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SEAFOODNEWS.COM [Gloucester Times] By Christian M. Wade - December 4, 2017
BOSTON — Striped bass are New England’s premier sport fish, sought by thousands of anglers who prize them for a fighting spirit and high quality fillets.
Stripers were pushed to the brink of extinction in the late 1970s but made a dramatic comeback. Now recreational anglers say the coveted fish again is struggling, and they’re lobbying Beacon Hill to implement new limits that include making the fish off-limits to commercial fishermen.
One proposal, filed by Rep. Walter Timilty, D-Milton, would limit commercial licenses to fishermen who can demonstrate they’ve caught and sold more than 1,000 pounds of striped bass annually over the last five years.
Another proposal, offered by Rep. Thomas Stanley, D-Waltham, would phase out commercial fishing for striped bass by 2025 and establish fines up to $500 per fish for violators of new regulations.
“We’re asking for only one saltwater species to be reserved for recreational purposes and protected as a gamefish,” said Fred Jennings of Ipswich, who is the Massachusetts co-chairman of Stripers Forever, a recreational angler advocacy group. “And it’s one of vital importance to the economy of our state.”
Mike Spinney, a Stripers Forever board member, said a black market for striped bass is “thriving” along the coast, with poachers hauling in fish under the cover of darkness.
Fisheries managers have become overwhelmed by the illegal striper market, he told members of the Legislature’s Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture on Wednesday.
“The lax commercial regulations and lack of enforcement is why so many people feel at liberty to break the law by selling to unscrupulous dealers, markets and restaurants,” he said. “In one case, a refrigerated truck was driving up and down the Cape Cod canal, taking striped bass from a network of poachers for sale, presumably to the black market.”
Recreational catch bigger
Commercial fishing groups, however, dispute claims that the stock is dwindling and say a ban would put hundreds of fishermen out of business.
“Striped bass is healthy and flourishing,” said Darren Saletta of Chatham, a founder of the Massachusetts Commercial Striped Bass Association. “The argument that commercial fishing is killing the striped bass fishery has been debunked over and over again.”
Saletta, who operates a charter fishing operation, Monomoy Sportfishing, said there’s no need to edge commercial fishermen out of the market.
“We believe this fishery is being well managed,” he said. “With any wild species you’re going to have natural, cyclical variations in the population mass.”
Stripers breed in fresh water and live most of their mature lives in salt water. They spawn in the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the mouths of the Delaware and Hudson rivers, before slowly migrating up the coast.
Locally they typically arrive off the mouth of the Merrimack River around mid-May, while making their way northward. They chase large schools of baitfish up the river and along the coast. Hundreds of fishermen line local beaches or go out in boats to catch them.
Striped bass are a hardy fish that live up to 40 years and grow to 100 pounds, though such catches are rare.
Though recreational anglers in Massachusetts can catch stripers year-round, the best months are May to November.
The commercial season begins in late June and ends when a statewide quota is reached. This season, the fishery was closed in early September.
Recreational fishermen catch 70 to 80 percent of the stripers from the chilly Atlantic Ocean, according to the state Division of Marine Fisheries. This year commercial fisherman landed 822,945 pounds of stripers, compared to an estimated 4 million pounds caught by recreational fishermen.
“Our recreational fishery kills a hell of a lot more fish than the commercial,” Saletta said. “They’re going after the wrong guys.”
Some limits in place
Under Timilty’s bill, commercial fishermen who meet that standard would be allowed to keep their striped bass licenses until 2025, when commercial licenses for the fish would no longer be issued.
Those commercial fishermen who demonstrate a “legitimate” reason for failing to reach the required 1,000 pounds in a year could seek a hardship relief from the Division of Marine Fisheries.
Stripers Forever has pushed similar bans in 2010 and 2015, but lawmakers didn’t approve those measures.
Two years ago, the Division of Marine Fisheries approved new rules cutting catch limits for recreational fishermen from two fish per day to one, and reducing the commercial take by 25 percent. Its rules kept the minimum catch size at 28 inches for recreational and commercial fishermen.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages fish stocks south of New England, has also tightened regulations for stripers in recent years. Maine, Connecticut and New Hampshire ban commercial fishing of striped bass.
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