Morone saxatilis is a regal fish with silver stripes whose glimmer, caught in the face of a wave, or reflecting a ray of sunshine down deep, can instill reverence in the hardest of angling hearts.
As a resource, the striped bass is an ore with rich veins that stream from estuaries all along the East Coast each spring, the migrating mother lode passing through legions of recreational hooks and market-bound nets on its way to and from Northeastern feeding grounds.
From the mid-1990s when bass populations were placed under strict regulatory control to about 2006, a peak of abundance, all was right with the world as defined by those whose lives revolved around them for sport or money. But, for the past several years there have been whispers among fishermen, and they’re growing louder: There don’t seem to be as many bass around. The farther east one looks, the more profound the sense.
The Vineyard Gazette, a venerable broadsheet that pays close attention to the bass beat, ran a banner earlier this month that read: “Scary Decline in Striper Stocks.”
The paper reported that last year’s springtime sea worm hatch in the island’s coastal ponds — “an event that historically attracts stripers by the thousands — had just about failed after years of under-performance.” The Massachusetts division of marine fisheries has seen a 75-percent drop in the catch of small stripers in the past four years.
For the past two, the SurfMasters surfcasting tournament with contenders among the more expert casters found anywhere on the coast, has had to make do with shorter and shorter periods during which 30 to 50-pound fish get within range. A noticeable downturn.
“Last year, it never rose to a high note. It happened for about two days, a short period. Last year and the previous year were two of the worst in the past decade. Very little action. If you caught a 20-pounder it was something special,” said Fred Kalkstein, one of the SurfMaster tournament’s annual organizers.
“The recreational harvest has been down coastwide for the past several years,” said Stephen Hines, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s section head for finfish and crustaceans. Mr. Hines said the commercial bass fishery had remained more consistent, perhaps because of its “individual quota system.” Specific numbers of tags allocated to each licensed fisherman tend to impose stricter catch limits.
The recreational shortfalls, no matter how subtle, tend to create high anxiety within the sportfishing industry. In Massachusetts, fishermen and their representatives are demanding that fishery managers and politicians curtail the commercial catch. On Web sites devoted to striped bass sportfishing, there are calls for the same thing all along the coast. It’s a call that echoes down through the years, as far back as the late 19th century, whenever the bass population wavers.
In the mid-1980s when the coastal bass population reached historically low levels, the debate between sport and market fishermen turned violent at times. In East Hampton, nets were cut and a culture was eventually overwhelmed when pressure from the sport industry resulted in the elimination of the local haulseine fishery.
In 1991, after suffering a ban on the sale of bass for the previous five years because of contamination from Hudson River polychlorinated biphenyls, P.C.B.s, baymen were deprived of their most effective gear, their “money fish,” and in many respects, their centuries-old way of life.
Neither statistics that clearly showed a far greater impact on the resource from sportfishing nor civil disobedience on the part of Billy Joel and local politicians could stem the tide. Twenty years on, an effort by the National Marine Fisheries Service to get a handle on recreational landings is just getting under way.
With restrictive regulations in place for the past 30 years, the commercial fishing bugaboo may not be so easy to blame for the recent downturn, despite some well-publicized illegal market fishing down south. The cause of slowly dwindling bass stocks may have less to do with fishing, managers say, and more to do with nature.
“Fishing pressure has not changed much,” said Robert Beal of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The commission is a federally-empowered body that manages near-shore migratory species including striped bass.
Mr. Beal, who is its director of interstate fisheries management, said that in the last couple years there had been a 60-percent drop in the striped bass catch coastwide by sportfishermen. “It’s starting to concern managers, especially in the Gulf of Maine above Cape Cod. They’re not seeing the numbers they did at the peak,” which Mr. Beal said occurred in 2006.
“The bulk of the fish come from the Chesapeake, but we’re seeing low numbers in all the estuaries. There has been relatively low recruitment in the last three of four years,” he said, referring to the number of young-of-the-year bass that are seen during seine surveys in the Chesapeake Bay and other estuaries.
“We’re not seeing any big slug of fish. There are fewer juveniles coming in, and fewer adults,” Mr. Beal said. And, although he said the bass population remained above biomass levels that would signal collapse, “there are some concerns. Managers are starting to write an addendum, a modification to the management plan to be considered. A new stock assessment will be ready by the November meeting of the commission. They want to be in a position to act.”
So if not fishing pressure, what? Mr. Beal and Mr. Hines agreed that the high recruitment that fostered the abundance of bass in 2006, might have been an “overachievement,” the word used by Mr. Beal to suggest that once a spawning biomass puts enough animals in the system, breeding fish tend to produce fewer young. “It’s a biological reaction common in other fishes. You won’t see good recruitment for a few years,” a natural cycle, Mr. Hines said.
The Atlantic States Commission’s director of interstate fisheries management added that the relative success of juvenile recruitment could also be “driven by wet and dry seasons. The concern is seeing fewer adults being caught and year-class strength not strong.”
“Another problem is that most of our regulations have us fishing for the most successful breeders,” said Michael Potts, captain of the Blue Fin IV charter boat in Montauk. “There are schools of thought, which I identify with, that it would be better to target different size fish. Around three years ago, we had success with big fish all year. Since then, not that many. Nowhere near the problem in the early ’80s, but it has been a concern.” Captain Potts also holds a state commercial bass license.
“I don’t favor commercial increase, even though it would benefit me, but I don’t favor a decrease either. We should be seeing a shortage of 2-year-old bass,” he said, reflecting what was a poor recruitment in 2009. “What we are seeing is a lot of 10 and 20-pounders around. The maximum breeder is around 25 to 30 pounds. Killing 50-pound bass doesn’t matter. They’re past their prime.”
“My recommendation would be something like, instead of two bass over 28 inches [the current bag limit in New York for anglers aboard for-hire boats], which forces us to fish for two of the largest bass for everyone, what if you were allowed one bass between 24 and 32 inches, and one over 32, a sweet one and a trophy. There are fewer bass. You can feel it, a quiet trend, but I don’t think we’re on the verge of collapse.”
The Atlantic States Commission’s Mr. Beal agreed. “I don’t want to paint a grim picture,” he said. “There’s still a lot of striped bass in the ocean. It’s a premier fishery up and down the coast.”