Thursday, April 28, 2022


 The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has released a compilation of all the stakeholder comments that it received on Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.  That compilation shows near-unanimous support for strong conservation measures

The ASMFC received a total of 4,689 written comments, which consisted of 1,149 individual comments, 3,397 form letters, and letters from 51 organizations; it was noted that, in addition to such individual letters and emails, 92 businesses and angling organizations signed on to one of the latter organizational comment letters. 

Form letters are always a controversial topic.  On one side of the issue sit those who feel that form letters represent people who care about the issues being debated, but lack the time and/or ability to compose their own letter; they argue that form letters should be given the same weight as any other comments.  On the other side sit those who believe that form letters are often sent by people who give little thought or effort to the issues, but merely cut-and-paste someone else’s arguments, and thus should not carry the same weight as individually prepared comments.  The ASMFC took a middle road with respect to the Amendment 7 comments, deciding that

“Form letters (more than 3 of the same comment) include comments stating support for an organization’s comments; however, if the commenter provided additional comments/rationale related to management beyond the organizations’ or letters’ comments, then it was considered an individual comment.”

Judging by the letters that I’ve read so far (I’m on page 645), it appears that the ASMFC is applying that definition very liberally and, when there is any room for doubt, placing comments into the “individual” rather than “form letter” category.

With that in mind, 25 different form letters were received.  Of those, only four accounted for more than 100 comments.  By far the largest of those was the letter provided by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which was used by 2,461 individuals.

Of all the form letters provided by fishing-related organizations, the greatest response came from supporters of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a relatively new, largely volunteer-drive national organization dedicated to science-based management of public lands and public resources; the ASMFC received 251 copies of the form letter that BHA provided.  Despite its sophisticated public messaging infrastructure and years of effort to engage anglers, the American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, saw only 217 stakeholders support its positions, while a letter of uncertain provenance, which seems to have originated in the Massachusetts surfcasting community, garnered 141 responses.

Both the tabulations of stakeholder response and the individual letters make interesting reading, although given that they run to more than 2,000 pages, I freely admit that I haven’t yet read them all.  To provide a proper background for some of then individual letters, it probably makes sense to first look at the overall stakeholder response to the individual issues.

Management triggers—the message is “Do not delay”

Stakeholders were very close to unanimous in their opposition to any changes to management triggers, if such changes would permit the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board to delay taking action in response to threats to the striped bass stock.

With respect to the fishing mortality triggers, 4,124 comments (99.4%) supported the current requirement that, if a fishing mortality trigger is tripped, managers must reduce such mortality to or below target within one year; such support included 642 individuals (98.6%), 3,357 form letters (99.8%), and 33 of the organizations (76.7%). 

Only 25 comments supported a two-year reduction period, including comments sent in by the Cape Cod Charter Boat Association, the Massachusetts-based Carver Sportsmen’s Club, the New Jersey-based Hi-Mar Striper Club, the Massachusetts Striped Bass Association, the Northeast Charterboat Captains’ Association, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the R.I. Party and Charter Boat Association, and the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association.  The Twin Rivers Waterman’s Association and Virginia Waterman’s Association submitted a joint letter which did not specify preferred options, but did indicate support for “management stability,” allowing existing management measures time to work before new measures are adopted, and “deferred management action,” and so can probably be placed in the same category.

The split between the overwhelming majority of stakeholders and what might be deemed the traditional for-hire fleet, which is made up primarily of “six-pack” boats and still uses dead fish as the primary gauge of a successful day, is a theme that continues throughout many of the comments.

A related issue, whether management action should be triggered when overfishing occurs in just one year, as is currently the case, or whether no action need be taken until a two-year average of fishing mortality exceeds the threshold, saw similar support for the status quo, with 4,093 comments (99.6%) in favor of taking action as soon as overfishing occurs; such support included 610 individuals (99.2%), 3,357 form letters (99.8%), and 34 organizations (85%). 

With respect to the spawning stock biomass triggers, the ASMFC tabulation noted that

“Many comments noted the [Atlantic Striped Bass Management] Board should have designated a formal rebuilding plan more quickly after the last assessment, and so would support a 2-year rebuilding plan deadline (A-2)”

Thus, it should come as no surprise that 4,101 comments (99.7%), including 626 individuals (99.7%), 3,348 form letters (99.8%), and 35 organizations (87.5%).  Organizational opposition was limited to the Recreational Fishing Alliance and to the Cape Cod Charter Boat Association, Hi-Mar Striper Club, Northeast Charterboat Captains’ Association and Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association, all of which conformed their comments to the RFA position and, in the case of the latter two organizations, placed their names on comment letters that were essentially identical to that submitted by the RFA.

There was also near-unanimous support for amending the recruitment trigger, but here, the response was more nuanced.  4,077 comments (99.7%) supported a more sensitive recruitment trigger than the one currently in place, with 1,427 (35% of those supporting a new trigger) encouraging the ASMFC to adopt a moderately sensitive trigger, and 2,650 (65%) supporting a highly sensitive trigger.  However, such preferences differed by comment type; 456 individuals (75.6%) and 23 organizations (67.6%) prefer the moderately sensitive recruitment trigger, while 2,492 of the form letters (74.4%) preferred the highly-sensitive trigger.

There was far more unanimity with regard to what the Management Board needs to do if the recruitment trigger is tripped.  Currently, it is up to the Management Board to decide whether to take an action; given the Management Board’s penchant for delay, most stakeholders justifiably believe that if the Management Board is given an excuse to do nothing, than nothing is exactly what it will do.  Thus, 4,070 comments (99.6%) believe that the recruitment trigger should be amended to compel the Management Board to act when the trigger is tripped.  Of those 4,070 comments, 4,068 (99.95%) would require immediate action, while two organizations, the Center for Sportfishing Policy and the American Sportfishing Association, would require action, but add some qualifications as to what such response should be.

Stakeholder comments on the final management trigger issue, whether the Management Board should be able to defer action under certain circumstances if a management trigger is tripped, received a similarly lopsided response.  4,080 comments (99.4%), including 612 individuals (99%), 3,341 form letters (99.6%), and 35 organizations (83.3%) oppose deferring management action under any circumstances. As the ASMFC’s compilation noted,

“Commenters noted the need for the Board to respond immediately to management triggers to retain accountable and not delay action.”

Recreational release mortality

The structure of the recreational release mortality section of the draft amendment makes it somewhat more difficult to determine the percent of support foir each proposal.  The section asked commenters to pick either Option A, which represented the status quo, or to pick among a number of actions, which were only related to one another in that they were intended to reduce the release mortality rate. 

