Thursday, July 10, 2014


If you’ve been chasing striped bass for more than five years, you know that something is wrong.

You’re not catching much.  Reports from up and down the coast are poor.  There are a few bunches of big fish around, but it’s getting hard to find anything under 20 pounds.

If you have a taste for science, and maybe even if you don’t, you’ve at least skimmed through the stock assessment that was completed last year.  You found no solace there.  It’s almost even money—a 46% chance—that the stock was already overfished in 2012, and you know that things have only gone downhill since then. 

Overfishing is not merely a threat that looms in the future; it has already occurred over much of the past decade.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission knows that there’s a problem, but hasn’t taken a single concrete step to fix it.  Instead, debate drags on, with most of it centering around minimizing economic harm, not maximizing chances for the striper’s recovery.

The biologists of its Striped Bass Technical Committee have presented only a single, high-risk plan to end overfishing; there is a 50% chance that their plan will fail to end overfishing by 2016.

Yet even that anemic plan is too much for some members of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board, who are working to water it down even further.  They would weaken the conservation provisions of the Striped Bass Management Plan, so that the harvest cuts needed to end overfishing would take three full years to implement, instead of the one year currently required by the plan.

No plan to rebuild the spawning stock to target abundance has been put on the table, although it can easily be argued that the management plan requires that as well.

Some folks in the angling press are trying to convince fishermen not to panic, although their motivation for encouraging complacency is not at all clear.  Sure, panic is bad, why shouldn’t we be demanding real action?

Optimists can point to the strong 2011 year class, and the likelihood that, although numbers are not yet out, the 2014 will be solid as well.

Pessimists can point out that the 1970 year class was a strong one, too, yet was just about gone in five or six years.  They can point to a 1977 article from the Boston Globe, reproduced on Capt. John McMurray’s website, which describes a fishery eerily similar to what we’re seeing today.

No, I’m not asking you to panic; there’s still a good chance to turn things around.

But I am asking you to sit back for a moment and imagine…a sea without stripers.

For some of us, the vision comes freely.  We fished through the last collapse, and remember waters that were once filled with a tumult of life but quickly turned still and barren except when the bluefish churned through.

For me, the iconic moment of the last striper drought came on a glass-calm morning when I was bucktailing the Connecticut shore.  Casting was an act of faith; I knew that the day’s quest would be fruitless, but still placed each cast precisely, and executed each retrieve as if there were still bass in the sea.  On that day, faith was, to my surprise, rewarded, and I had the privilege of hooking, fighting and releasing a bass.

At that point, the angler in the only other boat near me put down his rod and broke out into a hearty yet ultimately haunting applause.

Given the circumstances, I never want to hear such applause again.

Hopefully, we won’t.  But just imagine…

It will be bad enough for anglers, but we’ll somehow scratch by.  After all, we’ve already fished through the moratorium years.

There will be some bluefish.  There will be fluke and porgies and maybe a weakfish or two. 

There will always be the elemental solace of standing alone by the shore.

But imagine if you had a fishing-dependent business sited anywhere between New Jersey and Maine—but didn’t have striped bass.

At that point, imagination turns to nightmare.

The last time the bass disappeared, there were plenty of other things to keep a business alive.

Winter flounder were hot in the spring, but you could catch a few any time the bays were ice-free.  Today, they’re just about gone, and few folks fish for those that remain.  Instead, angling doesn’t begin to heat up until the striped bass come in.

Tautog—a/k/a blackfish—were a year-round fishery, too.  Today, seasons are short and size limits are high, taking them out of the “general interest” category.  So during the spring and fall, so up on the rock-ribbed coast—southern New England and the North Shore of Long Island—anglers have switched over to stripers.  A lot of party boats now chase stripers, too.

Back in 1980, there were lots of big cod on Coxe’s Ledge in the summer, pollock at Block Island in the spring, and hordes of “baseball bat” whiting at Ambrose.  Note the word “were,” because all of those fisheries died decades ago.  Effort has shifted to other species.  Fluke, porgies and sea bass all provide options.  So do striped bass, with some of the headboats that used to chase codfish making three bass trips each day through the season.

Back in the ‘70s, when bass were getting scarce in Montauk, Jaws made its big-screen splash.  Weekend warriors became shark fishermen, and photos from those days show far too many anglers gloating over dead tigers, duskies or blues. 

