The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has enacted emergency recreational regulations to reduce the maximum length limit for keeping striped bass from 35 to 31 inches in response to a dramatic increase in the recreational harvest in 2022.
Cam Gammill, who captains chartered fishing trips during the summer and is one of the owners of Bill Fisher Tackle, said that he supported the regulations, though he didn’t feel that Nantucket had seen the same increase in harvest as the rest of the state. “I would say that there’s not a big kill component to our fishery, and I would say our anglers are really educated around protecting these fish…I don’t think it really applies to us.”
In some cases, an increased recreational harvest would be a good sign for the recovery of a fish population. However, last year’s haul was driven in large part by fish born in 2015, a particularly strong year for newborn striped bass survival, crossing the minimum harvest threshold of 28 inches. These fish represent an outsized portion of the population and constituted more than half of fish harvested recreationally last year. In recent years, the mortality rate for newborn striped bass has been high, and the last four years have been some of the worst on record, making the fish from 2015 particularly important.
“I like that they’re taking action,” Gammill said. “I think this is a good short-term solution, and I think it’s incredible to see all of the fisheries across the eastern seaboard come together and do this collectively.”
Charter boat Captain Bob DeCosta was less supportive of the change. “I’m on the fence about the decision,” he said. “I understand why they’re doing it, but I’m not real happy about the fact that the size restriction is so small that we’re really targeting one year class of fish.”
Given that the minimum size was kept at 28 inches, DeCosta feels that the large majority of fish taken during the coming season will have been born in 2016. “It’s going to probably wipe that year-class off the face of the Earth,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
DeCosta also questioned whether the increase in harvest was as dramatic as the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries claimed. “They have no way to quantify what is caught by the recreational fisherman on the East Coast,” he said. “[Fishing groups have] proven on numerous occasions that their data is extremely flawed, but when we call them out on it, they say it’s the best available science they have.”
In an FAQ page dedicated to the decision, the state Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) says that “estimates of recreational harvest and catch of striped bass are regarded as very reliable because of a large sample size…the measurement of uncertainty in the estimate is the lowest of all managed species and we have complete confidence that the large increase in harvest in 2022 compared to 2021 was real.”
The DMF believes that the new regulations will protect over half of the fish born in 2015 from harvest, none of which would have been protected under the old regulations. This would reduce harvest rates for those fish, allowing them to reproduce further and increase the striped bass population. Further measures are under consideration for 2024.
“I am open to more stringent [regulations],” Gammill said, “but I think it’s really important to have a carrot at the end of the stick and let people continue to harvest bass.”
The DMF will hold a virtual public hearing on June 21st at 6 p.m. to explain the new regulations and field questions. DeCosta wishes they had solicited more public feedback before making the decision, saying that by the time anyone outside the DMF was notified, “they’d already made their mind up.”
“If we ran our town government the way they run these fishery meetings, people would be outraged,” he said.