The ASMFC’s compilation of comments only notes support for each of such actions, and does not report explicit opposition; since commenters can and often do refrain from commenting on individual actions, absence of support does not necessarily imply opposition (for example, I did not comment on Option D, Outreach and Education, because I have doubts about the value of such efforts; that doesn’t mean that I oppose outreach efforts, just that I believe that states’ fishery management dollars are better spent elsewhere, particularly on science and enforcement, and choose not to burden state managers with that particular unfunded mandate).

Thus, in reporting on release mortality options, all percentages will reflect the percentage of all comments received by the ASMFC, a figure which probably does not reflect the number of comments actually addressing each particular issue.  I apologize for taking such an approach, but without having the opposition numbers, it’s the best that I can do.

Proposals to impose seasonal closures that would reduce recreational fishing effort and so, in theory, reduce fishing mortality were probably the most controversial.  Restrictions on targeting striped bass were viewed by many as unenforceable, as anglers targeting bass could always claim that they were fishing for bluefish, catfish, white perch or some other species, and so evade the law’s intent.  

Restrictions on harvest in spawning areas received more support, but not necessarily from those who fished in such areas; that was particularly true of New York anglers who fished in the Hudson River.  That’s reflected in the comments.  

Only 102 comments (2.2% of all comments received) supported a 2-week no-targeting closure at the heart of each state’s bass season; such closure was unpopular across the board, receiving the support of just 25 individuals (2.2%), 73 form letters (2.1%), and 4 organizations (7.8%).  A 2-week no-targeting closure limited to the spawning grounds (perhaps easier to support, given that only a handful of states host spawning grounds), received the support of 434 commenters (9.3%), including 123 individuals (10.7%), 300 form letters (8.8%), and 11 organizations (21.6%).  

Support was much stronger for prohibiting harvest in the spawning areas between January and April, which was favored by 2,924 commenters.  Such support, however, was skewed by the form letters received from supporters of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, with the prohibition supported by just 136 individuals (11.8%), but also by 2,775 form letters (81.7%), and 13 organizations (25.5%).

The Foundation didn’t take a position on banning the use of gaffs or other lethal devices to land striped bass, nor on the requirement that all bass caught on non-approved gear (for practical purposes, bait fished on J-hooks) be released.  That, too, skewed the results, which show 1,584 comments (33.8%) supporting a gaff ban, including 582 individuals (50.6%) and 36 organizations (70.6%), a majority of both, but only 864 form letters (25.4%).  Mandatory release of fish caught on unapproved gear received similar, although very slightly less, support.

Rebuilding the striped bass stock

Near-unanimity again reigned when the comments turned to issues related to rebuilding the stock.

4,062 comments (99.7%) supported managers using a low-recruitment assumption when preparing the rebuilding plan, to reflect recent striped bass recruitment trends.  Such support extended to all comment types, including comments by 585 individuals (99.2%), 3,341 form letters (99.8%), and 34 organizations (97.1%).  The only organization submitting comments supporting the standard recruitment assumption was R.I. Party and Charter Boat Association.

A proposal that would allow the Management Board to fast-track the rebuilding plan, and move forward without going through the customary, but time consuming, addendum process involving public hearings, earned near-identical support, eliciting 4,047 favorable comments (99.7%), including 588 from individuals (99%), 3,333 in form letters (99.8%), and 34 from organizations (94.4%).  Among the organizations, the R.I. Party and Charter Boat Association was, once again, an outlier, but this time was joined in its dissent by the Maryland Charter Boat Association.

It's probably also worthwhile to note that there were some organizations, led by the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which chose to make no specific recommendations on the rebuilding comments, but instead seemed to question the wisdom of rebuilding at all.  The RFA comments noted that

“RFA is very concerned about the ability to rebuild striped bass biomass to the SSB target by 2029.  It’s important to recognize two key points.  First, in the history of this fishery, female SSB has never reached the rebuilding target, even in 2003, when the fishery reached the highest biomass value in recorded history.  This inability to meet the current rebuilding target clearly demonstrates that then biological reference points including the rebuilding target are not realistic.  Second, in recent years, the striped bass population has been less productive than it was when the rebuilding targets were established.  Meaning, fishing mortality is having less direct impact on rebuilding progress observed in the stock.  It seems highly unlikely that the stock will be rebuilt by 2029.  But since the ASMFC does not control environmental factors and still uses a fixed natural mortality value, the only recourse they can take when rebuilding lags is drastic cuts to fishing regulations.  Perhaps a question that needs to be asked in Amendment 7 is if we can’t rebuild by 2029 without imposing massive restrictions on the fishing community, should we be happy with the current status of the stock and just try to manage F.  RFA has a hard time supporting any of the rebuilding options in the document because we feel we are being set up for failure with this fishery.  We believe that it is imperative that the biological reference points are revised in the next benchmark assessment 2025 before selecting a management response.”

While such comments are completely contrary to the beliefs of almost every stakeholder who expressed an opinion, they were repeated, more or less verbatim, in the comments of the Cape Cod Charter Boat Association, the Northeast Charterboat Captains’ Association, and the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association.  

Should rebuilding the stock by the 2029 deadline require very restrictive management measures, as I suspect will be the case, we should expect to see such comments repeated, both at the ASMFC and in various media outlets.

Conservation equivalency

Conservation equivalency may be the most controversial issue addressed in the draft amendment.  The ASMFC compilation reported that

“Those in favor of restricting CE (B-E) noted concerns about how CE has been used in the past and the high uncertainty of implementing alternative measures, especially when the stock is in poor condition.  Some comments suggest removing CE entirely from the management plan.”

Such concerns were addressed in a number of comment letters.  The Nature Conservancy noted that

“state-by-state Conservation Equivalency provisions have twice been used in ways that undercut widely supported coast-wide stock maintenance and rebuilding objectives for the purpose of achieving very short-term increases in the allowable catch for certain states.”

Another conservation organization, Wild Oceans, stated that

“Conservation Equivalency (CE), as currently applied to the management plan for striped bass, allows states and jurisdictions to sidestep conservation measures necessary for ending overfishing and rebuilding the stock.”

Perhaps the most notable comment came in a letter signed by the Attorneys General of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, which said

“Perhaps the most critical component of this draft amendment is its suite of proposals to rein in abuse of Management Program Equivalency, also known as Conservation Equivalency (CE).  As an advocate for the residents of our states, we support such proposals, which are intended to stem some states’ systematic abuse of the CE process, which effectively shifts the conservation burden from such states onto the shoulders of anglers in our states and other, more conservation-oriented jurisdictions.”

Anglers expressed similar sentiments, saying things such as

“I don’t see how Conservation Equivalency has done anything to help the fishery recover.  It gives too few people the opportunity to steer the whole program to whatever they deem appropriate.”

