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Thoughts on Potential Expansion of Massachusetts Commercial Striped Bass season

On January 28th, the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee (MFAC) voted to unanimously support a proposal to expand the number of days per week that the commercial striped bass fishery would be open in 2021 and to start the season earlier despite three straight years of significant declines in landings. This proposal was presented by Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) Director Dan McKiernan.

Let’s start by acknowledging that the recreational (including for-hire) side of the fishery has a far larger impact on both harvest and post-release mortality, but that doesn’t negate the significance of the commercial harvest of striped bass. All harvest, all mortality, matters. We currently lack a meaningful plan to rebuild this fishery in an appropriate (and required) timeframe. What we’re currently doing isn’t working and is making things worse. Changing the commercial fishery in Massachusetts is only one of many steps needed to rebuild this stock - the most valuable and accessible gamefish on the East Coast.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the commercial harvest is better documented and more accurately reported than both the recreational harvest and post-release mortality. That isn’t a valid argument for harvesting more fish under the commercial rules. The declining catch of commercially legal striped bass may be the most obvious and least debatable measure that striped bass are in trouble.

Director McKiernan does not deserve to be vilified for advancing this proposal. He’s often been a voice for reason and conservation at ASMFC striped bass board meetings. It’s possible to oppose this move to add commercial days while supporting other actions he takes.

The Massachusetts DMF is currently a leader in striped bass research. Their multi-year study examining seasonal aggregation patterns of stripers has the potential to radically alter the way that we manage these fish. Their work on post-release mortality should give us better figures to use in calculating the impact we all have when we catch these fish. I certainly don’t know of all of the striped bass studies underway, but I haven’t heard about any more impactful than these two. We need to support this important work at DMF.

Some of Director McKiernan’s comments introducing this proposal at the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee did strike me as tone deaf. How could he think this proposal would face little opposition? Maybe he was referring to opposition from members of the MFAC? Yes, there seemed to be less opposition last year to expanding the open days. COVID impacts were a game-changer that had stakeholders stay on the sidelines. In 2019 public feedback was overwhelmingly opposed to an earlier start and additional open days for the commercial harvest. DMF cited this input in their decision to withdraw that proposal. Did they think this wouldn’t happen again? Especially after two additional seasons where most people targeting striped bass have experienced continued declining encounters with fish over 27”? The culture of saltwater fisheries management at all levels has for too long focused on maximizing allowable harvest and harvesting all of that is allowed. It is up to us to change that underlying approach.

Striped bass are a migratory species. What happens in Massachusetts matters to almost all who target stripers on the East Coast. I am NOT advocating for allocation of a higher percentage of harvest to recreational anglers and for-hire operators. I run all of my charters as catch and release only for striped bass. It’s part of a business model that works for me, but I understand that it doesn’t fit for all. I do subscribe to the idea that abundance in this fishery is good for all of us who value striped bass.

The MFAC’s commercial striped bass sub-committee noted possible important future changes to the structure of the fishery in their materials distributed ahead of the meeting but made no mention of them during the meeting discussion. They are likely switching tagging requirements from dealers to harvesters which is an important step in more accurately measuring harvest of striped bass under commercial rules. They are also considering making this a limited entry fishery. Both changes deserve our attention.

I support the gamefish (and no sale) status for striped bass here in Maine. The value of a bass that is caught recreationally or on a charter boat is significantly larger than one harvested for commercial sale. I can also support a responsibly managed commercial fishery in Massachusetts. Limited entry rules are inevitably fraught with inequities but are often a prerequisite for sustainable commercial fisheries. Requiring documentation that 50% of a commercial license holder’s income come from fishing activities would build support for continued commercial harvest amongst many charterboat operators and recreational anglers. Such a rule would allow for a reduction in commercial harvest while better sustaining commercial fishing communities.

The commercial quota should be seen as a cap on harvest not necessarily a target. Individual states are far more nimble in decision making than ASMFC, and should therefore adjust their own regulations as needed, within the current regulations agreed to at ASMFC.

Those who state that the commercial quota is set by scientists miss an important detail. Yes, the fisheries scientists at ASMFC are responsible for formulating potential quotas but do so under the guidance and direction of the striped bass board. It is the board that then sets the quotas. These decisions have roots in recommendations by the technical committee but are far from decisions made by scientists.

The expansion of the open commercial harvest days is an ill-conceived idea, poorly executed, but one that is serving to call attention to the number of us who are incredibly concerned about the current state of the striped bass stock and the inadequate action at both ASMFC and the state level to make meaningful changes for the future of this fishery for all stakeholders. If you feel the same way, I hope you will email DMF Director McKiernan here: [email protected]

My final take-away regarding the commercial harvest schedule in Massachusetts: What lies ahead at ASMFC, the crafting of Amendment 7, is far, far, far more important and impactful for the future of this fishery. We all need to be paying attention, learning more, and participating in the process going forward and that work begins today.

Capt. Peter Fallon

Gillies & Fallon Guide Service