A conservation group called Stripers Forever and their recreational fishing allies are renewing their efforts to halt the commercial harvest of striped bass, a summer staple for a number of small boat businesses operating from Gloucester.
Ten bills in all get a hearing together Tuesday before the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture at the State House, in Room 1B at 11 a.m.
The bills fall into three categories. The first is an outright ban on the sale of stripers, which would effectively end the commercial fishery, which last year produced 1.2 million pounds of the prized fish that migrates from the great Mid-Atlantic river estuaries following food and water temperatures northward all the way to Canada.
Beginning in late April or early May, stripers return to Cape Ann where many of them will choose to summer. The first local stripers are typically caught in the Little River, and they are always schoolies, because the mature adults are left behind in reproduction.
The second category of bills to be heard Tuesday are studies of the fishery and are focused on showing the value of the recreational fishery, while the third category involves studies of the toxicity of eating striped bass.
Because they spawn and return to some extent to estuaries where PCBs — carbon based toxins — are concentrated, and because they also hold a place high on the pyramid of ocean food chain (like tuna and swordfish), there are legitimate concerns about the safety of eating striped bass, but these concerns have involved massive amounts of any toxins.
"Striped bass shouldn't be singled out," said Russell Cleary, acting executive director of the Commercial Anglers Association. But he agreed that the question warrants further study.
Still, Cleary scoffs at the idea of ending a commercial fishery that has roots back in the 18th century.
"The sustainability of the Massachusetts commercial striped bass fishery has been well demonstrated to Colonial America," said Cleary. "Also proven is that it is eminently compatible with the recreational fishery.
"There is no reason on earth why both cannot continue to thrive," he wrote to the joint committee.
Indeed, recreational fishermen harvest about 77 percent of the stripers taken from state waters.
In 2010, recreational anglers are reported to have taken 4.2 million pounds of stripers while the commercial fleet — numbering about 1,200 concentrated here and in smaller ports all the way to Cape Cod — took 1.2 million pounds of stripers, according to figures from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The spawning biomass has been declining in recent years, as Cleary acknowledges. But the commission, which helped rescue the species from the brink of extinction in the early 1980s with bans and strict limits on landings while the spawning estuaries were cleaned up to some extent from industrial era pollution, sees the stock as not severely threatened by commercial landings.
Stripers Forever, which is an all-volunteer organization, disagrees strongly.
Dean Clark, the volunteer co-chairman of the Massachusetts chapter, said that "game status is the accepted protocol for protecting stripers."
"We have seen the effects of overharvesting in the past, and we are seeing it again," he said. "A dead fish is a dead fish. It doesn't matter how it died.
"The people supporting this bill (to ban the sale of stripers) are recreational fishermen, because as a fact of life they selfishly want more fish in the ocean," Clark added. "They are the polar opposite to the commercial guy who needs to kill fish. The higher degree of success they have, the fewer striped bass there are."
Clark also made the argument for majority rule. He said there are only little more than 1,000 commercial striped bass fishermen, though "Gloucester is the heart and soul of commercial striped bass fishing."
But, he said, there are more than 1.2 million recreational fishermen.
Two years ago, the Legislature rejected a similar suite of options for upsetting the striper status quo, but since then scientists and fishermen agree the spawning mass seems down.
Cleary sees the trend as part of the endless pulsing of the ecosystem.
The striper is managed by a consortium of the Atlantic states that have stripers in their inshore waters.
The consortium is the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
But states can decide whether to allow stripers to be landed commercially. That is allowed only in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut in New England and in New York, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
The rest of the Atlantic states bar any commercial landings.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.