For those seeking more prestigious game, the school bluefin limit was four fish per person, and 1,000-pound giants swam the seas off Block Island.  Yellowfin tuna swarmed in the Butterfish Hole, while white marlin finned out within sight of the Lighthouse.

Today, most shark fishing is over by early July, you can keep two small bluefin per boat and giants aren’t easy to come by.  Catching a yellowfin or marlin inside of the canyons—which are about 70 miles offshore—is a pretty rare thing, and it takes a lot of expensive fuel to make it all the way out to the “Edge.”

So instead of chasing sharks, billfish and tuna, the Montauk charter boats spend most of their time pursuing striped bass.

That includes a new sort of charter we didn’t have thirty years ago.  They’re small agile boats that use light tackle and fly rods to catch bluefish, bonito, false albacore—and mostly striped bass.

If the bass disappear, most of the for-hire fleet won’t be too far behind.

Some of the party boats will barely hang on, catching fluke, porgies, sea bass and blues, but with the stripers gone, it’s going to be a close-run thing, because without the bass to bring crowds in the fall—when the boats can make two or even three trips each day, while carrying crowds—a lot of captains will be driving trucks and digging clams over the winter, instead of taking their wives to Florida.

If the fluke thin out, too—at lately, recruitment hasn’t been all that good—the lifeline will snap, and most of the headboats, like most of the stripers, will survive only in anglers’ memories.

The charters boat fleet faces even worse risks.

The last bass collapse forced a lot of the six-pack boats, including some very big names, out of business, even though there were plenty of other fish still being caught. Today, striped bass are the lifeblood of the northeastern fleet, with anglers having far fewer alternative species to fish for.  Another bass crash would devastate the six-pack fleet; few boats are likely to survive on fluke, porgies and sea bass, and the occasional trip offshore.

But the six-packs would do better than the light-tackle boats..  Yes, they fish for bluefish (which get tiring after a while), bonito (which are getting scarce) and false albacore (which didn’t even show up off Long Island last year).  But striped bass gave birth to the light-tackle business, and if the bass go away, the fly boats will follow.

A sea without stripers is an empty and desolate place.

Some of us would stick it out, just as we did before, because we don’t know how to do anything else.  But the majority of anglers—the folks who fish for whatever bites best, will be looking to catch something else.

They’ll drive up the landings of whatever they target, and that will lead to more restrictive regulations for fish such as fluke.  There was a time, not so long ago, when regulations made it harder to catch a legal fluke than a legal striper.  If increased fluke landings push size limits up over 20 inches again, and the stripers just aren’t around, well—what will anglers be fishing for then?

Black sea bass can’t take the pressure, and not everyone wants to eat porgies.

A bass collapse would be a very bad time to buy a tackle shop, although if you were foolish enough to want one, there would likely be plenty for sale...

Given how badly a striped bass collapse would hurt the recreational fishing industry, it’s more than a little surprising that the industry isn’t standing up and demanding that ASMFC put effective conservation measures in place now, while there’s still enough time to stave off real problems.

Yet that’s not happening.

As Fred Golofaro—a long-time bass fishermen who lived through the last crash—noted in the July 3 edition of The Fishermen, “some narrow minded industry folks” don’t want folks talking about the current decline.  He pointed out that, during last fall’s run, mates on party boats—who, as noted, have a lot to lose if the bass disappear—were telling anglers not to let fish go, even if no passenger wanted to take such fish home (the mates, were apparently more than willing to take them, for reasons completely their own).

I can already hear the cries for “disaster relief” if the fish disappear…

Many anglers, too, are a big part of the problem, killing more fish than they need or can possibly use, and continuing to fish—even using destructive gear such as snag hooks—when a limit of bass is already on ice and any fish gut-hooked must either be returned to the water to die or brought back to the dock in violation of the law. 

And we won’t even talk about illegal sale…

So, perhaps, there are some industry folks and quite a few anglers who should really start to imagine what the sea—and fishing, and the fishing business—would be like if bass disappeared.

But a lot of us, Fred Golofaro and myself included, don’t need to rely on our imaginations.

We experienced a sea without stripers first-hand.  We don’t want to experience it again.

And neither do you, my friends.

Believe me, neither do you.

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