Sunday, January 18, 2015


Yesterday, I first heard about something called the “StriperFest,” which takes place down in Wilmington, North Carolina, on the banks of the Cape Fear River.  Organized by the Cape Fear River Watch, it is intended to help scientists learn more about, and hopefully restore and conserve, the striped bass population within the Cape Fear River.

That population isn’t a part of the coastal migratory stock.  Instead, like a lot of southern populations, it is resident in a single river.  And, like a lot of anadromous fish populations, whether in the south and elsewhere, it has been seriously harmed by the construction of dams that separate fish from their spawning grounds.

The striped bass in the population has fallen so low that no harvest is allowed.

However, on one day of the year, anglers participating in the Tag & Release Striped Bass Fishing Tournament—it costs $1,000 to sponsor a boat for two anglers—are allowed to catch, tag and release a few bass.  Although it is a “tournament,” there is no big prize for the winner.
Instead, the prize that the anglers fish for is merely the chance to catch and release a striped bass, and perhaps to add a bit to what biologists know about the Cape Fear population.

The Cape Fear bass don’t even run very big; in 2014, the largest one caught wasn’t quite 30 inches long.

But that doesn’t matter to the folks who fish in the tournament, for they know what a striped bass is worth.

The story of StriperFest struck me particularly hard when I read it, because the message it sends is so different from what we hear, far too often, in the northeast. 

Maybe familiarity does breed contempt.  Maybe it’s true, as Joni Mitchell once sang, “that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”  But up here in New York, and in our neighboring states, you see a lot of folks who don’t seem to value the striper at all. 

That’s particularly true of the folks in the party boat fleet, who seem to view the striped bass as some sort of scrip that they can turn over to their customers in exchange for cash; they act as if, when the striped bass grow scarce, they can simply print more.

Most striped bass anglers don’t feel that way, particularly if they fished through the last stock collapse.  They are nearly unanimous in their call for real harvest cuts with just a one-fish bag and a minimum size of 28 inches or more.

And they are held in contempt because of that.  At last Tuesday’s meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, one party boat operator ridiculed such anglers as people “who worship striped bass as some kind of pagan god.”

To him and his industry colleagues, a striped bass only has value when it is dead, and the more fish that their passengers kill, the more valuable they deem them to be.

If you believe the party boat folks, anyone who pays $50 or so for an evening trip has to kill two striped bass; killing one isn’t worth the price of the ride.

So just how should we value striped bass?  

Do we look to the folks on the Cape Fear, who will pay hundreds of dollars just for the chance to catch—and release—a small striper?  Or do we take the party boats’ side, and value the bass at one or two dollars per pound, provided, of course, that they’re dead.

Or is there a third way?

Perhaps a way that places a value on what northeastern anglers have known for years.

That there is something special about the striper.  Something that commands respect.

Some people jump out of airplanes or go rock climbing for an exhilarating time.

“For me, it’s chasing striped bass—big, powerful, and beautiful. I always feel a rush of excitement as my fishing line goes screaming off the reel once a large bass takes my lure, knowing that while adult bass in the ocean typically weigh from 15 to 30 pounds, they can grow up to 6 feet and 125 pounds. They hit the lure with quick force, fight hard, and can, despite an angler’s best efforts, sometimes escape.”

Maybe that puts everything in just the right perspective.

There is a quid pro quo in fishing for stripers, but it is not, “If I pay $50, I get to kill a couple of bass.”

It is closer to “If I pay my dues—not just in money but in lost sleep and time—I may get to touch beauty and wonder.  I will come to know the sun rising out of the sea.  I will be awed by the dives of gannets feeding on herring, and in the depths of the night, I will hear the endless castanet clacking of stones being rolled in the waves.  And it will be the bass that gave me those things, for without the striper, I wouldn’t be there.”

In the discussions at management meetings, all that is lost. 

We are still stuck in the era of dead fish management, when top many are focused on “How much can we kill,” and not enough attention is paid to “How many should we leave in the ocean.” 

When it comes to striped bass, that approach is certainly the wrong one.

We have plenty of panfish already.  We have summer flounder, bluefish and sea bass, and literally more scup than we know how to use.  There are ling and some cod on the wrecks, and tautog in season. 

But there is only one “game fish,” and that is the striper, sought because it is big, challenging and prestigious to catch. 

And as the late outdoor writer Lee Wulff said nearly eight decades ago,

“A good gamefish is too valuable to be caught only once.”

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take a striper home for dinner from time to time if you want to.

It does mean that in order to get the most recreational and economic value out of the striped bass resource, managers need to recognize that in a “gamefish” fishery, abundance, and not harvest,  matters.

Other states have gotten that message long ago. 

In Florida, where out-of-state anglers are critical to coastal economies, red drum and snook are key inshore species.  For both species, the bag limit is one, and slot limits protect both the smallest and the largest individuals.  No one seems to be staying away because they can’t kill more fish.

In North Carolina, where big red drum attract anglers from all over the East Coast, fishing for the “bulls” is catch-and-release only. 

In Alaska’s Kenai River, you can keep just one king salmon per day; once you do, even catch and release is outlawed.  Yet the Kenai is flooded with tourist anglers each year.

But in the northeast, where striped bass take the place of the drum, snook and salmon, we’re told that they need to be killed to have value. 

That doesn’t make sense.

Striped bass should be managed like any other great inshore gamefish, in a way that maximizes anglers’ opportunities to encounter plenty of fish—including some large ones—while also being able to take a fish home from time to time.

When striped bass were abundant, the northeast saw an explosion of new businesses take off, in the form of light-tackle charters that emphasized catch-and-release.  Surfcasters brought business to beachfront communities in the autumn off-season, and small boat anglers filled the bays and nearshore ocean.  Traditional charterboats thrived.

We’re seeing a lot less business activity as striped bass abundance declines. 

The way to bring back that business isn’t to keep killing stripers, as the party boats ask, but rather to rebuild abundance so that people want to fish more often, again.

That means valuing the striped bass not as an icon that can never be killed, and not at two dollars a pound. 

Instead, it must be valued for what it is, the region’s iconic gamefish, which will always be worth more alive on the water than dead on the dock.

Because dead fish can’t be caught again, and there’s little value in that.

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