These are the dog days of summer. We have had some crazy weather here in the Northeast this year, but we also have had some pretty nice spells in between. Some of the offshore activity has picked up for those making the run out. While it is anecdotal, the word has been that there is forage out there and there are the apex predators that live by feeding on them. Could a lot of the striped bass that have been missing for many anglers be out there and happily feeding? Maybe, just maybe!
Earlier this year there was a strong indication that the sand lance or sand eel population was very strong offshore and that, in part, this had been responsible for moving cod concentrations to different areas. There are a whole lot of big critters that like to feed on them as well. Surprise, surprise – striped bass are one of them.
I remember in years past watching whales feeing on sand eels, and as they closed their mouths, water and sand eels would squirt out the sides. Swimming right there would be some awesomely big striped bass just picking off snacks like the proverbial kid in the candy shop. Of course, we were just watching them and looking for the monster bluefish that also would be looking for a free meal. But I digress.
So could a lot of the elusive striped bass be offshore? There is minimal interaction with anglers in those areas because they are illegal to target beyond three miles. More evidence says yes, they are. In the past few years there has been a very large school of striped bass off Chatham. In the last couple of years, this school has been close to the three mile limit but inside enough to give access to anglers. This had attracted an incredible crowd of commercials trying to fill the Massachusetts quota. This year it appears that the school is hanging a little farther offshore, making it harder to access by law-abiding fishermen. Reports are that some have been cited for fishing in the EEZ as well as exceeding Massachusetts’ daily commercial limit. Again, anecdotal, but a lot of message traffic indicates that plenty of fish are out there.
Let me be clear. I am not advocating fishing on them, but the fact that they are there may be a very good thing. I hope that the state Environmental Police and the Coast Guard are keeping a close eye on the situation.
The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has put out a chart showing the commercial catch and approximately when it will reach its annual limit. The current trajectory has it ending in mid-September. If this is correct, the state will have put in place its new restrictive rules that did exactly what they wanted: extend the season. Some of us would like to see the season over and done in short order, but that is not happening. What this does show is that the catch is not falling drastically behind where the state wanted it to be.
What does all this mean? To me it means that it is not time to panic about the status of striped bass – yet! Is it time to be concerned? Yes, it is. Those who are watching the management process and what is happening at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission should push for conservative or very conservative action. No matter what happens, there will be a few lean years. Any more of the dramatically low young of the year indexes and this important fish will be in trouble. Be concerned, not panicked.