Friday, November 27, 2015


Sometimes, to understand our local fisheries, it helps to take a broader view, and see what’s going on elsewhere in the world.

Over in Europe, there’s a fish they call “bass” or sometimes “sea bass.”  It’s a not too-distant relative of the striper—paint some lines on its side and you probably couldn’t tell them apart—and looking at the parallels between striped bass management and European bass management can give us some insights about where we’ve been what worked and, just perhaps, where we still need to go.

European bass  are now sitting where stripers did around 1975, poised on the brink of a major collapse, with a harvest dominated by a commercial fishery, far too few regulations on harvest, no real idea of what anglers are doing and an “recreational” sector that, at least in some nations, was still allowed to sell fish without even purchasing a commercial license.

The European bass seems to be most valuable as a recreational target.  A briefing paper prepared for the British Parliament, entitled “UK and European Sea bass conservation measures” notes that the total annual ex vessel price for the commercial European bass harvest is about 4.5 million British pounds, while the recreational value of the bass fishery in 2004, when the fish were more abundant, was more than twenty times greater—in the vicinity of 100 million British pounds.  That, too, is in accord with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science study which found that striped bass would provide the greatest economic value if allocated 100% to the recreational sector.

However, allocation of the European bass seems to ignore that fact; only about 25% of the landings are attributable to the recreational sector.  That’s a big contrast to the situation with striped bass, where the commercial sector is held to a hard quota, while recreational landings are allowed to grow or contract in harmony with the size of the stock, and recreational anglers are responsible for the bulk of the harvest.  As a result, European bass fishermen hold out striped bass as an example of good fisheries management, with the European Anglers’ Association saying that

“The striped bass (Morone saxatillis) is the American big sister of the European sea bass.  In the seventies, when the [striped] bass stock collapsed, a focused and careful management with regard to limited fishing measures was introduced for recreational as well as commercial fisheries.
“The objective was to assure optimal recreational use.  This was based on the fact that the [striped] bass value is higher when it is caught by recreational fisheries.  Ever since then the stocks have recovered, recreational fishing for striped bass thrives, and the expenditures by recreational striped bass fishers increased exponentially to more than 600 million US dollars per year.”
While that assessment is, perhaps, a little too rosy—we can question whether the objective of the striped bass management plan was ever “to assure optimal recreational use,” and given the current downturn in the stock, and the experience of most striped bass anglers this season, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that “recreational fishing for striped bass” actually “thrives”—but there is little doubt that European anglers are headed in the right direction when they use striped bass management as an appropriate model for European bass.

One thing that managers of both striped bass and European bass have not yet figured out is the role that should be played by hard poundage quotas.  In the striped bass fishery, quotas are only applied on the commercial side; that has worked fairly well, but the lack of an effective restraint on recreational harvest resulted in the stock being overfished in six of the ten years between 2004 and 2013.

So far, no quotas have been applied to the European bass fishery.  The result has been serious overfishing.  In 2012, 4,060 metric tons of bass were commercially harvested; that figure must be reduced significantly, to 2,707 metric tons, to avoid further harm to the stock. 

Experience in many United States fisheries, most particularly New England groundfish, suggest that such significant cuts will never be made absent a hard poundage quota.  However, many bass fishermen, particularly recreational fishermen, fear that if the European Commission adopts a quota management plan for the species, France would be awarded a majority of the landings based on established catch history.  To avoid such an outcome, they are arguing for management measures based on increased minimum sizes and individual catch limits, rather than annual quotas.

Thus, in adopting effective management measures likely to conserve and rebuild the stock, European bass managers appear to lag behind not only United States managers guided by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which mandates annual catch limits for all federally managed species, but even lag the striped bass managers at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, who have at least imposed hard quotas on the commercial sector.

However, one place where European bass managers appear to be ahead of their United States counterparts is in their growing realization that limiting gear to hook and line increases the value of the bass that are caught.  In the United Kingdom, only about 23% of the commercial harvest is caught on such gear.  However, bass caught on hook and line bring the highest market prices—9.50 pounds per kilogram, versus just 7 pounds per kilogram for bass caught in trawls—while producing, on a relative basis, fewer discards and less spawning season mortality than other gear types.

George Hollingberry, a member of the British Parliament, went so far as to say that

“The only way forward for bass is for them to be caught by hand line or rod.  Any commercial activity at all should be based on its being a premium, hand-caught resource, in a similar way to mackerel in the south-west and other species:  a virtue is made of the fact that those are local and high quality.”
I have heard from commercial fishermen here on Long Island that the same is true of striped bass—that hook and line fish are of better quality and bring a higher price than those caught in gill nets or trawls—but except in Massachusetts, no effort to maximize the value of the striped bass caught by limiting gear to hook and line has yet been made.

Here in the United States, managers have recently imposed rules intended to reduce striped bass harvest by 25% in order to keep fishing mortality at or below target levels and begin the rebuilding of a recently depleted stock.  In Europe, fisheries managers are expected to ban bass harvest for the first six months of the year, and impose other measures, in order to begin the rebuilding of the stock’s biomass, which has fallen from 16,000 metric tons to less than 7,000 metric tons in just the past five years.

Although striped bass managers in the United States seem to be well ahead of their European counterparts when it comes to developing measures that will effectively conserve the resource in question, managers on both shores of the Atlantic have something to learn from folks on the other side of the ocean, and would do well to keep track of what others are doing to manage these two, distantly related species of fish.

For in the end, no situation is truly unique, and it is always better to learn from another’s missteps than to make every mistake on your own.


  1. Nice article but a little dated. More, much needed protective measures are now in place to protect the European bass after years of commercial overfishing. Particularly destructive has been the netting of spawning aggregations.
    I have to draw attention to the comment, " an “recreational” sector that, at least in some nations, was still allowed to sell fish without even purchasing a commercial license". Fishermen who SELL fish are, by definition, commercial fishermen. Recreatioonal anglers fish for pleasure or for fish to eat themselves.

    1. Agree that I left some things out, just because I try to stay within 1,200 words and can't put everything in, which is why I just referred to the six-month closure and the imposition of "other measures."

      Also agreed that if you sell even one fish, you're a commercial, not a recreational, fishereman. But that's not always how the government sees things; we have that problem over here as well.