Thursday, April 2, 2015


For many years, possessing and even fishing for red drum and striped bass has been illegal in federal waters.  Such rules were put in place by the National Marine Fisheries Service a number of years ago, when both species had been badly overfished, in order to help rebuild the populations.  

The rules have remained in place since, as anglers and at least some fisheries managers found them to be an effective tool in controlling harvest.

In 2007, President George W. Bush issued an executive order prohibiting the commercial harvest of striped bass and red drum in federal waters.  Such order had no immediate effect, given the NMFS prohibition, but it did at least suggest that, at some time in the future, a recreational fishery for striped bass and/or drum could be permitted out there.

There have been a few efforts to open the offshore striped bass fishery, driven largely by charter boats off Massachusetts and Virginia, which have been unable to access some portion of the striped bass population when those fish feed outside of state waters.

The last serious effort to open federal waters to striped bass fishing occurred in 2003, but strong angler resistance from all along the coast convinced federal regulators to maintain the status quo.  Since then, while there have been sporadic outbursts of discontent with the federal fishing ban, declining striped bass abundance has pretty well put a damper on efforts to reconsider the matter.

Now, it’s the red drum’s turn.

The State of Mississippi is attempting to open up a recreational red drum fishery in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  State fisheries regulators have gone so far as to request that NMFS issue an Exempted Fishing Permit to as many as 70 Mississippi charter boats which, under the permit’s proposed terms, would be allowed to land a total of 30,000 pounds of red drum over a two-year period.

The justification for the permit is to provide biological sampling of offshore red drum that could be used in some future stock assessment.  However, it is not difficult to imagine a situation in which, after the two years covered by the permit have expired, the same Mississippi charter boat interests, along with their counterparts in other states, argue that the red drum fishery has been demonstrated to be healthy enough to support a federal-waters fishery on a permanent basis.

A rulemaking to determine whether the permit should be issued is now underway, and NMFS is accepting public comments on the proposal.

If NMFS decides to open the federal waters fishery for red drum, it will be bad news, because that will undoubtedly trigger efforts by charter boats off the East Coast, most particularly Virginia, to seek the same kind of opening for striped bass. 

It could be argued that some of the conditions which caused NMFS to consider opening federal waters to striped bass fishing a dozen years ago—high levels of striped bass abundance, a harvest well below target fishing mortality levels and a recommendation by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to take such action—no longer exist, and that the danger of creating an offshore striped bass fishery is thus not very great.

However, less than one year ago, ASMFC examined the possibility of opening federal waters to striped bass fishing on a strictly catch-and-release basis.  Ultimately, the action was not recommended for a number of reasons.  The Commission’s Law Enforcement Committee found that even a supposedly catch-and-release fishery would make it more difficult to prevent illegal harvest in federal waters, while its Striped Bass Technical Committee pointed out that any expansion of fishable waters would probably also lead to an increased harvest at a time that the striped bass population was declining.

Despite ASMFC’s decision not to seek opening federal waters to striped bass anglers, there is still strong support for such action among sectors of the angling community. 

Just a few years ago, Virginia and, to a lesser extent, North Carolina enjoyed an active winter striped bass fishery that drew large numbers of anglers to the region.  Supposedly, the fishery was prosecuted in state waters, although there were regular reports of anglers, and particularly charter boats, poaching striped bass farther offshore.

After a successful NMFS enforcement action, in which a number of charter boats received stiff penalties, the winter fishery collapsed, with virtually no striped bass being landed in tournaments that once saw many very large striped bass killed and thrown on the docks.  While the decline in the fishery was probably due, in part, to a decrease in overall striped bass abundance, its precipitous collapse was almost certainly caused by a new-found reluctance of both private and charter operators to venture into federal waters boats to fish illegally, and thus risk the penalties that courts have imposed on others convicted of that offence.

There is no question that charter boats in the region, as well as marinas and other tourist-dependent businesses in Virginia and North Carolina, would like to see the winter fishery return, and would support any effort, including an Exempted Fishing Permit based on supposed stock assessment needs, that could make it happen.

Such an effort would probably also be supported by charter boat operators off Massachusetts, who often encounter striped bass in federal waters around Stellwagen Bank and the various shoals off Nantucket and the Elizabeth Islands, as well as boats out of Montauk, New York who formerly prosecuted federal-waters fisheries that are now off limits to them.

Thus, striped bass fishermen must remain vigilant, and must remain willing to act quickly and decisively to snuff out any effort to open federal waters to striper fishing, should anyone choose to propose it.

We can no longer afford to take a purely parochial view of our fisheries.  Instead, we must pay attention to what is going on elsewhere, and be constantly on guard, lest one more bad idea spawned in the Gulf of Mexico spreads north to contaminate the striper coast as well.

For the health of our striped bass stock remains fragile.  Actions recently taken to reduce fishing morality and hopefully begin rebuilding provide reason for hope, but it is far too early to predict that they will be successful.

There has been no recent effort to reopen federal waters to striped bass fishing.  Even so, should federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico be opened to harvesting red drum, we can rest assured that it won’t be long before someone tries to create an offshore fishery for our striped bass as well.

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