A steady drop in the population of spawning-age striped bass is leading fisheries regulators to consider new measures to limit fishing impacts on that vital East Coast species as soon as this fall, state regulators said at a meeting this week.
Fishermen were given the floor at a meeting of the civilian Marine Resources Advisory Council in Setauket to suggest and opine on measures to limit so-called discard mortality — essentially the unintended killing of fish that are too small or over the limit of the one fish at 28 inches that anglers are allowed to keep in a season that starts April 15 and runs through Dec. 15. Any new measures would apply to recreational, not commercial, striped bass fishing.
Suggestions included everything from banning surf-casting and commercial fishing nets to requiring hooks that limit damage to fish. The measures were alternately greeted by heckles or applause from the standing-room-only crowd of chiefly fishing boat captains and anglers from across Long Island.
“The whole problem is dead discards from the recreational fishery,” said commercial fisherman John German of Brookhaven, who criticized the “inhumane” practice of catching fish with barbed hooks. “You eliminate that you’d be in fine shape.”
“We killed as many fish as we landed last year,” said DEC marine bureau chief Jim Gilmore. While noting stock assessments were preliminary, he said they were concerning enough that measures could be instituted by the fall, when a mass southward migration of stripers takes place along the East Coast. Gilmore said the preliminary assessments for striped bass indicate that the species is overfished but stressed that conditions are not as bad as the 1980s when population declines led to a moratorium on taking stripers along the East Coast.
Among the measures proposed were improved science and better assessments for population sizes. One veteran fishermen took issue with the current assessments, noting “miles” of stripers he’s seen at sea. Others suggested populations were impacted by growing seal populations and pollution that are shifting striper migrations farther from land, and beyond the count of survey boats.
Gilmore said reducing discard mortality through education about fish handling and less damaging fishing gear would be better than shorter seasons or increasing the size of keeper fish, both of which were offered up at the meeting but could take a year to study and implement. DEC is planning to hire a staffer to increase education and outreach, he said.
Most at the meeting found consensus around plans to institute coastwide recreational fishing regulations for striped bass, rather than the often-disparate state-based rules that now prevail and often leave New York anglers at a disadvantage.
“We should do everything we can” to manage striped bass from a single coastwide set of rules given that it’s a “coastwide fish,” said Joe Tangel, a charterboat captain from East Moriches, who heads an association of for-hire fishing boat captains. While he didn’t dispute assessments for striper populations, he argued boat captains work hard to limit injury to fish they don’t keep. “We’re not seeing that kind of mortality” shown in the assessments, he said. Most agreed barbed and treble hooks can cause undue damage to the fish, as can the practice of landing fish by dragging them across the sand.
One hotly debated suggestion was the notion of banning commercial nets for the capture of striped bass, an idea that appeared to be influenced by efforts to persuade state legislators to draft a bill that would ban the use of long gill nets to encircle fish on beaches and haul them onto shore, similar to haul seining, which was banned in 1990. While some recreational anglers supported the net ban, most commercial fishermen opposed it.
Gilmore said tentative rules for the striper season could be drawn up as soon as April 30, and shorter-term measures could be instituted as early as August, after public comment.
“There will be plenty of time for the fishing community to look at these options,” he said.