“Conservation Equivalency is the single most important issue in Amendment 7.  It has also likely been the biggest hurdle to striped bass abundance in the time period since the end of the moratorium.  Conservation Equivalency frankly flies in the face of the spirit of interstate management of a migratory species…Perhaps never in the history of fisheries management has a tool been so abused…”


“Conservation Equivalency is a legitimate cancer to effective striped bass management…To me it was clear that Conservation Equivalency ensured the failure of the new slot limit that was recently proposed under Amendment 6—dropping the probability for rebuilding to occur below 50%...”

Given such sentiments, it’s probably not surprising that only 52 comments (1.3%), provided by 11 individuals (1.7%), in 33 form letters (1%), and by 8 organizations (19%) supported continuing the use of conservation equivalency in its current form, while 4,104 comments supported prohibiting its use when the stock was in a sub-optimal condition.  Of those 4,014 commenters, 4,101 (99.9%) felt that conservation equivalency should not be used when the stock is overfished, 6 (0.1%) would ban its use when spawning stock biomass was below its target level, and 426 (10.4%) would prohibit CE when overfishing is occurring (multiple options were chosen by some commenters).

There was also strong sentiment for establishing standards for the data underlying conservation equivalency although, because the Chesapeake Bay Foundation took no position on the issue, the number of responses was substantially less.  Nonetheless, of the 1,561 comments addressing the issue, 1,558 (99.8%) opined that the percent standard error of such data should not exceed 30. 

1,567 comments also supported a proposal that would require states who elected to take advantage of conservation equivalency to include an “uncertainty buffer” in their calculations, to account for the lower precision of state-level data.  Of those 1,567 comments, 225 (14.4%) supported a buffer of 10%, 1,144 (73%) supported a buffer of 25%, and 168 (10.7%) supported a buffer of 50%.

Finally, 1,332 comments addressed the question of how conservation equivalency should be defined.  Of those, 1,328 (99.7%) believed that a state’s conservation equivalency measures should achieve the same reduction that the ASMFC’s standard coastwide measures would have achieved in that particular state; the minority preferred that a state only be required to achieve the overall coastwide reduction. 

Once again, the Attorneys General’s letter made one of the most salient points on the issue:

“In addition, we support sub-option E2, which requires that state CE proposals achieve the same quantified level of conservation in the relevant state as the standard management measures adopted by the Board.  In doing so, we note that the alternative, sub-option E1, fails to comply with the Interstate Fishery Management Program Charter’s requirement for CE programs, that such programs ‘achieve the same quantified level of conservation for the resource under management.’  As Draft Amendment 7 itself agrees, sub-option E1 may provide a lesser level of conservation for the striped bass resource, and so undercut the success of management measures.”

So what does it mean?

I have been involved in fisheries management issues since the striped bass stock began to collapse in the late 1970s, and I don’t think that I’ve ever before seen the sort of unanimous agreement on needed management measures that I’m seeing in the Draft Amendment 7 comments where, at least on the major issues, over 99% of the comments support a single option.  Not even last year’s comments on the Public Information Document for Amendment 7 showed such a degree of uniformity.

Although past experiences have led many stakeholders to become wary of the Management Board, and question its receptivity to public comment, I have to believe that the Management Board is going to respond to such a clear statement of stakeholder opinion.  I feel that way for a number of reasons.

First, and perhaps most important was the diverse array of individuals and organizations that came out to speak on behalf of the striped bass.  There were the usual anglers and fishing clubs, but there were also sportsmen’s groups that are relative newcomers to striped bass issues, including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the New York State Conservation Council.  There were conservation organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Kennebunkport Conservation Trust, Native Fish Coalition, Save the Bay, The Nature Conservancy, and Wild Oceans.  There were angling industry-associated groups, including the Center for Sportfishing Policy, American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.  There were the Maine Association of Charter Boat Captains and the American Saltwater Guides Association, representing the forward-looking members of the for-hire fleet, and the 90-plus signatories to the Guides’ Association’s comment letter, which included a host of companies that are well-known to anglers.

Perhaps most notable of all was the letter sent by the Attorneys General of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.  The ASMFC has long been the realm of state fishery managers, who must look out for the interests of their state’s fishermen and fishery resources.  But attorneys general play a very different role; they, too, are charged with protecting the interests of the citizens of their states, but they don’t do so by sitting around a table, debating the data and cutting deals.  Attorneys general’s job is to assure that their states' and their state residents' legal interests are protected, and when they sit down at a table, they do so with those legal interest in mind.  That brings an entirely new dimension to the striped bass debate.

The Management Board ought to keep that in mind if any of them are thinking about ignoring the public’s will, and trying to move Amendment 7 in an unwanted direction.

The outliers

The only outliers in the Amendment 7 debate appear to be the harvest-oriented members of the for-hire fleet who, in this third decade of the 21st Century, are still trying to shape striped bass management to fit a 1970s paradigm.  But the times are not merely changing; they changed a long time ago.  

Over the past few years, 2018-2021, the for-hire fishery was responsible for less than 2% of all directed striped bass trips, and many of those trips were undoubtedly taken by anglers fishing with the new generation of captains who understand that the future of their businesses depends on having an abundance of bass in the water for their clients to encounter and enjoy, and not merely on stacking dead fish in a cooler.

When the Recreational Fishing Alliance and its allied organizations call for reducing the biomass target, a goal rejected by 99.6% of the stakeholders who commented on the Public Information Document a year ago, they only demonstrate how out of touch they are with the current generation of anglers. 

The R.I. Party and Charter Boat Association demonstrates a similar disconnect when it states that

“we feel a strong message needs needs to be included in the objectives that recognizes a need to preserve the historic value of Striped Bass as a food fish.  According to recreational catch data, a significant portion of the current Striped Bass fishery is a recreational catch and release type fishery.  Recent rebuilding efforts, age structure of the stock, and social changes has [sic] shifted the historic food fishery towards a catch and release fishery, but we feel the folks who wish to fish for striped bass for a meal and those folks who wish to purchase striped bass at a market should not be forgotten.  We support management that increases the level of harvested Striped Bass and reducing the level of discarded Striped Bass from current levels..

“We continue to oppose managing this species for abundance, at the request of and benefit to a portion of the recreational fishery.”

But, again, the overwhelming majority of stakeholder comment disagrees.  Time only moves forward, and changing angler attitudes have “shifted the historic food fishery towards an catch and release fishery.”   Richard Nixon is no longer President.  Try as they might, no one can turn the clock back to 1972.  Killing fish is no longer as important to anglers as it was 50 years ago.

The dogs that didn’t bark

Another thing that was striking about the comments was not who took a position on Amendment 7, but who didn’t.

I don’t pretend to know all of the organizations with an interest in striped bass, but I’m familiar with just about all of the groups in the upper mid-Atlantic, and what I find striking is how many of the organizations that usually provide conservation-averse comments have not, on this occasion, provided any comments at all.

Here in New York, we have some baymen’s organizations that are usually quite active with regard to fishery management issues.  As far as I can tell, none of them provided comment.

