A Fraudulent Fishery
The commercial striped bass fishery in Massachusetts is an embarrassing example of abysmal public policy. A careful analysis of data provided by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (MDMF) for 2011 indicates that this commercial fishery really does not exist! At best, it’s a part-time bonanza for only a few dozen people; at worst, it’s a cover for those who sell striped bass under the table, or fill their freezers with fish thatall the other anglers in Massachusetts are required to release.
The MDMF data compares the total number of commercial permits with both the number and pounds of stripers landed commercially in 2011 and provides a detailed picture of the catch distribution. There were 4,587 commercial striped bass fishing permit holders in 2011, but only 1,184 of those permittees reported any “landings” at all during the 21-day commercial season. That means that 3,403 commercials, or 74 percent, had no reported catch for the entire season. Just as significantly, more than half of the permit holders who reported landings sold only one to 10 fish each! What is the worth of 10 striped bass -- perhaps $300.00 gross for the whole season?
What level of gross income would it take to make commercial striper fishing even a reasonable part-time job? Assuming a commercial bass fisherman gets out on the water for a total of 10 fishing days a season, his basic expenses alone would have to run at least $100.00 a trip, or $1,000.00 in total expenses. High volume fishermen average about 15 pounds a fish, but this statistic varies, so let’s round off the average poundage to 16. At $1.50 a pound, he makes $24 per fish. Just to break even, this fisherman would need to harvest at least 42 fish in a season. But the 2011 tables show that of the 1,184 commercial fishermen who harvested any stripers at all in Massachusetts, 81.93 percent took less than that! Conversely, only 18.07 percent of the 1,184 commercials, or just 214 fishermen, harvested all the rest.
To make a decent profit commercially fishing striped bass on a part-time basis in Massachusetts, let’s arbitrarily set a figure of $5,000 gross per fisherman per season, before expenses. To achieve that goal, each fisherman would have to catch 3,300 pounds of fish. Yet that production total was attained by only .012 percent of all permit holders, or just 54 fishermen out of a total of 4,587 permit holders.
So the “commercial fishery” for stripers in Massachusetts is a farce. Why would 74% of all commercial license holders have no reported landings? These fishermen may simply have wanted a license just in case they decided to sell a fish or two. But we believe that many of the 3,435 fishermen with zero reported landings are fish hogs who either want to use their licenses fraudulently to circumvent the bag limits that apply to everyone else, or make transportation of these fish legal until they can sell them -- unreported, of course -- for cash under the table. Which is worse? One is illegal; the other is simply reprehensible.
The MDMF statistics do not include illegally sold stripers or freezer-fillers, which means that those fish are not even considered in the striped bass management plan. The combined fish hog and black market catch has a seriously negative effect on the striped bass population. Why? Because the legal minimum size limit for commercially harvested bass is 34 inches and all fish of that size and larger are prime breeding size females. So the commercial fishermen in Massachusetts are really operating behind a convenient smoke screen of questionable regulations which allow them to be treated differently than everyone else when it comes to sharing the striped bass resource. They provide a constituency to defend the concept of commercial striper fishing, which in reality offers real financial benefits to nearly no one.
From a different perspective, the fact that 54 permitees actually made some part-time income selling stripers is just as tough to swallow. According to the MDMF calculations, these commercial fishermen landed about 385,000 pounds of striped bass! That’s about 24,000 breeding-size female stripers between 54 individuals. Can anyone imagine a more disproportionate allocation of a public resource? The quota for this fishery is made possible by depriving individual recreational anglers from keeping a small “schoolie” striper or two for the table. And contrary to all the rhetoric, keeping an occasional bass for dinner is the real traditional fishery of the New England populous.
So there is the truth. As many as 98.98 percent of Massachusetts commercial striper bass permit holders are simply paying for their fishing fun by selling their catch – legally or illegally – or filling their freezers under the guise of providing for the public. And to protect this undertaking, many thousands of recreational anglers who would like to occasionally eat a fish that they catch themselves have been kicked out of their traditional fishery because they are not allowed to keep even one striper under 28 inches for the table. It’s time for a big change.
Do you worry about how few large, mature stripers you are seeing in the population? Here are some very disturbing statistics that reflect the results of concentrating the fishery on all those large, mature bass:
During the 2010 and 2011 seasons, only a tiny percentage of all stripers caught commercially in Massachusetts were larger than 40 inches in length; and in both years there were no stripers caught commercially that were either 48 or 49 inches long. None! In 2010, only .57 percent of the commercial catch was 50 inches or larger; in 2011, that number had dropped to .339 percent, or just 130 fish. In both years, only about 1.4 percent of all commercially landed stripers were over 45 inches in length. By historical standards, 45 inches is certainly not a really large striped bass, yet in a commercial fishery totally directed at big fish, less than a thousand were taken during the entire season statewide.
These statistics in themselves are not proof of any trends in the size or age distribution of striped bass, but they do appear to show that current fishing regulations are leaving very few large, mature stripers out there to catch. There were many days and nights in the 1970s and early ‘80s when catching and releasing a number of 47-inch and larger striped bass during a single outing was possible. And please, don’t say that is because we have to wait for successful year classes to grow older. Ten years ago, New England waters were loaded with 36-inch stripers. They’d all be bigger than 45 inches now – if they were still alive.
One last thought: 950,000 pounds of large striped bass – that number will be even higher in 2012– at an average of 16 pounds in weight, rounds off to 60,000 fish. Multiply the 60,000 by 36 inches or three feet each, and you have 180,000 feet, or 33 miles of striped bass in an unbroken line swimming head to tail. That’s enough stripers to reach from Cuttyhunk all along Cape Cod’s south shore to Chatham, all killed for the market in just 21 days. No wonder near-shore fishing for large striped bass just isn’t what it was even a few years ago.
.......Donated to Boston Fire Dept