The time is now for more things than one. The Fall Run is on and blackfish season is open and I swear I’m going to get one of those white-chinned bastards from a Brooklyn shoreline this year. I’ve been out here and there so far, mostly sneaking away and coming up with rats, 20”-26” bass, lately covered in sea lice, but haven’t been able to track down any bigger bass. Still, as the old saying goes, something is supposedly better than nothing, although the value of that sentiment decreases in direct relation to the length of the season and the time one puts in.
Not that I’m planning on keeping a bass. The last bass I kept was two years ago during the Thanksgiving Blitz in New Jersey and is remarkable only for the fact that this was the first, and probably last, time that someone said, “Hey, bring a fish home for dinner,” and I actually went out and caught one. We butterflied that fish and my grandmother used the head for soup as she used to do way back when, and I appreciated the hunt a little more. One thing I would like to keep are some bluefish, as we just got a new Traeger grill for the backyard at work and the thought of catching some in the early AM and smoking them all day and hopefully pissing off the neighbors really gets the blood moving in certain places. However, I have not seen a damn bluefish all year yet. Where the hell are those guys?
Just as important as making the most of the quickly shortening days and longer nights is a proposal to open part of the EEZ to striped bass fishing. NOAA is now accepting public comments on the proposal and it’s crucial if you give a shit to make your voice heard (you have until November 19 to comment—you can use that link). There is also a Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting here in New York City at the end of the month, and on the schedule is a review of this proposal.
The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is an area three miles from shore, officially Federal Waters, and is currently no man’s land for striped bass fishing, both commercial and recreational. This protection was established in 1984 by the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act with the idea that this area would provide stripers a safe haven from fishing pressure. It’s a great idea, in theory, as it draws an imaginary line in the ocean, across this line, you do not fish for striped bass as it’s in violation of Federal law. But that doesn’t stop people from trying.
The proposal, pushed by New York Representative Lee Zeldin, wants to remove that restriction for an area known as the Block Island Transit Zone. This is where the three mile restriction gets a little tricky: The 3-mile radius around the porkchop-shaped Block Island is legal fishing. Within 3-miles off the coast of Montauk is fair game. The 3-mile area south of Point Judith, Rhode Island is A-OK. But tucked in that area, outside of where Long Island Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean, and bound by those three landmarks, is a pocket of Federal water, the Block Island Transit Zone (BITZ). Fishing boats from any area may only pass through this area—fishing is not allowed as per EEZ rules, and stopping for any reason, save for emergencies, while possessing striped bass is a violation. As Toby Lapinski writes on The Fisherman site: “The Federal line, which prohibits the targeting of striped bass in the EEZ, simply does not make sense as it is currently drawn when applied to the real world….[B]y strictly adhering to the line being 3 miles from the nearest point of land produces islands of legal fishing waters surround[ed] by those which are illegal.”
It’s an awkwardly-defined area, policed poorly, and well-known to the local fishing fleets to harbor lots of big striped bass. And that’s valuable real estate for the for-hire and party boat crowd, from whom Representative Zeldin receives a lot of support.
There isn’t a lot of value for the rest of us who don’t have a buck to gain from opening the BITZ to striped bass fishing. In fact, if this law passes the rest of us stand to suffer greatly for the benefit of very few, and a short-term gain for them as well because many anglers are already sounding the alarm about an impending collapse of the striped bass stock. [Read the post by Zeno Hromin, editor of The Surfcaster’s Journal, about the Gathering Of Anglers event this past Columbus Day out in Montauk. It’s an event that invites all the surf fishing clubs in New York to compete for the biggest bass, in the striped bass “Mecca,” over 48 hours. “These are not your average weekend warriors, these are guys that joined surf fishing clubs to expand their knowledge, to be amongst people that share same passion. These are what I call ‘lifers’.” Not a single fish was submitted.] Sure the Cape Cod Canal had its annual summer slaughter of big breeder bass, the usual depressing menu of high-grading, dead bass floating up and down the shoreline, poor catch & release technique, blatant poaching, and outright wastefulness, but how long is that going to continue? Even the locals know their time is coming.