We also have a few organizations that represent the for-hire industry.  Some have been around for quite a long time,  while others are newer, but they can usually be depended upon  to show up at hearings and/or provide written comment on fishery issues, particularly those involving striped bass.  All have been strangely quiet this time.

I note the same thing down in New Jersey.  Boatmen’s organizations have not made formal comment.  The Jersey Coast Anglers Association, which has been politically active for many decades and can usually be counted on to address any proposal that impacts New Jersey’s fisheries, is not listed on the ASMFC’s list of commenting organizations.

I’m not sure what to make of such absence.

Maybe people have looked around and noticed an absence of bass, and decided that opposing conservation measures is contrary to their own interests.  I’d like to believe that, but at least in a few cases, I doubt that is so.

Maybe there’s some disagreement among organizations' members, with some opposing striped bass conservation, and some supporting it, leading to an impasse and a lack of the consensus needed to produce a set of comments.  In some cases, I think that may be true, especially in organizations ripe for generational conflict, where an older, less conservation-oriented leadership is coming into conflict with younger and more enlightened members.

Maybe some people are just realizing that this is a fight they can’t win, which is something that I hope is true.

But whatever the cause, I can only take some groups’ failure to comment as a positive sign.

And, finally, thanks

I’m looking forward to next Wednesday’s meeting, hoping that Amendment 7 will turn out the right way.  But however things turn out, I have to thank Emilie Franke, the ASMFC’s fishery management coordinator, for the work  that she’s done for striped bass.

As a new ASMFC staffer, she got thrown into the striped bass fire early last year, just as the Public Information Document was being finalized.  With no previous experience in the role, she had to run the public hearings—on  webinar, back then—tabulate all the comments, present them to the Management Board, and then take the Management Board’s direction back to the Plan Development Team.

At that point, the PDT had to turn the input provided by the Management Board, Technical Committee, and public comment into a comprehensible document fit for public release and public comment.  It was a very tough job, but after sitting in on many PDT meetings, I can report that she and the rest of the PDT pulled it off with aplomb.

After that, there was a new round of hearings, some in person.  As always at such events, there were the usual scattering of boors, blowhards, and buffoons who mix in with the respectable folks and make the hearings a bit of a trial for all concerned, but Ms. Franke handled them all with professionalism and grace, while providing a clear introduction to the draft amendment to everyone who had an honest desire to understand its provisions.

Now, we’re in the final days of the debate.  However that debate ends, we should all thank Ms. Franke for helping to get us this far.





Sunday, April 24, 2022


I’m at that age when a lot of friends decide to pull up roots and head somewhere else.

People say that New York isn’t the friendliest state to folks who don’t have a steady income, so they head off to Florida, the Carolinas, or similar places, where taxes are lower, their money goes farther, and lifestyles are more in accord with their own. 

At one time, I thought that maybe I’d do about the same thing.

But the closer that possibility came, the less attractive it seemed.  When I stopped to think about it, my home waters—the ocean south of Long Island, Great South Bay, western Long Island Sound—aren’t just print on a map.  They’re the places where I feel most at home, most comfortable, most at peace.  I have little desire to trade them for some soupy Florida bay, where the stench of rot hangs over the water on still, humid nights, or for the Gulf of Mexico off Texas, where the skeletal silhouettes of oil rigs scar the horizon, and you need to run for three hours or more to reach the big-fish grounds.

Many things have changed since I—with some help from my father—cranked in my first fish in the Sound off Greenwich in 1956, and since Mike Mucha and I caught our first yellowfin tuna from a 20-foot Sea Ox back in ’84.  But many things remain the same.

Up in Connecticut, there’s still a pile of boulders at the mouth of the Mianus River that's barely covered at high tide.  It looks much the same as it did in August 1968, when a striped bass hit my trolled sandworms and, instead of taking off for open water, charged up and over the top of the barnacle-covered stones.  I remember my father pulling out an oar and paddling his 15-foot outboard over the rocks in pursuit of the fish, then having to reverse direction as the bass, having reached deep water beyond the rockpile, reversed direction and ran over the boulders.  I recall how relieved I was when I landed that fish, which weighed 18 ½ pounds.  At the time when I caught it, it was the largest striped bass of my life.

Mike Mucha still keeps his boat on the river.  It’s been said that one can’t go home again, but I return to the waters off Greenwich a few times each year, fishing with him, chasing striped bass along with the memories. 

Last May, Brian O’Keefe joined us, and made me realize just how many memories that water holds.  As I tried to explain how to fish it, there was a memory behind every stone. 

“I lost some big striped bass trolling past this rock.  They always bumped the sandworms before they came back and took them, then ran between the two halves of the island and cut me off on the rocks before I could turn them around.”

“Got a 51 here on July 10, 1974.  Wanted a 50 before I turned 20; I made it with 26 days to go.”

“First bass that I ever caught on a plug was inside that stone pier.”

“Hooked a line-class record bluefish right by that boulder; 14-14 on four-pound.”

I fish my old waters, and remember people long gone.  As I drop a bucktail alongside a sod bank, or dance a pencil popper past a submerged stone, I'll irrationally anticipate strikes from striped ghosts that were spawned and passed on four and five decades ago.

For a few quiet hours, the rock-lined coast returns me to s my youth, something that no mangrove-lined creek or subtropical reef could, at their best, ever do.

That youth was spent by the time that I came to Long Island.  By then, I was somewhere between hope and middle age, when the years of possibility were just about gone, and work turned to plodding routine.  Exploring a new bay and the ocean became an outlet for creativity and passion that my job could never inspire.

Thus, I imbued a new place with new memories.

There's a set of deep-water lumps south of Shinnecock, where we’ve caught sharks since 1984.  The very first time that I fished there, my friend Augie Chimbo hooked a big thresher on 30-pound gear that was far too light for the job.  He had the fish on for close to two hours before we ever saw it; the shark, finally tired of circling under the boat, came up in two back-to-back, greyhounding jumps barely sixty feet away, then raced off maybe 300 yards before doing something that I’ve never seen a thresher do since—come straight up out of the water and pinwheel, head curving in one direction, tail in the other, before crashing down on the line and breaking off.

I’ll always recall that one.

The same year, on another set of lumps 20 miles southeast of Fire Island Inlet, I fought a big shark for 5 ½ hours.  My reel’s Teflon drag gave up a couple of hours into the fight, forcing me to jam my hand between the reel’s crossbars and spool, so the fish could tow our small boat around by my fingertips until it tired.  Five hours and 35 minutes into the fight, the shark was finally exhaused and coming in when a bluefish slashed at a piece of chum that got stuck on the line, cutting the fish free and leaving me free as well, to go home, bandage my raw, oozing hands, and think about what could have been.

