Tag a Striper

Getting serious about eliminating commercial abuse of striped bass.

At the summer session of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an addendum to Amendment 6 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass gave a whole new meaning to the concept of tagging striped bass. By a unanimous vote, members put in place Addendum III, which requires the tagging of all commercially caught striped bass. The new tagging regime must be in place for the 2013 fishing year for all states except --Massachusetts and North Carolina. This is a very big step toward keeping control of any illegal ­commercial catch and sales.

Some in the recreational industry will view this as the leading edge of a slippery slope. They will think that the result of the downward slide will be mandatory tagging of all striped bass caught, both commercial and ­recreational. While it might lead to that at some point, and while it might end up being a big hassle for recreational anglers, it would give a much better picture of what is actually caught and kept. In other fisheries, such as the Atlantic salmon fishery in the Canadian Maritimes, all kept fish must be tagged at the time of capture. When initially instituted, it was considered a royal pain by all, but now no one gives it a second thought, and hardly anyone would suggest doing away with it.

Many in the recreational industry have been vocal about the level of illegal catch in the striped bass fishery coastwide, urging regulators to do something about this problem, which appeared to grow with each passing year. I have reported on some of the illegal netting in the upper Chesapeake Bay, which was likely only the tip of the iceberg. Whatever can be done to give enforcement efforts a leg up is the right way to go in my opinion. As our coastal population continues to grow and saltwater-fishing effort increases, it will become more important that limited enforcement mechanisms have the tools available to help protect our marine fisheries.

Even though recreational interests campaigned for the development of a system to control illegal catch, it was the ASMFC itself that really grabbed this proverbial bull by the horns. An interstate watershed task force ­conducted an investigation of the Chesapeake striped bass fishery from 2003 to 2009. It presented the results of this ­investigation to the ASMFC at its 2012 winter meeting.

The investigation determined that more than 1 million pounds of illegal striped bass were caught. The ­investigation resulted in 19 individuals and three corporations being convicted, 140 months of cumulative prison time, 41 months of cumulative home detention, $1,628,352 worth of fines and restitution, and 58 years of ­cumulative supervised release. Hardly a trivial matter. One of the schemes uncovered in the investigation was the ability of fishermen in Maryland to take advantage of loopholes in the state’s tagging system.

All of this led the task force to make some good recommendations to the ASMFC Enforcement Committee and the ASMFC as a whole. The primary recommendation was to put in place a uniform commercial tagging ­system for all states where striped bass are caught and sold. The tags — uniform in color, style, year and inscriptions — would be valid for one year only. Inscriptions should include date, size restrictions, state of issue and a unique number. The next recommendation was to require that all fish be tagged at the time of capture, which I think is one of the most important components. They also said that states should issue a set number of tags based on average weights and historical catch; require all unused tags to be returned annually or seasonally with a restriction of issuing the subsequent year’s only after all unused tags have been returned; and ensure that a reporting system for used tag numbers by the dealers is in place, granting enforcement officials real-time access to tag numbers issued to individual fishermen. These are all components of a well-thought-out ­tagging system.

I applaud the members of the ASMFC for taking this important step, and I suspect that most states are ­scrambling to get the system up and running for the 2013 fishing year. Exactly why ­Massachusetts and North Carolina got a year’s slack, I don’t know. This is particularly curious in Massachusetts, since their fishing year does not start until July.

Like many government programs, there will likely be unanticipated problems and a need for additional changes as the system becomes operative. Recreational fishermen should keep an ­eye on how it is working in their own states. Just such concern over Maryland’s tagging system by a vigilant recreational fisherman turned up a ­multiple-year misuse of Wallop-Breaux funds by the state of Maryland in its management of the commercial fishery. Let’s all make sure that the tagging system, with all the recommended elements, gets in place as soon as possible.