By Richard Gaines
Like most harbingers of the change of seasons, the 2012 arrival of striped bass to Cape Ann waters occurred very early, too.
The first bass of the fishing season were caught in mid-April, about two weeks ahead of the schedule they've set for themselves in recent times.
"One of the earliest starts I can recall," said Gloucester bass master Al Williams. "Not a lot of fish, it still hasn't been a bail job around here."
Reports of stripers have now come in from all the estuaries from the Annisquam to the Merrimack Rivers. Chris Thomas caught his schoolie near the mouth of the Essex River last Saturday.
Danny Winchester of Winchester Fishing Co. on lower Washington Street said the weird weather sparked a March run of mackerel that showed up in Ipswich Bay just off the Lobster Trap Restaurant over the Gloucester line in Rockport, and they induced unconfirmed reports of 30-inch stripers.
Keeper size in Massachusetts is 28 inches for recreational anglers, with a two-fish limit, and 31 inches for commercial fishermen. Their season, which begins in July, is based on allowed gross poundage and at just over 1 million pounds for 2012, a bit lower than past years.
Stripers are opportunistic feeders, but given their druthers, they — like many people — would order lobster at a restaurant, assuming price is no object, as it never is in the wild.
The striper's saga historically is a cautionary tale — one of a migratory species that spawned in the great estuaries of the Chesapeake, Delaware and Hudson River systems in such great numbers in Colonial times that the fish were used for fertilizer, then were nearly wiped out by industrial pollution and overfishing.
Then, however, the states unified in a restoration program that brought them back to fecundity over the past 15 years or so.
Striped bass are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission from North Carolina, where many stripers winter, to Maine, where the most energetic migrators end up, if not beyond.
Commercial and recreational landings hovered between 2,000 metric tons to 4,000 metric tons during the second half of the 20th century before crashing to near zero statistically in the 1980s, when industrial cleanups made the breeding waters more habitable and catch limits brought on the great rebound.
Landings peaked at more than 16,000 metric tons — about eight times the level that held up for much of the post-war period.
The commission has authorized a new benchmark assessment for 2012 that is scheduled for release in early 2013, Kate Taylor, fishery management plan coordinator, said Tuesday in a telephone interview. The last benchmark assessment was in 2007.
Poor yearly classes from 2004 through 2010 tempered the general optimism, but the 2010 class was strong. The commission last year decided against adopting a draft addendum to the management plan that would have aimed at reducing mortality by 40 percent.
Massachusetts is one of eight states that allows a commercial fishery along with the recreational one. The other states with commercial fisheries are Rhode Island, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
A movement to subtract Massachusetts from the list was defeated in the Legislature last year, but the commercial fishery — very important to Gloucester due its directional pull on the migratory fish that race up the coast as waters warm and bait fish such as mackerel and herring move north and hug the coast in spring.
The state Division of Marine Fisheries reports in Massachusetts Saltwater, the 2012 recreational fishing guide, notes the "growing ... concerns" about the status of the striped bass.
"Estimated fishing mortality rates on both juvenile and adult fish are also low, meaning that overfishing is not the reason behind the abundance decline," the division reports. "Rather, the stock is experiencing poor larval survival in the Chesapeake area, which is likely being caused by environmental factors, such as plankton availability, water quality and weather."
"While Massachusetts commercial and recreational harvest have not declined yet," the report states, "we can expect the void in fish age 2-6 to manifest into reduced recreational and commercial harvest opportunities in the near future."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-238-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.