I’ll always recall that one, too, just as I’ll recall our first tournament win, when Mike Mucha peeled a 166-pound bigeye tuna off Hudson Canyon's West Elbow, and the time when his brother Gerry took a first-place white marlin from an ocean so ugly that we put the fish in the boat around noon, but were barely able to make it home in time for the 7:00 p.m. weigh-in.

And it’s not all about the big fish.

There’s a deep lump off Fire Island that reliably provides fluke when the squid are around.  My wife and I were out there catching fish one 4th of July when I looked up to see maybe 100 square yards of ocean filled with good-sized fish of some kind.  I tried to cast to them, but as soon as I reached for a rod they all spooked, revealing themselves as black drum, the first ones I ever encountered in local waters.  Another day, I fished the same spot with Bill McGinley, and had a squid-hungry striped bass follow my bait all the way from the bottom, grab it just as I lifted it out of the water, and take off on a hard run.  The fish was eventually released at boatside, and must weigh close to 50 if it’s alive today.

I’ve found a lot of places like that.  A slope leading down to a channel, where flounder used to bunch up on the outgoing tide.  Channel edges where weakfish feed in the first thin light before dawn.   A sheltered cove that can produce enough good-sized blowfish for a coule of meals.

Knowing those places makes me unwilling to trade Long Island's waters for an new and unfamiliar sea.  It's nice to be able to close your eyes, and picture all of the holes and lumps that stretch from the beach to the canyons.

The truth is, if you fish your home waters for enough years, and they begin to own you. 

Fish them for enough years, and you begin to feel like you own them, too.

And when you own something, you want to protect it.  I’ve spent a lot of years trying to convince state and federal regulators to properly conserve and manage marine fish stocks.  I’m not going to pretend that it was all altruistic; as I’ve said many times, beginning after the striped bass stock collapsed, I got involved with fisheries management out of a sense of self-defense.  Fishing is a lot more enjoyable when there are fish around, and so as long as I’m a fisherman—and I’ve lived too long to start becoming something else now—I might as well do my best to protect my interests.

But as much as I might try to fight it, altruism starts sneaking in.

All of us, who have taken our joy from the water, have a solemn obligation to pay it forward, so that the good times don’t end with us.  We pay by respecting the resource, advocating for its health, and serving as mentors to others.  I’ve paid that debt as well as I can, yet it will never be fully discharged.

The funny thing about that is that the more work I do on behalf of healthy fish stocks, the closer that I’m drawn to them.  I feel as if I’ve made an investment in their future, ad investment that I would be very reluctant to abandon now. 

I hope that others feel much the same. 

Thursday, April 21, 2022


We’re less than two weeks away from the next meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, when the fate of Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass will almost certainly be decided.  The meeting will begin at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 4, and is scjheduled to run until 5:15 p.m., although the smart money is on the meeting running lasting longer than that.

The comment period closed last Friday, April 15.  As of Monday, April 11, 493 individuals attended hearings held all along the striper coast, and something like 1,500 written comments had been received by the ASMFC.  

That’s a slower pace than we saw a year ago, when the ASMFC received over 3,000 comments on the Public Information Document for Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.  Hopefully, a lot of last-minute comments were filed during the final week.

It's impossible to know what was said in the written comments, which will be made available next week, but if they track the comments made at the various hearings, we can be cautiously optimistic about how the final amendment will turn out.  A summary of such comments, provided among the materials for the upcoming meeting, reveals a generally strong sentiment for striped bass conservation and a desire to see the Management Board take prompt and decisive action when threats to the stock arise. 

Such summary notes that in Maine, there were

“General comments on the need for conservative, aggressive triggers that require [Management Board] action immediately, proactively, and without delay,”

and an expressed stakeholder

“Desire to rebuild as quickly as possible and maintain abundance.  Public is frustrated at the slow speed of the Commission process.”

The same sentiments were echoed elsewhere on the coast.  In New Hampshire, the summary reports

“General comments on the need for the most aggressive, conservative triggers to rebuild the stock and limiting flexibility,”


“Support for acting urgently to improve the stock and maintain abundance in the future after years of past mismanagement, and managing for the best interest of the species.”

Similar comments were reported from Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

However, there were also dissenting voices.  A commenter from Rhode Island bewailed the

“Disturbing trend  of managing for abundance and how that does not align with ecosystem management; also notes concern about declining trend of harvested fish and increased release mortality when striped bass is a valuable source of food…”

At the New Jersey/Pennsylvania hearing, a representative of the Recreational Fishing Alliance

“noted the importance of flexibility when responding to management triggers and that we should not be as reactive as some other fisheries.”

The Recreational Fishing Alliance has historically close ties with the fishing industry, and its comments were typical of many made by representatives of the for-hire fishing fleet. 

In Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Party and Charter Boat Association took a number of positions that were at odds with comments made by the rest of the state’s angling community; they often provided the sole Rhode Island support for measures that promoted Management Board delay or otherwise increased the potential risk to the striped bass stock.

In Connecticut, the

“For-hire fleet wants to keep the measures at the current slot and keep everything else status quo; we already exceeded the expectations of the percent reduction from the Amendment VI slot,”

while in New York, comments were made to the effect that

“The charter industry has already taken reductions and cannot go any lower than 1 fish bag limit; the charter industry is not discarding and emphasizes the value in keeping the fish.”

Still, the entire for-hire industry should not be tarred with the same brush.  The American Saltwater Guides Association, which describes itself as

“a coalition of forward-thinking guides, small business owners and like-minded anglers who…realize that abundance equals opportunity, and that such opportunity is quite a bit more important to the future of fishing than low size limits and full coolers,”

has taken a very strong pro-conservation position on Amendment 7, as have other for-hire operators.  At New York’s Long Island hearing, one charter boat captain correctly observed that

“It’s the fish that’s most important,”

and warned,

“You keep kicking the can down the road, the fish will have no opportunity to recover.”

With respect to the various options contained in the Draft Amendment 7, there was clear stakeholder opposition to proposals that would allow the Management Board to “keep kicking the can down the road.”  226 out of the 308 persons who commented on the issue (73%) want to retain the current requirement that, if fishing mortality rises too high, the Management Board must return it to the target level within one year; 56 out of 57 who commented on a related option (98%) believe that a single year of overfishing should trigger management action, while only the Rhode Island Party and Charter Boat Association supported amending the trigger to delay management action until a two-year average of fishing mortality exceeded the fishing mortality threshold. 

All 49 comments made supported a new requirement that, if a spawning stock biomass trigger was tripped, the Management Board would have to put a rebuilding plan in place within no more than two years.  203 out of 270 commenters (75%) felt that, if a management trigger was tripped, the Management Board should be required to take immediate action, and should not be allowed to defer action under any circumstances.

