FYI: I have Fred's permission to post this here..............JC
HEADED DOWN A DANGEROUS ROAD
By Fred Golofaro
Metro: Concern continues to grow surrounding the number of big stripers being harvested from the fishery, and the apparent lack of concern by fishery managers.
When will we ever learn? Never have those words rung truer than when it comes to protecting the striped bass resource. Already having driven striper stocks to a precipitous decline that triggered a moratorium on harvest a little more than two decades ago, we seem hell bent on repeating the same mistakes we made then. It may be hard to comprehend that there is a problem with the fishery when a glance at the fishing report section or a scan of the internet reveals an apparent abundance of bass up and down the Striper Coast. In June alone, Jersey and Long Island anglers took incredible numbers of big stripers from among the bunker schools parading along those shores. Fishing like this raises the specter of sounding like the boy who cried wolf, but as someone who fished through the highs and lows of striper abundance and decline, and watched most people ignore the warning signs until it was too late, I?d say it?s worth the risk.
Catching a big striper was once the specialty of a dedicated group of hard core fishermen who put in long hours to be successful at the striper game. Today?s anglers are better informed, better equipped, and to be blunt, anyone who can snag a bunker has the ability to catch a trophy striper. And therein lies part of the problem. An inordinate number of big stripers are being killed as a result of this fishing. Add to that the harvesting of all those wintering stripers off the Virginia and North Carolina coasts, and the popularity and effectiveness of live baits such as porgies in the Northeast, and we really have to raise the question of just how many of these big fish can we kill before we face another collapse of the fishery.
Effort has increased dramatically over what it was in the 70s and 80s. Striped bass have become the backbone of the recreational fishery in many areas as it seems ?everyone? is targeting them at some point in the season. For private boat anglers, open and charter boats, light tackle guides and anglers, surfcasters, flyrodders and just about anyone else who wets a line in the Northeast or Mid Atlantic regions, striped bass have become the ?go-to? species since their well documented recovery in the mid 90s. So reliant have anglers become on striped bass, that should the fishery collapse again, the impact on the recreational industry alone would be devastating.
I know we have far more stringent regulations in place than we did back in the 70s and 80s when anyone could keep as many bass as they wanted - and big catches were motivated by the ability of anglers to sell their catches, but there were far less anglers targeting them. These days, striped bass are facing unprecedented pressure from the recreational sector due to their current abundance and season and size restrictions on other species. Stripers have become an ?easy? target and in some areas, it is actually easier to catch a keeper size striper than a keeper fluke.
Over the last decade, we?ve witnessed the development of a targeted party boat fishery, which was non-existent just a decade ago. The ranks of surf fishermen have swelled to historic numbers and they are more efficient at the surf game than ever before. Striped bass will always be their number one target species.
Private boat anglers are spending more time inshore than ever before due to the cost of fuel, the economy and restrictions on taking tuna and sharks. They have also lost the ability to sell their catches as they once did, to cover the expense involved in lengthy runs to the canyons. And, when they do target stripers, the current generation of electronics makes locating bass, and staying on top of them, child?s play. Today?s fishfinders, sidescanners and plotters have made sharpies out of even casual striper fans.
Abuses in the commercial fishery are well documented, from the illegal harvesting of big stripers in the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), to abuses within the tag system of states like New York, to black market sales of stripers to restaurants and fish markets. There is no way to accurately record the number of fish illegally harvested in these fisheries, but the damage done to the resource on an annual basis is significant.
Striped bass are also being confronted with a dramatic increase in Mycobacteriosis, or Wasting Disease. The disease has led to considerable mortality in Chesapeake Bay stripers, where at last report, nearly 70 percent of the population is infected. The long term effects of this disease on the Bay?s stripers remain open to speculation, but they cannot be good, and should certainly be a consideration when factoring in striped bass mortality numbers for management purposes. Natural mortality could very well be the X-Factor in the fisheries ability to recover, should it suffer a collapse similar to the one that took place in the 1980s. Overfishing was the culprit then, making recovery far less challenging than if natural mortality, caused by a disease such as Mycobacteriosis, was involved.
