Opening up the EEZ to striped bass fishing would be stupid, but such stupidity is endemic
This article in the Virginia Pilot: Where’s the catch? Anglers rocked by lack of fish made the rounds last week on the usual social media sites. Maybe I’m just getting too sensitive to this stuff, but I found most of the piece irritating (yes, I realize I get irritated about everything). The long and short of it is that the winter striped bass fishery off of Virginia has been pretty much non-existent this season and it wasn’t much different last year. The demise of this fishery has likely taken place for a few different reasons which I’ll get to. But I couldn’t help but take note of the larger picture here.
If you are at all familiar with that fishery, these are fish that winter over off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina. And really, not all that many folks targeted them until around a decade ago. As with most “new” fisheries, it started out with a handful of hard-core anglers willing to brave the elements. Once word got out, a lot of boats got into it. Fleets, composed of charter operations and plain old anglers would set up shop in Virginia, go out and prosecute a successful striped bass fishery composed almost exclusively of old large females (for some reason or another, the smaller fish tend to winter over in tributaries and bays) during a time of the year that was usually dormant.
Thus, over the last decade a lot of big fish were taken by anglers in the winter off of VA. How many? Well, no one really knows for sure as the recreational fishing survey (MRFSS and now MRIP) didn’t sample from Jan to Feb (Wave 1) and if I’m understanding things correctly there is no estimate of winter fishing mortality for management use. Yet, having seen the reports and photos, I’d have to say that such mortality, particularly with regard to large fish, was significant. And here’s the thing… Yes, I’m gonna say it… a lot of that fishery existed well beyond the 3 mile state limit.
Twenty-four years ago, NMFS closed down Federal waters (outside 3 miles – the “Exclusive Economic Zone” EEZ) to striped bass fishing as part of a serious effort to protect strong year classes entering the population and to promote rebuilding of a then badly overfished population. Today, it exists as a badly need buffer for an adult striped bass population where they are temporarily protected from the overwhelming pressure of an extensive catch and kill fishery.
Unfortunately, the EEZ closure was rarely enforced… Until recently. During the last few years the Coast Guard and NMFS have gotten pretty serious. At least off the coast of VA. Prior to this, the fleet developed ways of tipping off the rest of the boats every time the Coast Guard got underway. There were some busts, but they weren’t significant, and the fleet continued to fish in federal waters, essentially unabated. But then the Coast Guard got smart, figured out what was going on and put a stop to it with some serious undercover stuff. And the guys they busted are getting prosecuted under the “Lacy Act”, a federal law which prohibits trade in illegally taken fish and wildlife. There have been some serious repercussions. Not only in the form of punitive fines, but in license, and at least in one case, jail time. Check it out: Five Virginia Charter Fishing Boat Captains Sentenced for Lacey Act Violations. The point here is that getting busted under the Lacy Act is no joke. It didn’t take long before anglers and captains realized it was pretty dumb to risk fishing in the EEZ. And so, that offshore fishery essentially stopped in the space of a year.
There used to be a pretty good inshore winter fishery in VA and MD also, which occurred mostly in the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel area. Yet over the last several years that has precipitously declined to the point that most people don’t even bother with it anymore. Why? Because there simply aren’t as many fish around as there used to be.
I’m not going to get into the details about how, despite all the poor spawning indicators and the realization that the stock is on a definitive downward trend, ASMFC has continuously allowed fishing at the same high levels, despite the many pleas from anglers to scale back. You can find that in the many other blogs I’ve done on striped bass. The bottom line is that there are fewer fish, and it ain’t getting any better, and likely won’t until ASMFC makes some significant reductions in fishing mortality, which even under the best scenario won’t happen until 2015. Even then we’ll have 7 or 8 years of average to below average year classes recruiting so I expect the fishing to be substandard at best. But at this point I kinda feel like I’m preaching to the choir.
The point here is that we all pretty much know striped bass are tanking. Yet, if you read the article in the Virginia Pilot, you’ll see Charter Captains seemingly asking for the right to legally start fishing the EEZ, because there are “so many fish you can walk on them out there”. Seriously?
So, we’ve got a stock that just about everyone (save the few people with blinders on) agrees is a shadow of what it was just 5 years ago, and we’ve been begging managers to reduce fishing mortality so it doesn’t crash the same way it did 25 years ago…. And we’ve still got people who want to roll us back 25 years by opening up the EEZ, at least in some cases because they can’t get away with it anymore? I’d like to think it’s just the one or two guys quoted in this article, but it isn’t. Having spent an unfortunate amount of time in management circles, I can tell you first hand that there are quite a few people (some of which are decision-makers) in Virginia who feel like these are “their” fish, and want the EEZ opened.
Without a doubt opening it up would increase fishing mortality, likely significantly, even with the suggested reduction (from two fish to one fish) in bag limits, which one of the Captains in the article suggests. Really, that likely wouldn’t do a thing as they obviously can’t kill any of those fish in the EEZ now. (Note: What we’re probably looking at for 2015 is a reduction from two to one fish anyway). And if we were seriously to consider opening the EEZ we certainly couldn’t do it for just one state, it would have to be coastal. And keep in mind that it is generally the large spawners that winter out there. Just the fish we should be trying vigorously to protect. Not to mention, it’d be a management/enforcement nightmare. Stupid, stupid, stupid… On so many levels.
The VA Pilot makes clear that the lack of fish off of VA has had reverberating economic effects on the coastal community, because people just aren’t making the trips to VA to fish in the winter. The overarching reason for that is, of course, the stock decline. That should be obvious at this point. Sure there may be some remnant, albeit thick, schools offshore in the EEZ, but that certainly doesn’t mean we should allow a handful of folks in a single state to take advantage of that to the detriment of everyone else along the coast.
Which leads me to the “I’m just trying to feed my family” argument that the article opens with. For sure, I understand, but I can’t help but read shit like that and get angry. For one, because I’m trying to feed my family up here also. But that’s not the point. The point is that such arguments are the same ones we’ve been hearing for decades, and which are largely responsible for the chronic overfishing we’ve seen throughout history, particularly in New England.
Without a doubt, it’s a compelling, sometimes gut-wrenching thing to hear, especially if you are a manager. But I’m so jaded and angry these days, my gut reaction is that this isn’t my fault, or my problem. Perhaps it’s insensitive, but if you put all your eggs in the fishing basket, and don’t diversify your sources of income, than it’s hard for me to be understanding, especially since your desire/need to kill more fish so you can make ends meet hurts the rest of us. We have to remember that marine fisheries resources are owed by the public. Not just by extractive industries that seek to profit off of them.
Regardless, it’s the short-term “these are my fish, it’s all about me” Tragedy-of-the-Commons culture that I can’t get over. You think people would have learned by now but they haven’t. Having foresight, leaving fish in the water, so that you can have more fish later, should be looked at like any long-term investment, particularly if you are a small business owner. In the end, it should pay dividends. But for whatever reason, that’s not the way a lot of fishermen think. It’s not the way a lot of managers think. On that note I highly suggest reading Charlie Witek’s blog this week: STRIPERS FOREVER UNDERSTANDS ASMFC.
Circling back to striped bass and the EEZ. Are managers seriously considering opening it? I really doubt it. The point is that some people simply want it opened, and given everything that’s going with this fishery, I can’t help but find that offensive. And I find their rationale for opening the EEZ equally offensive. (e.g. These are our fish, we need them to support our business, there are plenty out there etc…). I can’t help it, but this kind of shit makes me angry. When will we learn?