If those percentages hold up in the written comments, there is reason to hope that the “Management Triggers” section of Amendment 7 will come out in pretty good shape.

With respect to efforts to reduce recreational release mortality, there was some support for an option that would require all states to prohibit all directed recreational striped bass fishing, including catch-and-release, for a two-week period during the height of each state’s striped bass season.  

Because of the wording of the recreational release mortality section, opposition to such closures was difficult to judge, since stakeholders were asked to either select Option A, status quo, which would eliminate all efforts to further reduce release mortality, or explicitly support one or more of the other options; opposition to specific options was not directly solicited.  Nonetheless, 61 of the 493 people attending the hearings (12%) explicitly supported such closures.

That is significantly less than the 172 hearing attendees (35%) who supported  a prohibition on harvest in spawning areas during the spawning season, or the 121 attendees (25%) who supported a two-week spawning area targeting prohibition.  

Of course, given that most states don’t host spawning striped bass, it’s understandable why restrictions on fishing in spawning areas were so much more popular than mandatory closures in every state for, as I’ve noted before, it’s always easier to conserve the other guy’s fish.

The one release mortality issue on which just about everyone agreed was the proposal to ban the use of gaffs or other lethal devices to land striped bass.  It garnered the support of 306 out of 307 who commented on the issue (99.67%), with the Rhode Island Party and Charter Boat Association again being the lone dissenting voice.

The comments related to the rebuilding plan were somewhat surprising.  Two issues were presented in the Draft Amendment 7.  One was whether, in drafting the rebuilding plan, scientists should use the “standard” recruitment model, based on average recruitment, or whether they should assume a low recruitment regime that more closely matched recent recruitment levels.  The other was whether the rebuilding plan should follow the typical course for an addendum to the management plan, a process that usually takes about a year, and would see the plan’s measures adopted for the 2024 season, or whether the plan should be fast-tracked by the Management Board, in which case it would probably be in effect early in 2023.

Given the general support for fast and effective rebuilding, one might think that the low recruitment scenario would have been strongly favored, but that wasn’t the case.  Instead, only 165 of the 276 people who commented, not quite 60%, supported such scenario.  Having said that, it’s probably important to note that 36 of the 111 stakeholders supporting the standard recruitment model (32%), attended a single hearing held in upstate New York, where anglers who fish the Hudson River were strongly opposed to any harvest or targeting closures in spawning areas, and strongly supported the status quo across the board.

A similar pattern emerged with respect to fast-tracking the rebuilding plan, another issue that might be expected to see strong stakeholder support, but was viewed favorably in only 164 of 268 comments (61%).  In that case, 37 of the 104 comments supporting the longer addendum process (36%) were made at the same upstate New York hearing.

It’s likely that the written comments, which originatied from all along the striper coast, will see a marked increase in the percentage of stakeholders supporting both proposals.

Conservation equivalency also had greater than expected support, with 91 out of 227 people who commented (40%) supporting the status quo, which gives the Management Board unlimited discretion to approve conservation equivalency measures.  Once again, upstate New York generated the greatest opposition to change, with 32 of the 91 comments in support of the status quo (35%) coming from that hearing.

Of the comments calling for some sort of restrictions on the use of conservation equivalency, 136 (65%) would prohibit its use when the stock is overfished.  86 comments supported establishing a minimum level of precision for the data underlying state conservation equivalency proposals; of those 31 (36%) supported restricting the percent standard error of such data to 30 or less, 1 (1%) supported restricting the PSE to 50 or less, and the rest expressed no opinion on what PSE should apply.  96 stakeholders supported a related provision, which would establish an uncertainty buffer intended to account for the lower precision of state fisheries data, when compared to coastwide estimates.  Of those, 5 (5%) supported a 10% buffer, 29 (30%) supported a 25% buffer, and 5 (5%) supported a 50% buffer.  Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ New England Chapter supported a 25% buffer if the data was limited to a maximum PSE of 30, but supported the higher, 50% buffer if a PSE of 50 was allowed.

Finally, stakeholders addressed the question of whether Amendment 7 should include a clear definition of how conservation equivalency should be calculated.  Of the 76 comments, 29 (38%) stated that a state's conservation equivalency measures should achieve the same level of conservation as the standard management measures would achieve in that particular state; no one explicitly supported the option that would only require states to achieve the reduction (or liberalization) that such standard management measures would achieve on a coastwide basis.

Support for the conservation equivalency status quo will probably wane as written comments dilute the comments from the upstate New York hearing, but it is impossible to predict what sort of support the other conservation equivalency-related options will receive.

Now, even though the comment period is over, the job is not done for those concerned with the health of the striped bass resource.  Even if the number of public comments is lagging last year’s pace, it is highly unlikely that many management board members will read every one of the comments received.  Because each state’s delegation will be particularly concerned with the opinions of stakeholders living within such state, it is important for everyone to go to the ASMFC webpage and find thecontact information for their own state’s delegation, and send each member ofsuch delegation a copy of their comments.

While the ASMFC is no longer accepting comments on Amendment 7, there is no reason why a stakeholder shouldn’t contact their state delegates to the Management Board and share their views.  Even those who have already submitted comments can augment those comments when providing them to their state’s representatives.

Based on the comments made--and not made--at the hearings, it might be particularly important to stress the need to include a low-recruitment assumption in the rebuilding plan, to support fast-tracking such rebuilding plan, and to support reform of the conservation equivalency process.  

In states where the for-hire industry has an influential political presence, and opposes needed conservation measures, it might also be important to note that along theentire coast, over the past three years (2019-2021) for-hire trips primarily targetingstriped bass constituted well under 2% of all directed striped bass trips; thus, by far the greatest economic and social benefits gleaned from the recreational striped bass fishery come from shore and private boat anglers.  Given that fact, it makes sense to manage striped bass for the benefit of the vast majority, rather than a small minority, of stakeholders.

Amendment 7 should be finalized in less than two weeks.  If conservation advocates can continue to make their case to the Management Board, and convince it to place the interests of the striped bass resource ahead of the interests of narrow stakeholder groups, there is a good chance that the Board will produce a document that benefits the bass stock.

But if conservation supporters ease up now, and let others have the last word, Amendment 7 could still turn out badly.

Sunday, April 17, 2022


Last November, after frustrating years of debate, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas finally listened to their scientific advisors, and banned all retention of shortfin mako sharks.

The decision was well overdue. 

In 2019, ICCAT scientists determined that even without any fishing mortality at all, the mako population would continue to decline until sometime around 2035, because there were so few adult females in the population that currently immature fish would have to become sexually mature, and begin producing pups, before the population might start to increase.

Things have gotten so bad that, about a year ago, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a so-called “90-day finding” in response to a petition to list shortfin makos under the federal Endangered Species Act, which stated that there is sufficient information suggesting that such listing may be warranted, and that NMFS will now conduct a more detailed investigation to determine whether the species should be listed pursuant to the ESA. 

