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Feds weigh new limits on striped bass

A federal commission is considering new limits on striped-bass fishing in eastern coastal states including New York that would reduce the harvest by around a third in one to three years, starting in January.

At a meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, this week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission discussed a range of proposals, such as keeping the status quo, increasing the minimum allowable size of keeper bass, reducing the number of fish that can be kept, and implementing a size range for keepers to allow larger and smaller fish to reach maturity and spawn. Commercial fishing would see a proportionate reduction.

The proposed measures are aimed at stemming a decline in the female striped-bass spawning stock, which has seen steady reductions since 2004, while protecting a sizable generation of 3-year-old fish that would reach sexual maturity over the next three years, said Michael Waine, striped-bass management-plan coordinator for the commission.

"It's proactive," Waine said of the measures being considered. "The board is very aware of where this stock is. It's trying to remain proactive in managing this resource so that we can maintain a healthy status [and] we're not in a situation where we wait for a problem before we act."

States from Maine to North Carolina would be affected.

An agenda for the commission's meeting this week proposed meeting a 32 percent to 36 percent harvest reduction in a single year, beginning in January. But commissioners representing various states urged fisheries managers to devise a separate proposal to reach the target over three years, in part to reduce the impact on East Coast fishing. Striped bass are not considered overfished, the commission said.

The commission will meet again in August, put the measures out for public comment, and finalize the rules in October.

One draft option for meeting the one-year goal includes a new minimum recreational size limit for keeper bass of 33 inches, up from the current 28 inches. Others options introduce a "slot-size" limit that would restrict harvest to fish between 28 and 34 inches, or reduce to one fish the number of stripers anglers could take per day from a current two in most regions.

Under three-year options, the measures would be less severe, but would still reach the projected 30 percent reduction, Waine said.

Whichever are adopted, the rules could put a temporary crimp in commercial and recreational fishery on Long Island, where striped bass fishing enjoys a hard-core following and iconic status among aficionados from Montauk to New York City.

But even some of the most ardent striped-bass fishers support limits, chiefly to keep the fishery viable into the future.

"It's a done deal. It's going to be reduced," said Willie Young, president of the Montauk Surfcasters Association, a recreational fishing group that supports a reduction. "We've reached the threshold where they [regulators] have to act."

"We committed to the public to address this problem," said Pat Augustine, a representative for state Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) on the commission, adding that a prime objective is to increase the spawning stock.

Under current rules, anglers on shore can take one striped bass of 28 inches to 40 inches, and another over 40 inches in a season that extends from April 15 through Dec. 15. Those on charter or party boats can keep two above 28 inches.

Commercial fishing boats, which in New York are allowed to take upwards of 240 fish each year through the allocation of regulated tags to each licensed fishing captain, would see a reduction in that number, also by around a third -- in one to three years.

"It would be a big impact," said North Shore fisherman Phil Karlin of Riverhead. "A lot of people depend on that striped bass for income."

Fishing boats are already dealing with cuts in the fluke and black sea bass fishery, he said, and lobsters, once a prime fishery in the Long Island Sound, have seen sharp reductions and a closure for three months in the fall.

"It's another thing you're going to lose," Karlin said.

Under the 31 percent reduction, New York's commercial striped-bass harvest of 767,321 pounds in 2013 would be reduced next year to 529,451 pounds. Other states would face similar reductions. New York has experienced a decline in the commercial striped bass harvest since 2011, when 854,731 pounds were landed: in 2012, the number dropped to 681,399 pounds.

On the recreational side, according to ASMFC data, a 10-year record of 10.9 million pounds of striped bass taken in 2008 saw the number more than halved to 5 million in 2009, 6.9 million in 2010, 8.9 million in 2011, 6.5 million in 2012, and 6.7 million in 2013.

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