On Jan. 14, Cape fishermen turned out to protest a bill that would ban commercial bass fishing in Massachusetts waters and limit recreational fishermen to one 20- to 26-inch bass per day.
It’s illegal to catch any striped bass more than three miles from shore and inshore fishing could face a clampdown as well.
On Jan. 14, the state Legislature’s joint committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture held a hearing on HD 245, a bill filed by Rep. Matt Patrick of Falmouth, that would ban commercial bass fishing in Massachusetts waters and limit recreational fishermen to one 20- to 26-inch bass per day.
“It’s had a hearing. I don’t know what the committee will do with it,” Patrick said. “I’m not wedded to the language of the bill. I’m interested in starting a discussion in how to fend off another crash in the striped bass industry.”
The striped bass fishery was shut down way back in 1897, due to pollution and overfishing and didn’t bounce back for almost 60 years, then fell off another cliff until 1981. While commercial fishermen catch only 20 percent of the fish, Patrick believes those are the most critical.
“They catch almost exclusively spawning females that produce the majority of the eggs because they’re over 34 inches,” Patrick said. “The idea was to end that fishery. It’s not much of a commercial fishery. Nobody depends on it singly. It’s always a part of the income. Out of 3,600 (Massachusetts) licenses, only 1,200 report catching a single fish. Recreationally, you can catch two fish a day, but if you call yourself a commercial fisherman, you can catch 30 fish a day.”
That five-fish limit is for Sundays only during the four- to six-week season. During the week commercial fishermen are limited to 30, 34-inch fish per day, until the annual quota is reached. Recreational fishermen may keep two 28-inch fish during a much longer season.
“At 20-26 inches, that will effectively remove fish before they even get a chance to spawn,” said charter boat operator and commercial bass man Bruce Peters of Eastham. “At least the commercial length of 34 inches gives them a chance to spawn.”
As a charter boatman, Peters wasn’t keen on the one fish limit either.
“People don’t come here from Pennsylvania for one fish,” he noted.
“Recreational fishing is worth more than a billion dollars a year while commercial fishing is worth around $24 million, including all the economic multipliers,” Patrick pointed out, so why not manage for the recreational fishermen?
In any case, Patrick is willing to drop the ban “if I could get the commercial guys to come to the table in a way that would limit the catch of pregnant females,” he explained.
But commercial fishermen, many of whom call Cape Cod home, weren’t eager to be relegated to the ash can. Darren Saletta of Chatham was one of many who attended the hearing.
“We expected the proponents of the bill to have a strong showing,” Saletta said. “There were 130 to 140 people there and we had around 100 people there opposing the bill. Not everyone even spoke. It got to the point it was getting late and some guys felt everything that could be said was said. It was an emotionally triumphant day.”
While he concedes most bass fishermen, such as himself, are part-timers he believes they impressed the committee.
“A very small percentage of fishermen focus on one species as a source of income,” he reflected. “But striped bass is a substantial part of my income and has been for the past few years. This is Cape Cod. People do everything to make a living, banging nails one day, fishing the next, maybe landscaping in the summer or bartending. I’ve had years I’ve done five jobs. You have to piece together a living here. Striped bass are an important part of that.”
Bass fishing doesn’t have an entry barrier hundreds of thousands of dollars high.
“It’s one of the least expensive fisheries to get into,” Saletta noted. “I’ve seen guys, they’ve got to high school age, and they can buy an old skiff, fix it up, and then put some money toward school or whatever.”
And there are satellite businesses as well.
“It would hurt a lot of fishermen in town and the processors,” said Ben Martens of Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. “And it isn’t the way we’d like to see fisheries managed. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council has three representatives from each state and it creates policy for state waters. They did a lot of work and we’re now at 185 percent of the biomass target. It’s considered a healthy and rebuilt stock. So if there is a problem, something should be coming out of the ASMFC instead of being legislated.”
Advocates for the bill say there is a problem.
“I was watching Rock Harbor charters in the summer of 2008,” recalled Peter Budryk, a summer resident of Eastham. “They were coming back totally skunked. Those tourists aren’t going to be coming back. I support the bill because fishing is in serious decline and about to crash possibly the way it did in 1897.”
Saletta says the fish are offshore outside state waters, where the food is.
“We got five miles out of Chatham,” he recalled. “And looked out and just saw a football field of fish with big huge bass rolling and eating at the surface. I never saw anything like that. There are tons of bass offshore. There are several reasons they aren’t going inshore. The food’s not there, the water’s warm, and the seals are after them.”
The Massachusetts recreational harvest in 2008 was 5.5 million pounds, according to NOAA’s Fisheries Statistics Division (a record high since 1982) versus 1.1 million as the commercial harvest.
“So if there is a problem why come after a fishery that represents 20 percent?” Saletta asked. “They waste more fish than we use.”
According to the ASMFC data, recreation fishermen discard two million fish versus the commercial catch of one million pounds (average fish weighs 14-20 pounds).
“Recreational fishermen do it for the fight so they use a lighter rod and line so they fight the fish for 45 minutes and the fish is tired when they throw it back. That makes it easier prey for seals and sharks,” agreed Martens.
Budryk doubts those mortality numbers and said his side is misrepresented.
“In 2007 a federal order (by President Bush) declared them a game fish and allowed each state to decide if it wants to declare its own waters out to the three-mile limit. New Hampshire, Connecticut and South Carolina have done that. Massachusetts and Rhode Island have not because there is a strong lobby of commercial fishermen that won’t allow it,” he said.
Budryk pointed out that only 60 commercial fishermen in the state make $9,000 a year.
“I don’t want to take money out of their pockets,” Budryk ventured. “But 2,400 permits didn’t report any catch. There is a lot of evidence that there is a black market for striped bass in Massachusetts. They can slide it under the table to friends or fish markets.”
Saletta said fishermen keep inactive permits so they won’t be closed out of the fishery in the future.
“This issue is kind of presented, unfortunately, as commercial guys against recreational groups,” Saletta said. “Commercial guys don’t have anything against recreational guys. Most commercial guys recreationally fish on a regular basis. It’s a six-week season and all the guys fish for bass outside the six-week period and when they do that, they’re fishing recreationally.”
Martens suggested the bill could be reported out of committee by mid-March and then the debate will resume.
The Cape Codder