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In 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law banning the use of striped bass as fertilizer. Settlers thought the fish was more valuable as a commercial good. But a lot has changed since then. The latest stock assessment shows that striped bass are overfished. Striper, as they’re often called, are in decline, and with them, their value as a commercial and recreational resource. Striped bass are facing a watershed moment—the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the regional organization responsible for assessing and managing fish stocks, is proposing changes to the fish’s management. Once again, Massachusetts residents are being forced to rethink the best way to use the vaunted fish.
The nonprofit group Stripers Forever believes it has the answer to this long-running dilemma. Stripers Forever wants the striped bass to be a game fish and nothing more. It thinks the fish should be managed as a recreational fishery and the commercial harvest closed. Dean Clark, Stripers Forever’s Massachusetts cochair, says this would benefit the economy and the fish. When you manage a species for a recreational market, he says, “your goal is abundance and quality. The more fish, the bigger the fish, the more people are going to fish for them—therefore the more value you get from them.” This value comes from charter trips, guided trips, and other fishing-related expenses—like purchases at tackle shops. A healthy recreational fishery also supports local jobs at marinas, hotels, restaurants, and stores; fishermen are drawn to regions where they’ll have the best chance of a successful trip.
The quest to bestow the striped bass with game fish status, of course, faces many obstacles—one being confusion as to what a game fish is.
Clark acknowledges, but doesn’t understand, the confusion. “If you talk about game birds or game animals, everybody knows that means there is regulated harvest,” he says.
According to Clark, making striped bass a game fish would mean that recreational anglers would still be able to harvest fish to bring home to their table, so long as they abide by whatever regulations are in place. Although, in fact, the recreational fishery is primarily catch and release; roughly 90 percent of recreational striped bass anglers don’t keep their fish.
Fred Jennings, a part-time fly fishing guide, an economist, and Stripers Forever’s other Massachusetts cochair, has been fishing for striped bass since 1956. In 2016, he analyzed data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and found that Massachusetts’s recreational striped bass fishery is roughly 130 times more valuable than its commercial fishery.
Florida provides a relevant example of what the organization thinks the striped bass fishery could look like. There, species such as snook and redfish are pillars in a buzzing, multibillion-dollar recreational fishing industry. No commercial harvest of snook or redfish is permitted in the state.
Jennings’s findings buttress the organization’s argument that the state’s commercial harvest is causing the striped bass’s population to decline. This decline has led to poor fishing and decreased spending by recreational anglers, he says. If striped bass were managed for recreation, “the economic significance of this fishery would increase in impact by as much as—if not more than—US $1.7-billion per year.”
But in Massachusetts, the commercial fishing industry is deeply ingrained. Efforts to eliminate the commercial fishery have, understandably, been met with pushback. “It has been to the advantage of politicians to cater to the commercial fishing industry because they’re loud, they spend a lot of money on lobbying, and they’re influential,” Clark says.
“The commercial fishing industry is a strong lobby in Massachusetts,” agrees Representative Thomas Stanley, who is championing Stripers Forever’s efforts in the state legislature.
In an appeal to commercial fishermen, Stanley has included a grandfather clause in proposed legislation to restrict the commercial harvest of striped bass: if commercial fishermen can demonstrate they’ve historically harvested at least 454 kilograms of striped bass annually over the preceding five years, they’ll be allowed to continue harvesting the fish. This is an attempt to cut out the “recrommercial” fishermen who buy commercial permits to subsidize their hobby and write gear off on their taxes, he says. If those who qualify stop fishing for striped bass, their average annual harvest will be removed from the commercial quota, gradually pushing striper to game fish status.
Patrick Paquette, the government affairs officer and former president of the Massachusetts Striped Bass Association and a member of the ASMFC striped bass advisory panel, sees Stripers Forever’s legislative moves as an attempt to circumvent the ASMFC. “State by state management of anything that swims in the ocean, in my personal opinion, is insane,” he says. He argues Massachusetts’s commercial striped bass fishery is extremely well-managed, with fish only being taken by rod and reel—no gill nets or trawling—to limit fish mortality.
When managing a species for maximum value, it’s hard not to get sidetracked by the fact that, on a philosophical level, you’re determining the species’ purpose. Here, both of Stripers Forever’s Massachusetts cochairs drift from the purely economic stances put forth by their organization.
“In my own personal view,” Jennings says, “we ought to slap a moratorium on any harvest of this fishery, and basically run the recreational fishery as completely catch and release.” Some of his angling colleagues say striped bass fishing should be stopped altogether. “That would be an excruciating situation for me to consider,” he says, “but I think we ought to stop killing them.”
Similarly, Clark says, “If you have a desire or an interest in whatever the species is, then your first priority ought to be the welfare of the species—not the welfare of the users. If you’re arguing in favor of a specific use, then you’re missing the point.”
After nearly 400 years of doing exactly that—from fertilizer to commercial catch to popular sportfishing target—Massachusetts is still reckoning with the species, its value, and its welfare.