Ready for more bad news? The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has proposed changes in the Striped Bass Management Plan that would give the commission?s Management Board carte blanche to increase the percentage of commercial harvest. The increase for the commercial fishery was proposed by New York?s At-Large rep and supported by Connecticut. The surprise there is that Connecticut is a gamefish state where no commercial fishing is allowed. One has to ask themselves why the ASMFC would even consider such a proposal when the most recent data compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service reveals a precipitous decline in Atlantic Coast recreational catches which includes fish released alive, going from roughly 28.6 million in 2006, to 9.8 million in 2009.
Now, let?s combine those numbers with data (see graph) from the annual young of the year surveys conducted on the Chesapeake Bay for more than 50 years. Since 2001, there has been a downward trend in the numbers, which are considered to be a good indication of spawning success, or in this case failure. This data is a pretty good indication of the health of future striper stocks, and that outlook is also not very promising.
WE?VE SEEN IT BEFORE
Is there reason to be concerned? You bet there is. Despite what appears to be a healthy, thriving fishery based on this season?s catches, the reality is that the striped bass resource could very well be headed down the same road that led to the species collapse two decades ago. Those of us who lived through, and contributed to, the striper?s dramatic collapse in the 80s, when spawning stock biomass hit a historic low of 3 million pounds (1984), are beginning to see the writing on the wall. This season?s amazing run of cow bass along the Jersey and Long Island coasts strikes a haunting parallel to the fishing I experienced on Cape Cod and Block Island from the late 70s to 1985, when 40-pound bass hardly raised an eyebrow they were so commonplace. The end quickly followed.
Many anglers and captains I speak to, from Maine to Virginia, are concerned, and many others are becoming aware that the fishery is moving in the wrong direction. Most of these folks base their concerns on anecdotal evidence, something that holds little water with fishery managers who rely on a scientific based approach for their decision making. Unfortunately, scientific evidence often develops too late to avoid the decline of a fishery. As evidenced by the ASMFC?s proposal to expand the commercial quota, any immediate changes in regulating the striper fishery are unlikely.
What CAN WE DO?
So, what can recreational anglers do to curb this disturbing trend? Many charter boat captains, tackle shop owners, tournament directors and everyday anglers I?ve spoken with have expressed concern over the excessive number of big stripers being harvested along the Striper Coast in recent years. Many, like myself, fished through the boom and bust years and understand the reality of a collapsed fishery. None want to see it happen again.
I have no intention of getting on my soap box and telling people you can?t take a striper, even a big striper, home for dinner. There is nothing wrong with killing an occasional bass for the table, and there are situations where it may be impractical to return a big fish to the water. But in situations where you can effectively execute a clean release, why not do it? For those fortunate enough to fish several days or more per week on their own boats, is it really necessary to take a fish home every day, even if you are ?entitled? to it?
In some states, like New York, open and charter boats have more liberal limits than other anglers. Do you really need to keep two big fish when one will provide more than enough meals for you and your family? Captains can play the biggest role by encouraging their party or fares to release fish they don?t want. We?ve seen both sides of the fence on this one ? captains and mates who encourage people that would otherwise release their fish to keep them so that other fares can take their fish, and then an increasing number of captains out there who encourage catch and release and even limit their charters to one fish per person rather than the allowable limit. Many readers have complained about what they perceive as an abuse of the fishery and have far more respect for skippers who encourage catch and release where it is appropriate.
SLOT LIMIT CAN HELP
Everyone seems to have their own solution for curbing the harvest of big stripers. The concept of slot limits is rapidly gaining popularity among the majority of anglers I speak to, but coming up with a slot that makes sense and provides the most benefit to the fishery is critical. I?ve never been a fan of a slot limit that requires any fish over a given size be returned, due to some of the complications involved in releasing large stripers. Letting go a 40-pound striper with a good chance for surviving with a five or six foot surf running, or from some rocky perch is virtually impossible. I?ve seen too many situations where releasing a big bass was futile and the fish destined for crab food.
