There is no underestimating the allure and importance of the Atlantic striped bass for recreational and commercial anglers alike. Now both groups face significant catch reductions for the 2020 fishing season for the iconic inshore fish.
Last week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the multi-state fishing regulator that manages the fishery, ordered an 18 percent cut in commercial and recreational harvest quotas in response to a 2018 stock assessment that showed the striped bass stock is overfished and overfishing continues to occur.
In Massachusetts, according to Michael P. Armstrong, assistant director at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, those cuts will result in a bag limit of one fish between 28 and 35 inches per day for each angler.
The state already has instituted other measures to help stem the stock's decline, including mandating the use of inline circle hooks by recreational anglers fishing with natural baits and banning the use of gaffes on undersized striped bass to help reduce catch-and-release mortality.
"Nearly 50 percent of the mortality for striped bass occurs from catch-and-release," Armstrong said. "We have to start working on other methods for handling these fish, perhaps consider banning treble hooks and instituting an educational program to help fishermen understand what's happening."
In 2017, according to the assessment, the number of fish that died after being discarded exceeded the number of fish retained by anglers.
So there is much at stake.
While fishery regulators and stakeholders may disagree on management practices, they are of one voice when it comes to the importance of striped bass to saltwater fishermen — particularly within the recreational sector.
"Striped bass are far and away the most popular fish," Armstrong said. "Between 70 and 80 percent of all fishing trips in a year target striped bass."
"The striped bass is the most important recreational fish in Massachusetts," said Fred Jennings, the Ipswich resident who serves as Massachusetts co-chairman of the Stripers Forever fishing stakeholder group.
Jennings said Stripers Forever supports the ASMFC's revisions to the striped bass regulations. His personal point of view, however, is that even more restrictive measures are necessary to protect the stock and return it to health.
"I think the fishery is in enough trouble to implement a complete moratorium on any harvesting at all," Jennings said. "The 18 percent reduction really only provides a 50 percent chance of recovery."
Jennings remains an avid fisher for striped bass and said he's witnessed elements of the stock's decline while fishing the estuary behind Crane Beach. He characterized the 2017 striper season as "OK." He said 2018 "was a real disappointment" and things continued to spiral downward this season.
"I was actually shocked by the fishing this year," he said. "This year was really horrifying. In August, because of the low quality of the fish, I stopped fishing them altogether."
This is not the first time the stock has been in trouble.
In the early 1980s, the striped bass stock went into free-fall and states responded with harvest moratoriums of varying lengths that ultimately helped the stock recover by the early 21st century.
Regulators now say the striped bass stock probably has been in decline for about a decade.
Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT