Anglers' group seeks ban on commercial bass fishing

Kaimi Rose Lum

Should striped bass be available to all types of fishermen, commercial and recreational? Or should it be enjoyed by one exclusive group?

That’s a no-brainer to members of “Stripers Forever,” a fraternity of leisure fishermen based in Portland, Maine. They want to ban the commercial harvest of striped bass in Massachusetts and give the fishery over to recreational anglers only.

“Our sole goal is gamefish status,” says Craig Caldwell, the organization’s policy director for Massachusetts. Designating the bass as a gamefish, which the group hopes to do via a bill that it plans to introduce into the state Legislature this fall, would make it off-limits to anyone but sportfishermen.

“Our reasoning really goes toward the long-term conservation of the fish,” he says, reasoning that preventing commercial fishermen from taking striped bass would leave the bigger female fish in the sea and allow more breeding to occur. He suggests that the poor showing of striped bass in local waters these past few weeks may be related to the depletion of big fish by commercial fishermen.

“I live on the water here on Cape Cod and I can see a difference this spring in the numbers that are coming in ... the numbers are way lower than last year,” says Caldwell, who has lived in Harwich for the last eight years. He says he has heard anecdotally that Maine fishing guides aren’t even going out and that elsewhere in northern New England fishermen are experiencing “literally the worst bass fishing season ever.”

Caldwell also argues that having a recreational-only fishery would be more valuable economically to the residents of Massachusetts, generating revenue from “additional boat sales, additional guides, additional hotel stays.”

And he claims that commercial fishermen don’t really depend on striped bass for their income.

“A lot of them frankly are recreational guys who just want to go out there and put gas on their boat.”

Local perspective

Some local fishermen don’t see it that way. Timmy Silva, a Truro resident who has been fishing commercially for striped bass for 40 years, used the money he earned fishing to build his house.

“This is my livelihood,” Silva says. “I’m out there with a hook and line just like [the recreational fishermen], and I fish very hard.” He estimates that a third of his income comes from bass fishing. Like many Cape residents, Silva cobbles together a living from multiple occupations, making jigs and doing carpentry on the side.

Also chair of the Pamet Harbor Commission, Silva says he has attended every public meeting on bass-related issues in the past 40 years and is familiar with the Stripers Forever crowd. He points out that commercial fishermen are content to share the fishery with the recreational anglers. The recreational anglers’ push to have the fishing to themselves seems based on “personal selfishness,” he says.

“Everybody gets to fish for [bass] right now and what upsets me is when one group wants to get 100 percent of the pie. ... This fish should be for everybody and not just one special group.”

Silva notes that state rules on commercial fishing have been amended over the years to adapt to stresses on the bass fishery. The quota system that is currently set up allows fishermen to take bass for about six weeks from mid- to late summer and brings an end to commercial fishing in the fall months, when the bigger female fish that Caldwell is worried about are around. These are the fish that are fattening up for the journey south, Silva says.

He also points out that the legal size at which fishermen can take bass commercially has changed in response to pressures on the fish. It was once set at a mere 16-inches (in length), then it was gradually increased up to 36 inches before it was dropped to its current limit.

Commercial rules vs. recreational

Under the state’s current regulations, commercial bass fishermen are allowed to take fish that are 34 inches long and over. The fishery, which opens in early to mid-July, is run by quota, meaning fishermen can take bass commercially until the number of landings meets the annual limit, set in 2008 at 1,100,000 pounds.

Fish may be taken by rod and reel, and there are only four days per week when commercial bass fishermen are allowed to go to work — Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. They are allowed five fish on Sunday and 30 fish on each of the three weekdays.

In years past the commercial season has lasted an average of about a month and a half.

The recreational fishery, on the other hand, is open all year. Recreational fishermen are permitted to take fish 28 inches and over. They may keep two fish per trip.

In the recreational category, the state this year issued 660 charter boat licenses (for boats that carry three to six people), 64 headboat licenses (for boats that carry seven or more) and 13 guide licenses (for boats that carry up to two).

