Sunday, September 14, 2014
A WORTHY PASSION
I caught my first striped bass back in the early ‘60s, and before that decade ended, I fished for them whenever I got the chance. My father and I would go out on weekend mornings, and sometimes in the evenings after work, and troll sandworms, rigged behind a Cape Cod spinner, along the rocky Connecticut shore.
By the time that I was in my mid-teens, I began taking the boat out during the week, trolling sandworms at first, and then taking my first uncertain steps into the world of artificial lures. Before I was graduated from high school, I was a hard-core striped bass fishermen, and rarely chased anything else when bass were around.
Somehow, the striper can do that to people.
They’re the biggest fish that northeastern anglers are likely to encounter in inshore waters, and within their range, they can be just about anywhere—high up in big rivers (New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has gotten complaints that they’re eating too many trout way up in the Delaware River), in protected bays and sounds and along high-energy coasts where waves shatter against jagged boulders and send shards of spray a dozen yards inshore.
That size, and that access, certainly makes them attractive.
And they eat lures, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes with a wild and unrestrained fury that makes them blow up on a pencil popper and knock the plug six feet or more into the air.
That, too, partially explains their appeal.
But neither factor explains the extraordinary passion of striped bass anglers not only to pursue the fish, but to protect it.
That really became clear for me last Friday, when I was rushing to make my comments on the National Marine Fisheries Services’ proposed Salt Water Recreational Fishing Policy. Friday was the last day for comments, so after I provided my thoughts, I perused other anglers’ comments that were posted on the site.
NMFS was looking for comments on how to manage recreational fisheries generally; it was not looking for comments on any specific fish or any specific fishery. Yet when I started reading what other anglers wrote, it was clear that many of the comments—probably a majority, but perhaps a few less than that—were solely about striped bass.
Which was pretty remarkable, when you consider that NMFS doesn’t manage stripers at all, except to maintain a prohibition on fishing in federal waters.
But what was even more remarkable was what the comments said.
Many anglers from outside the striper coast complained about not being permitted to kill enough fish. They said things such as
“It is a concern of mine that the fishing regulators are way too heavy handed on recreational fishing. There are folks like me who have limited access, limited time to go fishing offshore. Time must be spent in planning and organizing a trip with a private guide. Now you're telling me that Red Grouper is closed, and you may close Gag grouper?”
and made self-serving—if scientifically unsupportable—comments such as
“…In Texas, our red snapper population has expanded to the point of overpopulation in most areas. Anywhere where there is structure you can catch red snapper. Many times red snapper will be the only species present because their voracious appetites have decimated many other species of reef fish, particularly triggerfish and spade fish. We have also lost several age classes of red snapper because of cannibalism. …”
Others didn’t even try to make a rational argument, but merely threw out petulant statements such as
“I feel like you don't consider the facts,and it does not matter. No wait I think I'll change my mind. I don't trust your judgement [sic] or your numbers. I should find another coast to fish on.”
“I don't know how to help you do your job. But I do know you are responsible for putting a lot of people out of business,”
which were almost certainly related to NMFS efforts to restore and conserve various fish stocks.
Fortunately, a few were more enlightened. One charter boat captain said that
“As a federally permitted charter fishing guide operating in the northern Gulf of Mexico, and who depends on having a lot of fish for my customers to target, I want the NOAA to manage our fisheries to abundance. Secondly, I want NOAA to manage our stocks for a better age and size structure, which means, I want to have more big fish for my customers to catch. I want to see conservative, science based management with real accountability measures in place that will ensure that all recreational anglers don’t exceed our quotas each year. I want yours, mine and our kids, grandkids and great grandkids to have fish to catch. I want to see fishery management and policy go beyond just having our fish stocks "rebuilt." From a conservative approach, I believe we all would benefit from having fish stocks that are much bigger than Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), because they will ultimately lead to having larger fish and the recreational anglers will have a greater chance to actually hook, fight and hopefully land a trophy fish,”
while another person noted that
“The limit on mutton snappers in Florida is just too high. The current limit of ten fish per person and no max limit per boat is ridiculous. There are non-commercial boats going out as we speak and slaughtering the spawning grounds at night. Boats are going out with five people and catching 40 to 50 muttons each and every night. No one needs that many fish and the fishery cannot be sustained with this type of reckless fishing. Ask any responsible captain in the Florida Keys and they will tell you that two to three Muttons per person is more than plenty. We have already seen the incredible decline of groupers, please don't let Mutton snappers be the next on the list.”
However, nothing matched the number of striped bass fishermen that commented on the proposed policy, nor did any other group show such unanimous support for conservation efforts. Just a very small sampling of the comments from the striper coast turned up such responses as
“Regarding Striped Bass regulations, clearly there are declining stocks of these fish. I feel this is both a commercial as well as recreational issue. It has become quite easy here in NJ as well as other places along the coast to catch multiple large bass, primarily from boat but occasionally from shore with the resurgence of Bunker. Snag and drop is causing prolonged stress on the breeding stock. I know there are large fish outside the 3 mile limit but these fish are not accessible to fisherman. I feel a limit to the size and number of fish needs to be implemented, not just for those large fish but also for the 8-15 pound fish that are caught from shore in the fall. One fish of this size is more than enough per day, actually per week. I'm tired of reading the weigh ins from tackle shops with the same individual keeping two fish per day every day of the week. Fish from 34 inches and bigger need to be completely protected, catch and release single hook tackle…”
“I believe striped bass populations are declining. I support cutting commercial harvesting by 50% and making recreational fishing for stripers catch and release only to see if we can get these populations back to harvestable levels once again. This fish needs to be protected,”
“You can not achieve the goal outlined above as long as you put recreational fishing first in your priorities. Or commercial fishing which is oddly missing from your statement. THE FISH NEED TO BE OUR FIRST PRIORITY. The data does not support any taking of striped bass by any constituency. What the data supports is, "leave the fish alone and let them stabilize." How painful can 5 years off be? You can not take ANY chances at this critical juncture that your policies may decimate and already problematic population. That was your policy the last time the stock was resuscitated. Do it again, now, before it is too late - and too late could be just around the corner. Why chance it?”
Now, that last comment is probably a little extreme—we’re not at the moratorium stage yet, and hopefully the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will do the right thing in October and assure that we’re never going to have to go there—but given all of the political maneuvering over the last half-year or so about a “Vision” for salt water recreational fishing that would delay rebuilding stocks and give greater weight to “socioeconomic impacts,” it’s still refreshing to read comments by people of character who are still willing to say that the needs of the fish are more important than those of recreational fishermen.
But serious striped bass anglers are like that.
I can’t say exactly why, but I can feel it in my gut, because I was already an active striped bass angler when the stocks began to collapse in the 1970s. After I first spoke to the late Bob Pond, creator of the Atom line of striped bass plugs, and he made his case for the coming calamity, I felt compelled to take my first hesitant and stumbling steps into the frustrating world of fisheries conservation.
Bass just affect you that way.
So I feel a sense of déjà vu, and a deep sense of pride, in these days of striped bass decline, when I see a new generation of anglers—some belonging to established organizations, others organizing themselves as they gird for the fight—taking up the old cause and speaking with the same passion that others felt four decades ago.
And when ASMFC holds its hearing in New York next Tuesday, you can be sure that I will be in the audience, ready to do my part.
For the worthiest passions never die.
And that is good, because the most important fights never really end.