Illegal striped bass fishing raises concerns

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 7:15pm
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The story of two fishermen recently arrested for catching more striped bass than is legally permissible while fishing off Block Island shines a light on the importance of conservation, and following the rules. The fishermen caught 38 striped bass with a total weight of 1,054 pounds with the intent of selling them in Massachusetts, which is prohibited.

As part of a sting operation, environmental police officers from the R.I. Department of Environmental Management arrested two Rhode Island-based commercial fishermen on August 21. The men, charged with 37 counts of exceeding the daily limit, and 38 counts of failure to fin clip the striped bass, are due in court in September.

According to the DEM’s website, the possession limit for striped bass is five fish per day per person, or five fish per vessel for commercial fishing. The minimum size limit per fish for commercial fishing is 34-inches. All of the striped bass the fishermen caught were beyond that size limit, but did not have the right pectoral fin removed as is required by regulation for a fish that size.  

A press release issued by DEM stated that the arrest of the fishermen “stemmed from information obtained by DEM officers during Operation Level Playing Field, a recent prolonged high-visibility law enforcement patrol conducted in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the coast of New Shoreham to protect the striped bass stocks.”

The illegal activity of the fishermen was nothing new to a local fisherman, who said the practice is “just the tip of the iceberg,” and more of it is occurring, routinely skirting enforcement.

“What those guys did was a grotesque harvesting,” said Hank Hewitt, a Block Island angler, who noted that he “wasn’t surprised at all” when he heard the fishermen were arrested. “It’s surprising it’s not happening more. They’re not the only ones doing it.”

“They had Massachusetts tags, but were harvesting in Rhode Island waters, which is illegal,” explained Hewitt. “A Massachusetts commercial tag allows 15 striped bass to be harvested per day, but only in Massachusetts waters.” 

Hewitt said the issue is the fish’s popularity, which he said, “could lead to its own demise.” He also said the State of Rhode Island needs to step up its enforcement efforts and institute stronger harvesting regulations for striped bass. He said a pricy commercial fishing tag fee could be a form of deterrent. (Each year, DEM issues approximately 24,000 commercial striped bass tags to local seafood dealers who purchase Rhode Island commercially-harvested striped bass. There is no cost for the tags.) 

There is also the demand for buying and selling the fish at markets and in restaurants. “People buying striped bass fuel the market, especially the black market,” said Hewitt. “Rhode Island commercial fishing of striped bass has been shut down because it’s met its quota.”

Hewitt said he believes the striped bass stock is healthy in general in the local waters, but there is concern that the species is somewhat out of balance. Smaller striped bass are in the 28-inch range, but they can grow to be as big as about 72 inches, he said. “There are a lot of small striped bass around the island,” he said, noting that the bigger fish, especially the large females, or “cows,” are being overfished.

One of the problems, Hewitt said, is that fishing charter captains are hosting charters outside of the three-mile zone, in federal waters, where fishing for striped bass is illegal. “They market it as killing the biggest fish in the ocean, displaying photos on their websites of a group of guys holding their striped bass. Guys want to catch the big fish. That’s the striper.”

Mike Healey, Chief Public Affairs Officer for DEM, told The Times that, “The Exclusive Economic Zone off the coast of New Shoreham is a portion of federal waters reserved for conserving and managing fishery stocks. The Operation Level Playing Field investigation was conducted by DEM and partners in the EEZ to check for compliance and enforce fishing laws and regulations because this area is frequently exploited by charter boat captains, dive operations, and both commercial and recreational anglers targeting striped bass.” 

“The best way to improve compliance with conservation laws is to keep making the point, over and over and over again, that natural resources are not unlimited; they must be fought for, regulated, and protected,” said Healey. “Sustaining healthy coastal fisheries takes much strategy, work, and enforcement. In the early 1980s, the Atlantic stock of striped bass collapsed because of overfishing and loss of habitat. Landings dropped by 85 percent from 15 million pounds in 1973 to 2.2 million pounds in 1983. We don’t want to go back to those times.“

“DEM is dedicated to leaving healthy and abundant marine fisheries for the next generation to enjoy, so we go to the very end of our resources to fight over-harvesting and poaching,” said Healey. “So really, it’s about changing the destructive mindset that some people have that fish are an automatically renewable resource that can be caught without limits — because it’s this mindset that will destroy the resource. And of course, if anglers and boaters see something while on the waters, they should say something to turn in poachers by contacting DEM’s Division of Law Enforcement at (401) 222-3070.” 

The Marine Fish Conservation Network, a nonprofit organization, is also addressing the issue regarding striped bass, and noted the following on its website (www.conservefish.org): 

“In early August, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission met and took action on Atlantic striped bass. The Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board approved Draft Addendum VI for public comment. The Addendum was initiated in response to the 2018 Benchmark Stock Assessment which indicates the resource is overfished and experiencing overfishing. The Draft Addendum explores a range of management alternatives designed to end overfishing and reduce fishing mortality to the target level in 2020.”

“Public comment will be accepted until 5 p.m. (EST) on Sept. 27, 2019 and should be forwarded to Max Appelman, Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, 1050 N. Highland St, Suite A-N, Arlington, VA 22201; (703) 842-0741 (FAX) or at comments@asmfc.org (Subject line: Draft Addendum VI). Organizations planning to release an action alert in response to Draft Addendum VI should contact Max Appelman at mappelman@asmfc.org or (703) 842-0740.”