Merwin: Striped Bass Are Gamefish

The byzantine politics of coastal striped-bass management took another turn last week as a Massachusetts state legislative committee held a hearing on a bill that could end commercial striper fishing in that state. Making striped bass solely a gamefish might seem like a no-brainer to inland readers especially, where there are no commercial fisheries for species such as largemouth bass or trout.

But it's not that simple. Commercial striper fishing is a centuries-old tradition here, which accounts for its political viability. At the same time, recreational striper angling has grown hugely in popularity over the last 25 years as striper populations recovered from their collapse (from overfishing) in the 1980s. The so-called "recs" are now taking far more fish every year than the "comms." And it may well be there simply aren't enough fish to go around, despite interstate striper management by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Because stripers are for the most part near-shore migrants--moving seasonally north and south from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas--an individual adult striper might pass through as many as 13 different coastal jurisdictions in a year. In some cases--New Jersey and Maine, for example--that fish will be a gamefish. And if that fish makes it as far as New York or Massachusetts, it can also be fished commercially. The issues of multiple jurisdictions and allocations among different fisheries are a political nightmare.

Some organizations such as Stripers Forever, which introduced the currently pending Massachusetts bill, actively lobby for striper gamefish status coastwide. While there have been scant news reports about last week's hearing, what I gather is that "comms" far outnumbered "recs" in attendance, and the inference I take from various web reports is that the gamefish bill won't make it out of committee. Maybe. Maybe not.

Meanwhile, what I think as a longtime recreational striper angler is this: (1) Make stripers gamefish coast-wide with no commercial fishing or sale of wild stripers at all. (2) Reduce the currently huge recreational take substantially, either through reduced bag limits, shortened seasons, or other means. Either that or give me a permit so I can run gill nets for brown trout in my local trout river.