The other danger about opening this part of the EEZ is that it sets a terrible precedent. It’s well known that large breeding stripers winter off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina, in their part of the EEZ. In an excellent post by Charles Witek, he writes:
There is a lot of sentiment for opening the EEZ down there, so that the local charter boat fleet can get a crack at all of the big, pre-spawn females. As an article in the Carteret County [North Carolina] News-Times noted,
“In 2009 North Carolina asked President Barak Obama to address the prohibition of fishing for striped bass in federal waters, emphasizing that striped bass do not know where the three-mile boundary is and that warmer winters push the fish offshore beyond three miles. Large stripers migrate south during fall and winter from their summer habitat in the northeast, where they often live within three miles. The main harvest opportunity for oceanic striped bass fishermen from Virginia and North Carolina is during these ‘cold months.’ Even though North Carolina helped restore the population, its fishermen were losing access to this well-managed resource.”
It’s not hard to believe that, should the Block Island Transit Zone be opened to striped bass angling, fishermen down in Virginia and North Carolina will be seeking to have access to their section of the EEZ, too.
And while I consider the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission an increasingly toothless organization, they manage striped bass and they themselves in 2014 wrote:
• Tagging data indicate larger females tend to aggregate in the EEZ
• It is impossible… to predict whether opening the EEZ will result in a shift or an increase in fishing effort, but any fishing that occurs in the EEZ will result in a source of mortality that is currently minimized by the prohibition
In update to their last stock assessment, they also wrote, as Witek notes:
—“[Spawning stock biomass] was estimated at 58,853 metric tons (129 million pounds) which is above the SSB threshold of 57,626 metric tons, but below the SSB target of 72,032 metric tons…
—“Total abundance (age 1+) increased to 195 million fish by 2012 due primarily to the abundant 2011 year-class from the Chesapeake Bay. Total abundance dropped in 2013 as the small 2012 year-class recruited to the population. Abundance increased slightly in 2014 to 127 million fish, and in 2015 total abundance was estimated at 180 million fish. Abundance of age 8+ fish has declined since 2012 and is expected to drop slightly in 2016.”
“In other words,” Witek writes, “at the time of the update, the stock was a lot closer to being overfished than it was to being fully rebuilt, and the number of larger, fecund females was still dropping.”
The people who support the proposal are comprised mostly of organized lobbyists, party boat and charter owners, and “recreational” fishing groups like the New York Recreational and For Hire Fishing Alliance (NYRFHFA) and the Recreational Fishing Alliance, who claim to represent the best interests of recreational anglers like me, and yet we are almost always diametrically opposed. They are certainly no friend of Witek’s, and they had a lot of influence in removing John McMurray (who spoke with us earlier this spring at the Metropolitan Rod and Gun Club and is a charter captain himself) as the NY proxy to the ASMFC. This is not good for conservation-minded rec anglers like us. An email response to a Stripers Online poster asking the RFA’s Jim Donofrio if the RFA was involved in McMurray’s removal apparently went like this: We sure did and proud of it!! He is not a rec he is a greenie. you guys are the disgrace whats the average rec fishermen ?some JO [jag off? jerk off?] in an Orvis outfit who hates the real average guy like your buddy Witek does. He is another another wack job internet bully. [bolded notes mine, everything else sic]
[McMurray, for his part, countered with a post: I’m talking about all of those anglers with foresight. The surfcasters, the light-tackle folks, the flyfishers, the hundreds of thousands of striped bass guys who, well, get it.
These are the folks who actually believe in and understand the value of keeping a few fish in the water; who intuitively understand that ocean resources are finite, and need to be managed sustainably, with precaution; who understand clearly that the more fish industry takes out, the less they are available to the rest of us; and lastly, who understand that abundance equals opportunity, and that such opportunity is quite a bit more important than low size limits and high bags.