About 3,800 commercial striped bass permits were issued this year.

DMF weighs in

While Caldwell estimates that commercial fishermen’s numbers outweigh the recreational, Dan McKiernan, deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, says that the commercial harvest actually represents only a small fraction of the bass taken in the state every year.

In 2006, he says, the number of fish taken or killed in the state was estimated at 1.1 million. Of that, only 75,000 fish were taken commercially.

“Eliminate those 75,000 fish and reserve the rest for the anglers, and I’m not sure you’d see much of a difference,” economically or otherwise, he says. “The amount of mortality that’s taken by commercial is not substantial.”

McKiernan says the low numbers of bass that Caldwell refers to have just only just materialized, becoming evident in the pace at which the commercial quota has been filling (it’s currently 40 percent full, whereas in the past at this time of year the number has been higher).

“We’ve gotten reports that fishing has been off over the past few weeks, but that’s not caused by the commercial fishery because the commercial fishery just opened,” he says.

He says there has been a strong showing of healthy-sized fish in federal waters out at Stellwagen Bank and in the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard. And the recreational fishing in June, he says, was stellar.

“There’s no new assessment that says this fish is in trouble.”

McKiernan says even when the fishing numbers have been strong, Stripers Forever has complained about the commercial guys.

“When the fishing was over-the-top fantastic they were arguing you shouldn’t catch commercially because ‘look at how low the prices are’ and ‘the markets are flooded.’ Now that the rate of the quota consumption is less than it was in previous years they’re using this as a cause for alarm.”

He says that if the commercial ban goes through, “then our bass will be farm-raised in Missouri.”

Farm-raised fish

Stripers Forever is trying to get the word out that farm-raised striped bass, which will replace fresh bass in the local fish markets if the commercial harvest is banned, is a satisfactory alternative. The group’s website includes links to information on the latest innovations in bass aquaculture, such as a fish food developed by a company called Neptune Industries that is “based on insects that they grow themselves.”

Caldwell says he’s bought farm-raised striper at Trader Joe’s and “thought it was fine.”

But one local fish buyer and supplier, Chris King of Cape Tip Seafoods, says that comparing fresh bass caught in the wild to the farm-raised stuff is comparing apples and oranges. The farmed bass is a hybrid between fresh and saltwater bass and is generally smaller in size and more bland in taste.

“It’s not the same as wild bass, that’s for sure,” King says.

King says he tried to sell farm-raised bass once but took it off the market because it didn’t measure up. “It’s not as good as wild bass.”

Being ‘green’ or seeing gold?

Although Caldwell uses environmental concerns to reason against commercial bass fishing, he also spends a lot of time talking about the economic benefits that would supposedly result from making the bass fishery a recreational-only fishery. He claims hundreds of millions of dollars will go back into the economy from “everything related to tackle shops, boat maintenance, marinas, numbers of charters going out. ” He says he knows one angler from Belgium who drops $10,000 into the local economy every year on fishing-related expenses.

Caldwell, whose wife recently ran for a high-profile political position, says he knows that the governor wants to create jobs and put money into the economy. “When we look at getting rid of commercial fishing it does both of those things.” He claims that “there’s no capital involved in becoming a commercial striped bass fisherman.”

King begs to differ.

“The average price for bass this year is $3 a pound. There’s a one-million-pound quota. That’s $3 million going to the state,” he says. He adds that he has to hire extra people in the summer to help out with the extra work that comes from processing striped bass.

“There would be a huge loss if there were no commercial bass,” King says. “Without it we would definitely see a deficiency here. ...  It’s a piece of the pie, definitely, here on Cape Cod where people depend on so many different things for their income.”

Silva says that no matter which way you look at it, there’s money coming in.

“A charter boat has to get paid to go out and get a fish. I have to go out and get a fish to get paid. It doesn’t matter which way you look at it — that fish has a bounty on it.”

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