That finding doesn’t mean that makos are either endangered or threatened, but it does mean that there is good reason to suspect that they might be.

Even if NMFS ultimately decides that an Endangered Species Act listing isn’t appropriate, last autumn’s actions at ICCAT obligates the United States, as an ICCAT member, to prohibit its fishermen, both commercial and recreational, from landing shortfin mako sharks in the upcoming season.

Last Monday, a proposed regulation to prohibit such landings was published in the Federal Register.

The regulation is nuanced.  It does not simply outlaw mako landings.  Instead, it conforms to last fall’s ICCAT action by prohibiting mako landings in 2022, but leaving the door open to some very restricted landings in future years, provided that a sustainable level of fishing mortality can be maintained.

NMFS describes the proposed regulation as

“a flexible shortfin mako shark retention limit with a default limit of zero in commercial and recreational Atlantic highly migratory species (HMS) fisheries.”

What that means, as a practical matter, is that no retention of shortfin makos will be allowed unless and until ICCAT has determined that shortfin mako fishing mortality in the North Atlantic, which is largely attributed to makos killed as bycatch in the pelagic longline fleet, drops below 250 metric tons (about 550,000 pounds).  

Should such a drop in fishing mortality occur, ICCAT could decide to allow very limited shortfin mako landings, and if it does so, NMFS may be able to permit very limited landings as well.

However, under the current ICCAT action, total fishing mortality throughout the North Atlantic basin would still be limited to 250 metric tons; United States fishermen, whether commercial or recreational, would only be allowed a small portion of whatever future landings might be allowed for, as NMFS explains,

“While these sharks have been a valued component of U.S. recreational and commercial fisheries, U.S. catch represents only a small portion of the species’ total catch in the North Atlantic by all reporting countries”

Although predicting what will happen at ICCAT is always difficult, if the history of other internationally managed species are any indication, nations’ prior landings history will probably play a large role in determining how any future shortfin mako quotas might be set.  As a party to the treaty underlying ICCAT, the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the United States is legally obligated to conform its management of pelagic fish stocks to the ICCAT decisions.

In issuing the proposed regulations, NMFS notes that,

“Consistent with current ICCAT provisions, the retention limit will be established at zero until Atlantic-wide catch levels are below 250 mt, a level that has a high probability of ending overfishing and starting to rebuild the stock.  ICCAT determined that this measure was needed to bring catch levels down to or below that amount by all ICCAT parties, and thus was an important measure contributing to conservation and management of the stock.  The shortfin mako shark retention limit per trip of zero would be in place unless and until changed after consideration of regulatory criteria and consistent with any ICCAT retention allowances…

“During the fishing year, based on consideration of the inseason trip limit adjustment criteria…and to the extent any retention is allowable as determined by ICCAT…NMFS could increase the shortfin mako shark retention limit from the default, or subsequently decrease the retention limit for the commercial fishery, the recreational fishery, or both.  If a retention limit greater than zero is implemented for the commercial fishery, the current shortfin mako shark restrictions would apply…Similarly, if a retention limit greater than zero is implemented for the recreational fishery, the current recreational shortfin mako shark restrictions would apply, including minimum size limits…While no upper retention limit is being set in this action, any increase in retention limit would need to be consistent with ICCAT recommendations and could only be implemented after considering the regulatory criteria.”

It is not certain that the complete prohibition on landings will drop annual fishing mortality below 250 metric tons.  A 2017 ICCAT stock assessment stated that the group of scientists preparing the document

“does not have enough information to assess if the adoption of live releases alone will be enough to reduce landings to 1,000 [metric tons] or less and stop further stock decline.”

If such scientists were uncertain whether requiring all shortfin makos to be released alive would reduce landings to 1,000 metric tons, the uncertainty over the no-retention rule’s ability to reduce landings to just 250 metric tons is probably far higher, unless additional information about the magnitude of dead discards in the pelagic longline fleet has been gathered over the past five years.

With or without such additional data, the likelihood of annual fishing mortality falling significantly below 250 metric tons is probably fairly remote which, coupled with the United States’ small share of North Atlantic mako landings, suggests that recreational fishermen aren’t going to be able to retain shortfin makos in the foreseeable future.  

In the event that ICCAT eventually permits some mako landings, anglers shouldn’t get their hopes up about a recreational quota; from a management perspective, it would make more sense to allow longliners to keep a portion of their mako bycatch, consisting of fish that were already dead when brought to the boat, rather than maintaining the same level of dead discards and then increasing overall fishing mortality by allowing recreational fishermen to kill makos, too.

Despite the fact that shortfin makos are in serious trouble, something that has been made very clear by both the 2017 and the 2019 stock assessments, there will undoubtedly be a number of anglers and charter boat owners who will be unhappy with the retention ban.  I have already seen some Internet posts spouting the same sort of “I never saw so many” language that we always see whenever restrictions are imposed on the landings of any species.

Individual observations, made along a small section of coast for only a limited time, are never of much value when evaluating the health of fish stocks.  They are limited not only by time and space, but by the bias of the observer.  But in this case, I’m going to exercise my author’s privilege, and make an individual observation of my own: 

I’ve been an active participant in the northeastern shark fishery since the late 1970s, when I began chartering boats out of Rhode Island.  Beginning in the mid-1980s, I began running my own boats offshore, something that I still do today.  That’s roughly 45 years spent in the recreational shark fishery.  Over those years, I’ve seen the quantity and the quality of shortfin mako sharks steadily decline. 

I remember June weekends during the 1980s, when multiple fish over 400 pounds would be brought into Long Island ports.  Today, we can go for a month, perhaps for an entire season, without a single 400-pound mako landed anywhere west of Montauk. 

I remember when the first makos were caught around Memorial Day, and decent fishing ran into November, when makos occasionally showed up in the middle of the bluefish fleet, to both the delight and dismay of anglers who saw bluefish transformed from brute to bait with one snap of a shark’s jaws.  Today, the mako season, if we can call it that, runs for a few weeks around the junction of June and July, and maybe a week or two during the fall, with just a trickle of fish at other times.

I remember when, not that long ago, I enjoyed some four- and even six-mako days, and could usually depend on catching at least one on just about every outing.  Today, spots that once regularly yielded two to four makos per day yield no more than that in an entire season.

Thus, based on both the science and what I’ve observed, I feel safe in declaring that anyone who claims that the North Atlantic mako stock is healthy is either delusional, drunk, or knowingly deceitful.  There are no alternative explanations. 

So I’m pleased to see NMFS issue the proposed regulations, which will hopefully be in place before what remains of the shortfin mako stock comes within reach of the recreational fishing fleet, which is responsible for nearly all of U.S. landings (in 2020, East Coast anglers landed about 1,100,000 pounds of shortfin mako, compared to 42,500 pounds for the region’s commercial fleet).

