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June 27, 2011

Our Winter of Discontent

Striped bass slaughter and waste must be shut down.

With the melting snow soon to become a memory of 2011, I can only hope that those of us interested in the long-term sustainability of our marine resources will not soon forget the winter’s wholesale slaughter of striped bass. What happened off North Carolina and what happened in Maryland’s upper reaches of Chesapeake Bay are blatant examples of the flagrant disregard that some members of the commercial fishing industry have toward the very resources that sustain them. These are also prime examples of why we need to give this species game-fish status.

First Volley
The first report came through The Baltimore Sun, with a headline stating that Maryland Department of Natural Resources officers had seized a gill net with what appeared to be the largest single haul of illegally caught striped bass in 25 years. It was so large that Natural Resources Police officers had to call a 73-foot buoy tender to help with handling the net and fish. The illegal anchored net held approximately 6,000 pounds of striped bass. Most of the 529 fish were around 27 inches long and weighed about 10 pounds, but there were some larger ones mixed in. Most of those fish would be entering the spawning stock or already in it. These are the very fish needed to sustain a healthy population. This seizure is an example of the good work done by NRP officers, who found the illegal net by use of grappling hooks and then staked out the area overnight. Unfortunately, those watermen responsible did not show up, or they might be facing severe fines and peering through steel bars.

Round Two — and Three
That infringement was bad enough, but at the end of a long day dealing with the first net and fish, NRP officers found a second net nearby. While pulling that net, they found another two. The total haul from all the nets was approximately 20,000 pounds of striped bass. Another net was found in the Choptank River. It was 2,100 yards long but, luckily, had only a few fish. Most of them were released alive.

So the three-day tally was approximately a mile of illegal gill net and around 1,700 striped bass, most of which would have contributed to the spawning stock, helping to get the anemic striped bass juvenile index moving in the right direction. Oh, sure, these netters really care about the future of this fish. Those that were caught are likely only the tip of the iceberg.

Just a couple of bad apples, you say? There is more — unfortunately, much more. As the first reports were coming in about the illegal catches in Chesapeake Bay, word was filtering in about a legal striped bass dumping off the coast of North Carolina, where pre-spawning bass overwinter. Off the coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, large schools of striped bass feed for their annual migration back into Chesapeake Bay to spawn. These are the big females so necessary for the future of the fishery.

Carolina Joins In
Reports of massive amounts of floating dead striped bass off Oregon Inlet — found by recreational anglers out fishing for striped bass — started to hit the Internet. These fish represented the regulatory discard from the commercial striped bass trawl fishery. They also represented, when alive, the future of this fishery. In this day and age of digital everything, it was not too long before photos and video hit the blogs. Outrage, easily justified, soon followed. To its credit, the state of North Carolina temporarily closed the trawl fishery to assess the situation. This should have been a permanent closure. Under the original regulations, commercial

trawlers were allowed to keep 50 striped bass per day, and high-grading was considered just fine. Under this idiotic law, trawlers could drag all day and then discard thousands of dead fish in order to keep 50 of the biggest — prime breeders. Is this making any sense yet?

North Carolina then changed the regulations to mitigate but not eliminate this incredible waste. It changed the daily limit to 2,000 pounds and allowed the trawl boats to pass off any overages in their haul to other boats. This did little to stop the carnage. Within days of the season reopening, there were more incidents of floating dead discarded striped bass. There is a simple answer to this. Under no circumstance is there justification for the use of otter trawls in this fishery. Just so I am clear: zero justification. Don’t give me the crap that it is a traditional fishery. Market gunning for ducks and grouse was a traditional practice too. We figured that out correctly. The only answer was to shut it down.

Waste Must End
Striped bass caught legally or illegally in the mid-Atlantic region are sold for about $2.50 per pound. When multiplied by a generally accepted number to calculate the overall economic benefit, striped bass are worth almost 27 times as much if they are caught recreationally. That means more jobs and more value in these hard economic times. Just the wasted discards in the North Carolina trawl fishery, if they were caught recreationally, would dwarf the value of that entire commercial fishery.

If these incidents are not wake-up calls at full volume, then nothing ever will be. We cannot accept business as usual when it produces this kind of waste. We have to stand up and tell fishery managers, “Stop wasting our valuable resources!”