Hit-or-miss striped bass fishing reflects population/size decreases among species overall.

By Joshua Boyd/jboyd@cnc.com
GateHouse News Service
Posted Aug 12, 2010 @ 02:24 PM

Ipswich —
Brian Kubaska is very proud of the 46-inch striped bass (or “striper” in the popular vernacular) that he caught off Baker Island in Salem Sound.

Big stripers have been the norm during the 2010 striper-fishing season, which generally begins in May and runs through October. However, as happy as local area fishermen have been with the size of their catches, the lack of smaller “throw-backs” is a bit of a cause for alarm among those in the fishing business.

“It was a spectacular June, a good July, and August has been a little slow, as to be expected,” said Nat Moody, the owner of First Light Anglers in Rowley. “There’s plenty of fish around, but they’re pretty well-fed by now. There is a good mix of size classes, which has been lacking the past few years, but there seems to be more of a lack of small fish.

“We saw some of them this spring, but it’s still worrisome that we’re not seeing the small fish,” Moody said.

Kubaska, an Ipswich resident, said the 46-inch striper he caught towards the end of July was the biggest he’s ever hooked. He’s caught 40-and 43-inch fish in the last two years, and he’s even heard of 52-inch stripers being pulled out of the Merrimack River.

He has no problem with the size of the stripers he’s seeing. It’s the numbers that have gone down, he said, during the 2010 season.

“Last year, I’d go out and catch a half-dozen, maybe a dozen stripers each time I went out,” he said. “This year, I have to work harder just to catch a few.”

That goes back to the statement made earlier that there are fewer small fish this year, a fact that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) can back up.

Where are the small fry?

“It is a concern to a number of our constituents that there has been a decline in the abundance of total fish in the [Atlantic striped bass] population, as we have seen from 2004 to 2007,” said Nichola Meserve, the Fisheries Management Plan Coordinator for ASMFC.

“The estimates of recruitment for the age zero fish being produced annually are monitored by the state of Maryland in a survey, and the estimates from that survey have generally declined since 2000.”

“There is a decline in small fish being bred in Chesapeake Bay,” added Moody. “The fish that come to feed off of Massachusetts breed either in the fresh water off Chesapeake Bay or in the fresh water of the Hudson River.

“A lot of it is agricultural runoff into Chesapeake Bay, which keeps the eggs from hatching and the small fish from having a good availability of bait,” Moody said.

One statement that can clear the consciences of commercial or recreational fishermen is that, in the opinion of the ASMFC, gleaned from research, over-fishing has not occurred and is not occurring now. That said, the commission is looking to redefine the quotas for recreational fishermen up and down the Eastern Seaboard to help stem a decline in commercial fishing.

Since 2003, coastal commercial harvest has decreased by 3.6 percent, while recreational harvest has increased by 13.7 percent. The ASMFC was holding public hearings in states from Maine down to North Carolina to try and come up with a new quota for both interests to enjoy a mutually beneficial harvest.

The not-for-profit group Stripers Forever (www.stripersforever.org) is opposed to any increase in the quotas for commercial fishermen, according to a document on its website related to the ASMFC proposal.

“In the past, commercial fishing advocates on the ASMFC have pushed for greater commercial quotas for several species, even as those populations collapsed. This strategy gives them a larger percentage of the catch down the road when the species recovers, because they can claim that this was their historic percentage,” the document states.

“Of course, we disagree completely with this thinking, and we are flabbergasted at the idea of increasing the killing of striped bass at a time when it is undisputed that the population is declining. This decline is causing pain throughout the far more economically valuable recreational fishing industry, as well as decreasing fishing opportunities for members of the public.”

Less to catch

Indeed, both parties are debating harvests of a fish species whose population is on the decrease.

“There’s not one clear-cut reason for that decline,” said Meserve. “There are a number of issues ranging from environmental conditions to agricultural runoff. We do know that estimates of ‘spawning stock biomass,’ or the reproductively mature females in the population, have decreased marginally. With that decrease, you’re going to get lower age 0-1 abundance in the species.”

“The problem is,” Moody added, “that each state up and down the Atlantic Coast has a completely different set of retention regulations. The guys in Maryland may be bringing in 18-inch fish, but we’re limited to [28] inches or better.”

Massachusetts recreational fishermen may keep two fish of 28 inches or better per day. The commercial quota for the state is 1,128,577 fish; 51.8 percent (or 584,531) had been caught through 5 a.m. on Aug. 10. Maryland recreational fishermen are allowed a minimum length of 18 inches (and a maximum of 26 inches), but they are limited to areas that are not spawning grounds.

While the ASMFC keeps an eye on fish populations in the southern breeding grounds, it is still open season off the Massachusetts coast.

“We’ve had great luck in Salem Sound, as well as Nahant and Boston Harbor, those are all very good,” said Moody. “The beachfronts of Plum Island and Crane’s Beach are great in June, but those have slowed off some. Again, the fish have been well-fed, so they are very picky.”

Kubaska is very proud of his mature catch. This will be the first fish he has mounted by a taxidermist.

“We recently rebuilt our house, and my wife looked at a wall and said ‘this will be a great spot for a big fish,’” said Kubaska. “There aren’t a lot of people who do it … I finally found one up in Nashua, N.H.”

He won’t add a plaque with the date or size or any of that information.

“No, I’ll just have to keep to keep that stuff committed to memory,” he said.