After two weeks of trying to catch striped bass off Martha's Vineyard, I became a card-carrying resident of Skunk City. If it hadn't been for bluefish and scup, my vacation would have been fishless.
Why? Maybe I'm a crummy fisherman. Maybe stripers hated my lures. Maybe I was over here when the stripers were over there.
But the Chesapeake Bay commercial hook-and-liners, who target the 18-inch to 24-inch resident fish, had a slow summer, too.
Brad Burns, president of Stripers Forever, says members of the group up and down the East Coast reported the same thing. He has theory and numbers from the National Marine Fisheries Service that he says support his thinking.
In a news release, Burns says the estimated catch of striped bass by recreational fishermen during the spring migration along the Atlantic Coast has declined by more than 75 percent over the past four years.
He says NMFS numbers show East Coast anglers caught nearly 11 million stripers during the first six months of 2006 compared to 2.6 million stripers this year.
“The recreational harvest is much smaller than that since a large percentage of stripers caught by anglers are released," he says.
Burns says angler success is now "back at the low levels in existence before the recovery of wild striped bass began in the early 1990s.”
(Not to piddle in his cornflakes, but in its report to Congress, NMFS reported total recreational landings of 2.5 million stripers in 2004, 2.7 million in 2006 and 2.2 million in 2008. Even if you add them all together, that's not 11 million fish. Further, that would make the 2.6 million fish for the first six months of this year a boffo season).
Burns says one problem facing the striper population is that the number of juvenile fish born and raised in the nursery known as the Chesapeake Bay is declining. But the bigger problem, he says, is the commercial fleet targeting the big female fish.
Stripers Forever, a group dedicated to shutting down the commercial striped bass industry, says trends support their contention that the only way to protect the fish is to limit the harvest to recreational anglers.
Burns says economic studies show that recreational striper fishing is worth $6.9 billion annually and provides more than 68,000 full-time equivalent jobs. The commercial industry can't hold a candle to that financial clout, he says.
Of course, recreational anglers carry a blowtorch when it comes to how many fish they catch vs. commercial fishermen. Recreational catches and dead discards make up about 80 percent of the total landings each year.
I should say here that Burns and I have had a vigorous back and forth over the matter of banning commercial striped bass fishing. I enjoy the discussion and admire his boundless passion. But as long as federal scientists say the species is not overfished--and they do--I don't see a reason to close out a segment of the fishing population.
So in response to the news release, I asked Burns about the impact of the estimated 800,000 stripers taken each winter by recreational anglers off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina, he agreed it's "no help" to the overall perceived problem, but he stayed on message:
"The recreational catch, though, is being spread over thousands of participants in the sport who have a daily bag limit of two fish each," he says. "For some who go out on charter boats it may be their only trip of a season or lifetime. In Massachusetts, for example, you can legally take 30 of these large fish per day for commercial sale."
Well, OK, I replied, but what about the 800,000 fish--big fish--that will not be making the trip up the coast in April to spawn in the Chesapeake because they're collecting freezer burn in someone's refrigerator?
Burns stayed on message: "This will never be fixed until the values behind the whole management plan are changed, and that will not be the case while a commercial fishery is still allowed. The recreational community has repeatedly called for smaller bag limits and things like a slot limit out on the coast, but the management plan is so designed to give someone’s idea of a historic split of the fish between recreational and commercial interests.
"The commercial community has continually pushed – as they are today – for a larger catch, and that in turn automatically ratchets up the recreational catch. Ending the market fishery for particularly important or vulnerable species has been the salvation of many fish, birds and animals. It is the answer for striped bass management."
Given the overwhelming difference between the number of fish taken by the recs vs. the commercial guys, I'm still not convinced the problem isn't on the recreational side. And there are other factors I wonder about.
1) It was the hottest summer on record. The close-in water was almost the temperature of poaching liquid. I know lots of anglers who stayed inside rather than venture out, so one has to question if fishing effort was down this summer. An inquiring mind might also ask if the bait fish stayed in cooler waters and the stripers stayed with them.
2) I'm fascinated by the argument that the estimates of 2.6 million fish harvested this year is too high because of catch-and-release fishing. It stands to reason, then, that the 11 million estimated for 2006 was too high, right?
3) Finally, it's amusing how the game-fish advocates use National Marine Fisheries Service numbers when it suits their purposes and dump all over the numbers as "junk science" when they prove inconvenient.
Anyway, the debate goes on. Let me know what you think.