Hopefully by now, fishermen who target striped bass or any other local species will have sent an email to the RIDEM about proposed regulations for this year’s striper season. We have an amazing and rare opportunity to get out ahead of a fishery in trouble, trouble that we put it in by catching lots of those big female breeders all last summer and for years past. With this kind of advance warning, we can create rules which will help rebuild the stocks in a few short years. Instead, we’re going to argue.
There are two proposals on the table. Actually, first there was one: a limit of one fish per day at a minimum length of 28” brought about largely by attentive and participatory anglers who spoke at hearings, sent emails and voted to accept this reduction in harvest and size as a means to an end. The commercial guys took a 25% quota hit right off the top. It’s a bitter pill in some ways because stripers are a game fish, they are smart and can hide right in front of us and they fight hard and keep us coming back night after night. That’s the carrot in this deal because many want to get into that fifty-pounder club or even just catch one bigger than the last. But a democratic decision was made to suck it up for a few years.
Then all of a sudden, there was a second proposal, one which would allow charter boats to continue to keep two bass per person, and that includes the captain and the mate, with a minimum size of 32”. So for the quick math, a recreational person can fish this summer and if they so choose, keep one fish while a charter boat can take 6 paying customers on potentially two trips per day, who can each keep 2 fish, plus the crew which means when the fish are in, that’s a take of up to 32 bass per day. Per boat. It’s not worth the exercise here to count up all the charter boats and make a declaration of potential harvests, but let’s just say this: we all burned this stock and we all need to build it back up. Remember the classic Animal Farm, where “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”? Not this time; any vote to rebuild the striper stocks should be a vote of equity.
The other side here that the charter boats operators are missing a serious marketing opportunity. One fish does not mean the sky is falling or that customers will not return but it does mean that they can be educated on the stock’s health, learn that most large bass are females and are needed to sustain the population. They can be reminded that for the hours they have contracted they can fish fish fish and that they get to keep one and that there are other fish to target in our local waters. One charter boat website already mentions, “going to Block Island for fluke, sea bass, striped bass, bluefish, and other species of gamefish.” Florida has made bonefish a catch- and-release only species and a quick internet tour of captains and guides shows the industry is doing just fine. As a sport, you hire a guide with the knowledge that if you catch one, you get to return it after the battle. That’s the deal.
At the RIDEM hearing last week, support was voiced for both options. Peter Jenkins, owner of The Salt Water Edge in Middletown, made the case for option one, if for just the ease of enforcement. That’s a position many people have taken. Looking up at the podium, where ACCSP Coordinator Nichole Ares had just presented regulatory information, Captain Denny Dillon wagged his finger, referring to her as “that little lady over there”, and then tried to draw commercial fishermen into some sort of battle which clearly does not exist. The commercial guys have been very supportive of their weight in this reduction. If there is a battle brewing between the charter and recreational groups it may just be because the reduction might not be imposed evenly.
Repeated reference was made to the economics of this reduction but the math just doesn’t work. Capt. Rick Bellavance, President of the RI Party and Charter Boat Association wrote in an email that, “I am amazed that one group can and is willing to affect all those hard working fishermen, hotel owners, restaurants, convenience stores ,fuel companies, repair shops and more.” Do recreational fishermen not bring dollars to Rhode Island or stay in hotels or buy gas or Slim Jims or replenish lost tackle? According to the Fisheries Economics of the United States, 2012 report, recreational fishing in our state had a Total State Trip and Durable Equipment Economic Impact of approximately $180 million. Yes, the charter boats draw lots of people to our state, but where is the proven economic statistic that says reducing the trip catch by one fish will cause and industry implosion? Are there letters of anger from customers saying they will not return because they can only keep one striped bass? With the amount of time spent sending emails to argue about their economic hardship and, wait for it, no fish for the table, marketing materials could have been designed, printed and distributed right here in our state to help this year’s customers understand the fishery and how it is in early stages of decline and how we are all working hard to rebuild it. That would have real economic and social benefits.
This is not one group against another; it is fishermen scratching their collective heads, wondering how big changes can be expected of the recreational and commercial group and not for the charter boats. We need to face the reality of the situation: the stock is slumping and this is the time to get on top of it. One fish one rule.
Fishermen have great big rear view mirrors and tissue boxes full of reasons why everyone else did a damn poor job of fixing things before they broke. How many fisheries do we have to whittle down to the bare minimum and then spend a fortune in time dollars and resources trying to rebuild? Think codfish, weakfish, salmon, sturgeon or river herring. This time, we know the damned thing is about to break but it hasn’t happened yet. All those smart people with their fleece vests and Starbucks coffee cups, the ones who are easy targets for being glued to computer models while naïve to what’s outside the screen door, the ones who show us those big graphs about performance and fecundity, well they have hit this one right on the head, which is where some of us need a good shot.