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Mar 26, 2019 9:28 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Blame Where Blame Is, And Isn't, Due For Bass Decline

This graph breaks down how striped bass die at the hands of humans. The dark blue is fish that are taken by recreational anglers. The green is fish that are released by recreational anglers but later die from wounds or exhaustion. The yellow line is the number of fish that are harvested by commercial fishermen, or that are caught accidentally and released/discarded that later die. Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission
Mar 26, 2019 2:15 PM

My columns the last few weeks about the depth of the problems with the striped bass stock, and how we might get the ship back on course, have garnered a lot of comments from anglers.I’ve been surprised to learn how many anglers from Maryland to Maine are not only somehow finding my column to read, but are firmly supportive of even the most aggressive and progressive changes to our fishing habits that fisheries managers might think up.

But I’m also a little uneasy about the number of anglers who have sought to place a lot of the blame for the plight of stripers at the feet of a group that I think the statistics show do not play a particularly problematic role in the recent decline of striped bass stocks: commercial fishermen.

Now, I will acknowledge, I’m often a critic of commercial fishing practices that I think are more destructive than productive, and I’ve welcomed plenty of criticism for it. I’ve even changed my tune on some of it. Not much, but some. I will also acknowledge, to those of you rabid gamefishing disciples, that I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who earn their livings as commercial fishermen, and I think that sustaining their jobs is crucial to our community—as much culturally as economically.

Here on the South Fork, where a lot of anglers are surfcasters, we get a front row seat to the commercial striped bass fishery. Come October, we sometimes feel like we’re actually sitting in the base line, when the gillnets are bobbing in the surf close enough to spit on.

Recreational fishermen see the gillnets get dropped and a bite shut off like a switch. And we see the hundreds of dead stripers bobbing in the ocean or washed up on the beach and we know they were victims of a commercial net of some sort.

But I think that when we’re seeing red like that, a lot of anglers have a hard time seeing the truth of the impact of the gillnet fishery and the accidental killing of even a relatively large number of stripers by a dragger that has to discard most of them.

I know it’s hard to say that any waste is “OK” when we are facing major cuts to harvests (to which that dragger captain would say he should be allowed to keep those fish he caught accidentally, since they’re going to die anyway, and then they wouldn’t be wasted), but if the recent stock assessment statistics illustrate anything, it’s that the impacts of commercial fishing on striped bass is probably not where we need to be focusing our attention and efforts at change.

Yes, the “Game Fish Now” advocates have it right when they say that every striped bass that dies at the hand of an angler generates vastly more economic value than each one that dies at the hand of a commercial fisherman does. But when push comes to shove, it is our hands that kill a lot more striped bass.

Gillnets in particular are worthy of both criticism and defense. I’ve dogged on gillnets before and gotten kickback, so I’ve made a point of spending time watching these crews pull their nets the last three years. I would say I have watched probably 30 nets pulled from start to finish during the fall and the most striped bass (just bass, not bluefish) that I’ve counted come over the transom from one set is about 60 fish. Most often, the number is between 15 and 40 fish per net.

New York commercial fishermen—which includes a lot of charter boat captains and basically part-time fishermen with bass tags—only account for about 15 percent of the coastwide commercial “harvest” of stripers. The Chesapeake states are about 62 percent of the overall. And still, the commercial killing of stripers along the whole coast is only 10 to 15 percent of the total number of fish killed. Since the late 1990s, the commercial cut of striper mortality has been more or less steady at about one million fish per year, or less. That includes the best estimates of how many fish die from accidental catches. In the early 2000s, the total mortality of striped bass was in the seven million to 10 million per year range.

So with the words of the regular haranguing I would get from my old friend Stuart Vorpahl ringing in my ears, I would just like to remind anglers that, this time around, we are the real players in the striped bass decline and will be in its recovery, not commercial fishermen.

The first little stripers were caught in a few backwater holes this past week, so the opportunity for all of us anglers to start reducing the number of fish we kill by accident is officially at hand. Switch from trebles to singles on the tail of your plugs. Be gentle when you are handling a fish you’re going to release—don’t stand on them and be careful not to damage their gills with your hands. And release any fish over 35 pounds because each one you kill is four million fewer striped bass that will be born next year.

Beyond that, catch ’em up. See you out there.

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