Anyone wishing to comment on the proposed regulations is free to do so although, because the landings ban is required by ICCAT, such comments won’t have too much effect.  Comments should be sent through the website at; once at that page, entering “NOAA-NMFS-2022-0015” in the “Search” box will lead to another page on which comments can be made.  All comments must be sent in by May 11.



Thursday, April 14, 2022


 No one should have been surprised when the striped bass stock collapsed in the late 1970s.  The warning signs were all there.

After a record-high year class in 1970, the juvenile abundance index for the Maryland portion of Chesapeake Bay—the single most important striped bass spawning ground on the coast—began to decline.  By 1980, it was in free fall.  Three of the five lowest abundance indices on record were recorded in 1980, 1981, and 1983.  1981’s index of 1.22 was the lowest recorded in a time series going back to 1957; it held that dubious distinction until 2012, when the juvenile abundance index fell to a disheartening 0.89.

The lack of recruitment had the predictable impact on the striped bass stock.  Older fish, hammered by what were effectively unrestricted commercial and recreational fisheries (and there was really little distinction between the two back then; commercial licenses had not been adopted by most coastal states, and supposedly “recreational” fishermen regularly sold their excess catch), were killed with no thought for the future, and with few young bass entering the population, collapse was inevitable.

But even after the stock collapsed, striped bass fishermen kept fishing.  In a few places, most notably Block Island and parts of Cape Cod, there were enough big fish available that many fishermen still refused to admit that the bass were in trouble. 

Along the rest of the coast, most harbored no such illusions, but we went fishing anyway, because we were striped bass fishermen and that’s what we did.  Day after day after day (or, because we’re talking about bass, perhaps it was night after night after night), striped bass anglers kept tossing their lures into a largely empty sea.

Once in a while, someone caught a fish, and some of those fish were large.  But for the most part, we headed out to the beaches and boats knowing that the odds were dead set against us.  Striped bass might not have been in quite the same category as unicorns and bigfoot, but by the early ‘80s, they weren’t too much easier to find.

Yet we fished.  Once in a while, we even caught a bass, and when we did, we usually released it, wondering when, and if, we’d manage to catch another.  But that uncertainty never stopped us from heading out the next day.

I thought of those times a couple of weeks ago, when I heard one of the speakers at the Saltwater Recreational Fishing Summit declare that

“Anglers are optimists.”

Maybe that’s true of young anglers, and new anglers, and anglers fortunate enough to live in those rare places where fish are abundant and well-managed.  But for those of us who have been on and around the water for a few decades, and have seen good fishing and bad fishing, and everything in between, I don’t believe that the “optimist” tag applies. 

We’re fatalists, who fish because we have no desire to play golf or tennis, don’t go to theme parks, and can’t see ourselves wasting time in a football stadium when the cold fronts blow and bait is moving down along the coast.

We fish, because we have little desire to engage in more trivial things.  The ocean, the air, and the hunt touches us in a way nothing else can.  So we venture out even when we know that the trip may be—probably will be—fruitless. 

That’s not optimism. It’s fatalism, which for some can be mixed with desperation.  

Such desperation manifests itself in folks who pour their money into faster, longer-ranged boats, loaded with electronics, that they hope might help them to find the last outposts of fish that once teemed just outside—and sometimes within—their marinas.  They seek the newest, most efficient gear, made of the most modern materials, in the hope that, so outfitted, they can glean one or two of the same fish that their grandparents caught, by the bushel, with handlines.

Though, I suppose, desperation might be a twisted sort of optimism, the sort of optimism that says “If I only spend another few thousand on electronics and gear, maybe I’ll be able to catch some fish.”

Although we fatalists might tell them not to bet too much on such an outcome.

Instead of financing false hopes, we chase memories.  In my case, those memories look a lot like weakfish.

Weakfish have long supported boom-or-bust fisheries.  Just what causes the boom-and-bust is still open to debate.  When the fish disappeared shortly after the close of the Second World War, many blamed the disappearance on a blight that decimated eelgrass beds during the 1930s.  Weakfish stayed scarce until the late 1960s, then hung around at greater or lesser levels of abundance for the next 30-plus years before crashing again.  The decline seemed to be linked to some unspecified source of natural mortality rather than fishing, with a 2009 stock assessment noting that

“Projections for this stock present a very bleak picture, where even under a moratorium of fishing the stock is unlikely to recover rapidly to anywhere near what one could describe as safe biological conditions.”

Yet for reasons that I can’t even try to explain, because I don’t quite understand them myself, I love to fish for weakfish.  So around the beginning of May, when lilacs are starting to bloom, I still end up somewhere on Great South Bay, probing the edges and channels, hunting for a different species of unicorn than I sought forty years ago but, up until a few years ago, when weakfish numbers began to rebound, I was hunting unicorns just the same.

I went out not expecting to find them, although once in a while I did, but because it was May, and weakfish season.  It would have been sacrilege not to try.

Thus, at last month’s Summit, I just shook my head when the same panelist who came up with the “anglers are optimists” statement suggested that if striped bass (and, by extension, weakfish or any other desired but absent species) isn’t available, anglers should be happy to go fish for catfish or other, less appealing things—that we should settle for less because fishery managers have failed to conserve the species that we value most.

To insinuate that all fish are the same, and that anglers in the Chesapeake Bay—which is where the panelist in question came from—should be happy catching hulking, invasive blue catfish, which are essentially no more than a trash can with fins, instead of native striped bass, is to denigrate the value of healthy native fish stocks, and devalue the angling experience.

It is better to seek unicorns, knowing that such quest will fail, than to abandon the quest altogether.

But it is better yet to spend time not only pursuing one’s dream, whether that dream takes the shape of a striped bass, weakfish, or shortfin mako, but in making such dream a reality.  

If I can be accused of any optimism at all—a trait that I will stubbornly deny—it is not in my role as an angler, but as an advocate, who believes that if enough people spend enough time engaging with fishery managers, they can push the management process in the right direction.  

Yet even there, fatalism plays its role.

For in some places, in some fisheries, managers seem to be elevating fishermen’s calls for increased short-term landings above the resource’sneed for peer-reviewed science and management based on the best available data.  Traditional conservation advocates have seemingly abandoned their former role of watchdogs protecting the management process, in favor of higher profile, and more heavily publicized, campaigns focusing on “30x30” protected areas.

To the fatalist, it can seem as if good fishery management is spiraling down the same path as good fishing.

But just as we chased striped bass and weakfish in the depths of their declines, knowing that failure was the likely end, the fatalist fishery advocate can go into a fight expecting to lose, while doing all he or she knows how to do to prevail.

And once in a while, as with bass in decades past, we might just catch a unicorn.