the AMFSC’s annual ruling on commercial and recreation catch limits for the striped bass fishery, people prepare for a fight that is all too predictable in its opponents, their positions, and in the outcome. The roles hardly need to be rehearsed: commercial fishermen often argue that the striper population is healthy, even all too healthy, and that catch limits should not be reduced as a consequence. Meanwhile, recreational fishermen often argue for stricter commercial catch limits. Moreover, the region governed by the AMFSC (from the Chesapeake north, roughly) is further divided: commercial and even recreational fishermen in the southern regions favor different arguments.
Though we share this precious migratory species, we are a coast divided — divided by local economies and ecosystems, as much by science and politics. But one thing is clear to me: as a coast divided, we are a coast in decline.
This framing is all too familiar; on the very day that we assemble at voting stations, the observation of division will be made all too often without the observer’s party claiming any part in the responsibility for that division. And so let me make one final observation.
A familiar refrain from recreational fishermen, and fly fishermen in particular I would argue, is that the commercial fleet is largely if not solely responsible for restoring the striped bass fishery. Absent from this argument is the impact of recreational fishing on the striped bass population. Recreational fishermen keep and kill striped bass, and perhaps most importantly big stripers, all too often, and all too often with a sense impunity. This is certainly true with charter boats, but it’s also true with shore and boat recreational fishermen.
This line of argument was certainly present this year. By reducing the commercial harvest by 25%, the AMFSC’s recommendation took a step in the right direction. This is part of what Charles Witek over on Reel-Time meant when he observed the AMFSC was “almost right.” I agree, but think they should have reduced the catch limits even more significantly. Put whatever number on it you want — catching less of too much is still catching too much.
But we missed an opportunity by keeping the recreational catch limit at one 28″ per day. Given the low numbers of stripers, it’s my conviction that we need more of the big breeders for longer in their lives. I know many fishermen want a photo with these fish, posing in a derby or on a beach with a big, dead fish. But ask yourself this hypothetical: Would you display a photo of yourself with a 30″ female if you knew it was the last one off the coast of Rhode Island? To me the math seems pretty simple: more big stripers left in the ocean means better striped bass fishing for the future.
At the risk of seeming to turn on my own people, let me make this clear: the intentional and unintentional mortality rate at the hands of recreational fishermen is significantly understated in this debate. And it is here where I think we, as fishermen, should start.
These are simple ideas, but ideas I’ve come to believe in after many discussions and many hours of chasing striped bass. As recreational fishermen:
• We should take every possible step to reduce the injury we cause to these fish we claim to want to protect, including using barbless hooks;
• We should release every single striped bass we catch; and
• We should be uncompromising in encouraging our fellow recreational fishermen to do the very same.
And so I would borrow a sentiment from Charles Witek’s article: The AMFSC took a step in the right direction. Now, I think it’s time recreational fishermen do even more. Steps are not enough; it’s time for great strides.