The industry version of such anglers? “Light tackle” guides. Those conservation-minded small business owners, both full and part-time, who understand, probably better than anyone, that if there isn’t a good amount of fish in the water, the fishing ain’t good, and people stop opening up their wallets.
Of course, I’m damn proud to be part of that industry. And there are a lot of us! Undoubtedly, we make a significant contribution to economy. We burn A LOT of fuel, and we (and our clients) buy a lot of gear, stay in hotels, eat at local restaurants, and so on.
Yet to managers, and politicians? We appear to mean little. And that’s because they just don’t hear from us.]
So “recreational” groups like the NYRFHFA and people like me, and hopefully you, too, probably don’t get along, at least on conservation issues. But here’s the thing: these groups are organized, they write letters to their representatives like their good buddy Lee Zeldin*, they show up to meetings, they make their voices and concerns heard, and they send in comments during the open-comment period and right now is our time to do the same. During the course of reading and researching, one thing is clear to me regarding the ASMFC: they will only listen to the voices that speak up. It’s easy to gloss over a lot of these statistics and legal-sounding provisions of a proposed bill that may or may not pass, but if one side is speaking up and the other side is opposed but silent, there’s little question, little choice, even, with whom the Commission will favor.
McMurray said as much in his post: Take it from somebody who just spent 9 years on the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and a little over two years as a proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. It is the, we-need-to-kill-more folks on the recreational side (generally, the party-boat crowd) who tend to dominate the discussion.
Managers are left with the perception that anglers just want to kill more. Same could be said for both state and national legislators. Because generally, that’s who they hear from. And that sucks. Because it’s NOT who or what the larger angling community is, and it certainly isn’t who we are.
If you don’t like the end results but didn’t vote, there is no room for complaints. One only needs to look at the last presidential election to see if it matters if people choose not to vote. (Screw the Clintons, too, by the way.) Recreational anglers, real recreational anglers, are not organized. There’s no leadership. We’ll argue over bait versus plugs and hold blood grudges over the value of boat fish versus surf fish, but we are the majority of fishing community (and part of a billion dollar industry) and most of us want the fish to be around for generations and not be lost so that a few companies can profit at our expense and the expense of our future.
Right now there’s about 500 comments on the NOAA site, and that’s not enough. Read through the comments to gauge how the majority of recreational fisherfolk feel about Zeldin’s proposal. You’ll see old timers like Vito Orlando, rod-builder extraordinaire Lou Caruso, Van Staal’s Craig Cantelmo among others against the proposal. You’ll see Tim Surgent, admin of the Stripers Online forum, there as well with an excellent comment, from which I pulled those 2014 ASMFC statements. (Stripersonline.com’s forums are a great resource for people who love to fish and argue and I’ve used the site for many years. It is not a haven for conservationists, and the majority of users and I probably would never agree on anything politically.) You’ll also see boat captains both in favor of and against the proposal.
For the record, here is the NYRFHFA comment: The New York Recreational and For-Hire Fishing Alliance fully supports the opening of the Block Island Transit Zone to Striped Bass fishing. Doing so will eliminate confusing, and unnecessary regulations that are currently in place. It will free up the coast guard and other law enforcement for more pressing issues.
This is my comment, lacking in important details, the likes of which you’ve read about if you got this far. It’s time to be heard and now is your chance. Time to make it count.
[*This is what Charles Witek had to say about Zeldin: His war has been waged with a series of bills that ranged from an inane attempt to redraw the bounds of the Exclusive Economic Zone for fisheries purposes, an effort that would have actually drawn the boundary between state and federal waters through the southeast corner of Block Island, to a stealth effort to deny funding for law enforcement of the ban on fishing for striped bass in federal waters off Block Island, so that his district’s population of poachers could fish without fear of apprehension.]