Releasing a big bass from the deck of a boat with high gunnels, or the deck of a large party boat is also wrought with problems due to the difficulty of resuscitating a fish that is outside your reach. Most big bass require a fair amount of TLC to ensure their recovery. For the sake of throwing out numbers, a one fish bag limit and slot that would include releasing all bass between 32 and 40 or 42 inches might be the most practical, and also ensure a healthy stock of big fish (40-plus) for the future. Conscientious anglers would still have the ability to release the bigger fish when the situation permits.
Lots of anglers, including many who fish aboard charter or party boats where bag and size limits are sometimes more liberal, believe that one fish per person, especially in the case of bigger fish, is more than enough. There is also talk of restricting the use of live baits (Maryland?s DNR restricts the use of live eels in portions of Chesapeake Bay during the spring spawning period), and making circle hooks mandatory for all baitfishing. We?ve also heard suggestions for a trophy fish stamp which would require you to have the stamp in your possession in order to keep a big bass, much like they do with tarpon in Florida.
If nothing else, all this talk points to a major awareness on the part of anglers, captains, tackle shop owners and other members of the recreational fishing community that the picture is not as rosy as it appears and we need to do something about it. The solution is not an easy one, but a good starting point would be for those who participate in the fishery to practice some self restraint. Captains should find enough incentive to encourage more catch and release in the knowledge that they are protecting their own future, as well as that of the striped bass resource. Individuals, especially those who lived through the last ?striped bass crash,? have no desire to see a repeat of those lean years.
TIPS ON RELEASING YOUR CATCH
While the concept of catch and release is a good one, it is critical that it be practiced properly. Mortality increases dramatically when fish are mishandled, and especially when they are kept out of water for too long. Time out of water should be limited to seconds, not minutes, whenever possible. The following guidelines should go a long way in helping you practice ?safe catch and release.?
Get fish back in the water as quickly as possible. If a fish must be weighed, measured or photographed, have the camera, scale or tape at the ready and get it done as soon as the fish is under control. If you have to replace camera batteries or run back to the car to get a scale or tape, you are signing that fish?s death certificate.
Have the right tools. Pliers are an absolute must to help in removing hooks quickly and with minimum stress on the fish. A pair of long needlenose pliers can help where the hook is not easily accessible. Even better are some of the tools specifically designed for hook removal. ARC Dehookers, the ARC stands for Aquatic Release Conservation, are the best de-hookers I?ve come across and they come in different sizes to handle a variety of release scenarios. The ARC 24-inch Game Model Dehooker is ideal for big stripers. For more info on these valuable release tools, go to www.arcdehooker.com
or call 877-411-4272.
Use single hooks where applicable and always crush the barbs of treble hooks. Hook removal is amazingly easy when barbs are removed. Always use circle hooks when fishing with bait. There is no question that the use of circle hooks results in a very high percentage of lip-hooked fish and reduces mortality associated with gut-hooked fish.
Handle fish carefully. There are many situations where fish can be released without removing them from the water. This is the ideal catch and release scenario.
Net fish only when absolutely necessary; removing a fish from the net tends to increase time out of water. The netting will also remove some of the fish?s protective slime, which it needs to fend off disease and fungus infections. Netting can also cause damage to gills and fins in some cases.
Avoid the gill area. Never insert your hand into a gill cover to hold a fish. Hands should be kept free of the gill area at all times. Instead, grip the fish?s lower jaw and use your other hand to help support the weight of the fish.
Return fish to the water gently. Resuscitate the fish by moving it back and forth so that water flows through its mouth and over its gills. Surf fishermen can ?walk? a big fish in calm water. Do not release the fish until it is able to swim free of your grasp.