By FRED JENNINGS Cape Cod Times
May 15, 2007
This is the time of year, as the ocean warms and schooling herring move into their natal streams, when striped bass leave their mid-Atlantic wintering habitat and return to summer feeding grounds in the coastal waters of Massachusetts. And while the stripers are here, thousands of recreational anglers from all ages and walks of life will head to the Massachusetts seashore to catch these prized fish.
From the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the striped bass has been a vital part of the economy here. Stripers were once so plentiful that one colonial diarist said a man could cross a river "dryshod" by walking across their backs. In 1670, the sale of striped bass in Plymouth funded the construction of one of America's first public schools.
More than three centuries later, striped bass remain an important part of the Massachusetts economy. According to a 2005 study conducted by Southwick Associates, striped bass anglers generate $1.1 billion in economic activity for the state from bait and tackle sales, meals and lodging, boat charters and guides, and other fishing-related expenditures, and nearly 11,000 full-time equivalent jobs.
That is why it is important to remember that just 30 years ago, striped bass were almost wiped out. A combination of poor water quality and over-fishing resulted in a near total collapse of striped bass populations on the Atlantic Coast. Only the enactment of an emergency moratorium on keeping striped bass during much of the 1980s in Chesapeake Bay allowed the species to survive.
The ban on keeping fish for use or sale was lifted in 1989 and today, striped bass are more plentiful than they were 20 years ago. But striped bass are far from safe. While it seems at times that the waters teem with stripers, the illusion is due to a disproportionate number of small fish, known as "schoolies."
In fact, the species lacks strong numbers of large breeding female fish, each capable of laying millions of healthy, durable eggs. Striped bass managers rely on an abundance of smaller fish able only to lay a comparatively small number of eggs — weaker eggs — to sustain populations. That could well be a recipe for disaster.
So an increasing number of concerned citizens are calling for striped bass to be designated as game fish in M assachusetts, ending the commercial harvest and sale of this species. Managing the striped bass as a game fish will not only preserve a healthy species population, but will also have a significant and sustainable impact on the Massachusetts economy.
The Southwick Study estimates that allocating 100 percent of striped bass for recreational use will add another half-billion dollars and 3,000-plus jobs to the Massachusetts economy, more than offsetting the fish's mere $24 million total commercial value.
If the striped bass were designated a game fish, most Massachusetts recreational anglers would opt for a higher quality fishery over a larger harvest. Game fish designation has been responsible for saving the country's high-quality freshwater fisheries, and it has also worked remarkably well to preserve important inshore species in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.
Game-fish status is the best and most sustainable way to build on the striper's long socio-economic history. It is time for Massachusetts to join the New England states of Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut in ending commercial fishing for wild striped bass and managing them for the benefit of the recreational fishing public and the commonwealth. That sensible conservation approach has worked for many species of freshwater fish and for waterfowl throughout the U.S., and it can and must work now for the striped bass in Massachusetts.
Fred Jennings is president of the Massachusetts chapter of the sport fishing club Stripers Forever.
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1/18/07 email: Stripers Forever members - the link we made on Tuesday night about striped bass aquaculture in PA did not work properly yesterday. The location of the story must have changed on the paper's website. Here is a link sent by a member that worked perfectly this morning. Our apologies. Brad