As the striped-bass season kicks into high gear, fisheries regulators are exploring ways to boost a stock they say is overfished, including through a shorter season and new regulations on the size of keeper fish.
At a sometimes contentious public hearing in Farmingdale on Wednesday, more than 200 anglers, boat captains and fishing club members weighed in on options for reducing the recreational and commercial harvest of striped bass by up to 18 percent, compared with 2017.
The measures, which will take effect with the 2020 season, are detailed in an August report by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the interstate body that regulates the fishery. Regulators stressed that no measures will be enacted without fishermen input, and they are months away from final decisions.
Measures under consideration include mandating the use of circle hooks that cause less damage to fish, new size restrictions on fish and a shortened recreational season, which now runs from April 15 through Dec. 15, according to the report.
“The whole idea is to give these fish more breeding time to allow the stock to rebuild,” said Steve Witthuhn, a charterboat captain in Montauk who sits on the Marine Resources Advisory Council of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which must ultimately draw up and enforce the new rules.
About 90 percent of striped bass are caught by recreational anglers, so the bulk of the measures discussed Wednesday night are likely to impact stripers caught by sportsmen most. Harvesting by commercial fishermen, meanwhile, could be reduced by 1.8 percent to as much as 18 percent.
Even when fish are caught and returned to the water alive by recreational anglers, regulators say 9 percent still die as a result of being caught and released. That "release mortality" is the major focus of regulators who called it a "large component" — up to 48 percent — of annual striped bass declines.
Spawning female striped bass are estimated to total about 151 million pounds, well below the ideal threshold of 202 million pounds for a healthy, sustainable population, the commission said.
In all, recreational fishing took about 53.5 million pounds of striped bass from East Coast waters in 2017, compared with a high of 75.8 million pounds in 2013. The low of 2.7 million pounds in 1984 led to a moratorium on striped bass.
“We don’t want to go to a moratorium, so we have to go to some new measures,” Witthuhn said. He said possible measures include opening the season May 1 and ending it Nov. 30. Another possibility is to limit the allowable size of harvested fish to between 28 inches and 35 inches. That would allow fish longer than 35 inches to breed, Witthuhn said.
Many party and charterboat captains at the meeting Wednesday said they favored that "slot-size" option over another proposal to limit keeper fish to 35 inches or more. They say the amount of time spent on the water fishing and releasing stripers to get the minimum 35-incher would lead to more unintended fish deaths.
"The charter business cannot survive with a 35-inch fish," said Richard Jensen, captain of the Nancy Ann IV charterboat out of Orient, saying such a rule would cause a slaughter" of fish. He pressed regulators to allow boats a single smaller keeper fish, which he said would vastly reduce fish deaths.
Current rules allow recreational anglers to take one fish longer than 28 inches each day during the season.
Most of the surf-casting and individual fishermen at the meeting appeared to favor the 35-inch and above option, saying a previous limit of 36 inches or more was effective.
Julien Frank, a member of the High Hill Striper Club from New Rochelle, told regulators he favored the 35-inch and above option. But he also called on the state to do more to crack down on poaching of undersized and out-of-season fish.
"Everyone in this room has seen people put small fish in the box," Frank said.
Opinions were mixed about whether to shorten the season by about 30 days, eliminating the April and December weeks of the season.
"I can't afford to lose days," said Nicholas Marchetti, captain of the Never Enough Fishing fleet out of Flushing Bay.
Several fishermen questioned how the state DEC would enforce new rules to require the use of circle hooks that damage fish less and make for easier release.
Others said there were more significant issues.
Joe Judge of Montauk and Mike Jacobs of Wantagh spoke passionately about the damage done by treble hooks, which combine three barbed hooks on lures with three or more treble hooks.
Judge called it a "significant oversight" that treble hooks weren't addressed in the commission's report. Jacobs called treble hooks "arsenic for striped bass."
Little was said at the meeting about commercial striped bass fishing. In New York, commercial fishermen are allowed a maximum of just over 200 fish a year.
Last year along the entire East Coast, about 622,451 stripers were harvested commercially, and release of dead discards amounted to about 13 percent of the total commercial take for the year, the commission said.
Regulators said they were aware of the potential economic impact of new restrictions, but, like many at the meeting, warned of greater damage to the striped bass fishery if nothing is done.
“In general, the reduction in striped bass removals is likely to translate into a short-term negative impact on the regional economy and jobs associated with the fishing industry for the species,” the commission report says. However, "the positive long-term economic impacts stemming from the stock recovery and subsequent catch increases in successive years will likely outweigh the short-term impacts.”