Drop in striper stocks puts recreational, commercial fishermen at odds

Casting blame in striper dispute

The striped bass is once again facing a decline in its numbers, and efforts to stem the losses have stoked tensions between commercial and recreational fishermen.

The wily striped bass – admired by New England fishermen for centuries – nearly disappeared from East Coast waters in the early 1980s. A series of fishing moratoriums restored the stocks, and today a Cape Cod scene is not complete without surfcasters trying their hand against the powerful fish.

But the number of young stripers in Chesapeake Bay, where many of New England’s fish come from, is mysteriously beginning to slip again, a warning sign that the population could be in trouble.

As scientists try to figure out why, a group of recreational fishermen is lobbying the Massachusetts Legislature to ban commercial fishing of stripers, exposing long-simmering animosities between some bass fishermen who cast for fun and those who do it for a living. Each group blames the other for the declining numbers – though research does not seem to implicate overfishing.

“I used to catch 100 to 150 fish each year off my dock, and this year I caught 30,” said Craig Caldwell of Harwich, an artist who fishes in the Herring River. He belongs to Stripers Forever, which contends that an equitable solution is to allow all members of the public to keep the same number of fish.

State Representative Matthew C. Patrick, a Falmouth Democrat, is sponsoring a bill pushed by Stripers Forever that would ban the commercial catch and halve the number of striped bass that recreational fishermen can take, to one per day. The measure, which was debated during a legislative committee hearing last month but is not expected to win passage this year, would also impose more stringent size re strictions on the fish that recreational fishermen could keep.

Some commercial fishermen say recreational fishermen are the problem: The vast majority of striped bass, regulators estimate, are reeled in by recreational anglers who flock to the Cape every spring, summer, and fall. While few, if any, commercial fishermen rely solely on the fish for their income, they say the striper catch helps pay the bills as a web of fishing restrictions on other species tightens around them.

“The recreational fishermen are the ones that need more accountability,” said Lev Wlodyka, a Martha’s Vineyard charter boat captain who also fishes striped bass commercially. He said commercial fishermen are legally obligated to report all fish they bring to shore, while recreational fishermen are not as closely regulated. “We really don’t know how many they are killing,” Wlodyka said.

The only sentiment upon which the groups agree is their love of reeling in the unpredictable fish.

“They are a magical fish, they are hard to catch . . . they are extremely challenging and so beautiful,” said Dick Russell, an environmental journalist and author of Striper Wars: An American Fish Story.

The attraction goes back centuries: Plymouth Colony established a free school in 1670 with income from striped bass fishermen, and the meat was a key food for colonists.

Some three centuries later, overfishing and loss of habitat made striped bass scarce, but the numbers rebounded after deeply controversial fishing bans along the East Coast. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates many fish species within 3 miles of shore, estimates that about 5.5 million pounds were caught by recreational anglers in Massachusetts in 2008. Patrick says the sport is worth nearly $1 billion to the state each year.

Massachusetts also stands out for its robust commercial catch of around 1.1 million pounds a year. Other New England states, with the exception of Rhode Island, kept commercial bans in place after stocks were restored.

As a result, tempers have flared between commercial fishermen and some recreational anglers in Massachusetts over the years, including a failed attempt by recreational fishermen in 1996 to ban the commercial catch.

The difference now is that there are signs of problems with striped bass again. Officials at the Atlantic States Commission say stripers are still abundant and are not being overfished. But data highlight a troubling trend: Young fish are getting harder to find in Chesapeake Bay.

Scientists expect to see an enormous group of bass born in the bay’s tributaries about every five years. Because striped bass can live 30 years or more, one good year of new fish every half-decade or so can sustain the species.

But there has not been a boom year for the last five and the range of the Chesapeake stock appears to be constricting, with Maine and North Carolina anglers hauling in far fewer fish in recent years.

A bacterial disease and pollution in the Chesapeake are prime suspects, but scientists say warming waters from climate change and resulting shifts in fish feeding grounds could also be factors. Overfishing does not appear to be the main problem, they say, although more study is needed.

“There are warning signs out there,” said a senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, William Goldsborough, who is researching the issue. “We need to get away from Band-Aids and step back and reevaluate” the entire ecosystem and striped bass population dynamics, he said.

Stripers Forever says there is always a lag time between what fishermen observe in the sea and ensuing regulation. That is why, they say, they are bypassing the Atlantic States Commission and trying to get legislation passed in Massachusetts.

Brad Burns, president of Stripers Forever, said his group wants stripers designated a game fish in all coastal states – including Maryland, Virginia, and New York, where commercial catches are high – which would mean they could not be fished commercially.

But many recreational striper fishermen disagree. There is a legitimate question on whether the commercial catch should be banned, said Pat Paquette of the Massachusetts Striped Bass Association, and if it is, it should be done through the Atlantic States Commission’s authority, not the state Legislature’s. He said the issue is being driven by a small group of catch-and-release fishermen who want all the fish for themselves.

“This is an allocation grab,” he said.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.