Bigeyes on the Prowl At Atlantis
I’m struggling to fight off the growing suspicion that this is going to be one of those seasons when things come crashing down much earlier than usual—and much earlier...
I could understand if not accept regulators’ apparent ambivalence about a striper stock on the verge of catastrophic failure if we hadn’t already gone through this exercise once before in the last 30 years—and vowed we’d never, never, never let it happen again…
I have, for well more than a decade, prided myself on paying fairly close attention to the swirling maelstrom of fish, fishermen and fisheries management—a whole part of the world most sane anglers and watermen, given the choice, would just as soon avoid the way they might a square-mile swarm of plague-infested, flesh-eating mud wasps selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Most of the years I’ve paid attention, I’ve carried a growing measure of disdain for the ranks of my fellow anglers who refuse to let science, logic, sound rhetoric, personal research, or unshakable facts water down their positions on various fisheries issues. I’ve watched more than a few guys point at and denounce the “goddamned pogy boat” before voicing quiet disagreement on the grounds that the vessel in their crosshairs is in fact an offshore lobster boat or scalloper. I have subsequently been accused of somehow being in the commercial fishermen’s pocket.
While I understand that fisheries management is tedious stuff at points, I also have a pretty serious notion that if you’re going to grouse and complain about management when the latest regs come down, your sentiments only count if you’ve gone to the public hearings and made your feelings part of the public record.
Over the summer—May to mid-September—I edited a memoir written by a former stand-up comic and longtime striper nut, Jeff Nichols, who has fished out of Montauk, NY since the early 2000s. In the book, Nichols shared the particulars of his own journey from rank amateur to big-fish specialist, and laid out the details of his own experiences catching stripers for the black market in Long Island and New York City. Through the long process of trying to untangle the endless snarl of fish and humanity to help Nichols lay out a clear snapshot of what has gone wrong with our striped bass resource, I gradually sank into a quagmire of information overload and disgust over the human greed and hypocrisy that live in every corner of the striper world. Around the time we were wrapping up the book, and I finished a lengthy essay (which would become its “Afterward”) on the countless stresses and short-circuits that have pushed the resource right back to the threshold of a second collapse, I fell into a serious funk. After all the years fighting, I couldn’t shake the sense that getting personally invested in fisheries management is a sure-fire way to rid yourself of any love you’ve maintained for fish, fishing, and quite possibly humanity.
Jeff Nichol’s book, entitled Caught: One Man’s Maniacal Pursuit of a Sixty-Pound Striped Bass and His Experiences with the Black Market Fishing Industry, published in late September, 2013, is an insightful and often hilarious look at the trial-by-fire all serious stripermen endure as we attempt to navigate the perils of weekend warriorhood on our life-long steam toward striped bass enlightenment. Along the way, you’ll find a steady dose of fishing and life wisdom, a solid helping of sound big-bass technique, and some time-tempered perspective on the past, present and uncertain future of our beloved striped bass resource.
The 172-page paperback is available through Amazon.com, where you can also download an electronic copy for Kindle. Cover price is $13.50. As some glitch in the self-publishing software has left remnants of several older, defunct versions of the book up on the Amazon page, be sure to select the one dated September, 2013, with “Forward by Zach Harvey” beneath Jeff Nichols’ byline on the lower right-hand corner of the cover.–ZH
When you reduce any fishery to its simplest terms, when you spend time watching state and federal fish bureaucracies try to keep the economically-important fisheries out of the ecological toilet, it’s hard to ignore three perennial scenarios: (1) Humans tend to overexploit any lucrative resource. (2) Fisheries law—the statutory mandate in the Magnuson Act that management actions be based on science, for example—frequently makes it all but impossible for regulators to reign in an imperiled fishery until the stock in question has been hammered into absolute biological freefall (the more geographically-specific the fishery, the more doomed it is). In other words, and the current/recent striper situation is perhaps the example of this, it’s way too often the case that the fisherman will ring the alarm of immediate danger months or years before the regulatory system can take the necessary steps to head off disaster.
It’s not as if any of this is revelation—anyone even peripherally involved in the fishing racket accepts it as part of the reality of catching fish in 2013. I’ve been thinking about it since I first began pecking out editorials in 2002, and as I said, I’ve made it a personal commandment to stay on top of developments in all areas of the fishery—commercial, for-hire, “pure” recreational, and environmental. What I’d never anticipated—what I hit like head-on at high speed somewhere in the process of preparing Nichols’ book for market—was a sudden and near-bone-crushing sense of the incredible futility in the war I’ve been waging for so many years: The crux of it is knowing that we’re just not going to see the kind of global philosophical shift inside the management regime unless we can convince the top players at NOAA that we’ll continue dying on the regulatory vine as long as we’re cling clinging to all those years of data that’s totally incompatible with anything even resembling whole-ecosystem—as opposed to the present “single-stock”—approach to managing our marine fisheries.
To clarify a bit, the one hard-wired problem that trumps all others—aside from our managers being hobbled by a thicket of state and federal law to the extent that the regulatory process pokes along at glacial speed—is that there’s no existing slot that will accept the kind of anecdotal common sense that is so conspicuously absent now. We can’t work on a reasonable number of black sea bass even at a point when they’re just about carpeting the bottom—all because of scientific uncertainty about the data and rigid rebuilding timeframes we should have jettisoned a decade ago. Meanwhile, most of my sources agree that tautog—a stock that was nothing short of impressive four or five short years ago—have crossed some biological tipping point where they aren’t growing or reproducing fast enough to maintain equilibrium against rapidly escalating fishing pressure (some of which is a direct result of a fading late-season striper fishery—another ecosystem-level problem current management couldn’t begin to recognize, let alone quantify).
Speaking of, even after five years of mounting fear in all corners of the fishery, and despite ASMFC’s vow to take steps to rein in an out-of-control striper situation by addressing the black market, increasing enforcement presence to curb abuse of existing laws like the federal-waters (EEZ) closure, or cutting back on a staggering amount of recreational fishing mortality, the between-the-lines message most informed observers heard loud and clear with the release of this year’s benchmark stock assessment went something like this: All indications are that, at some future time (sooner than later), we are going to be in big trouble with bass, but because it hasn’t yet collapsed yet, our plan is to continue with the status quo and see what happens next. (Uhh, maybe we can send Burt Reynolds in to kick some gillnetter ass around Kent Island, MD.) With major recruitment failure in the Chesapeake stock (an estimated 75-percent of which is carrying Mycobacteriosis), since roughly 2005, and very high mortality rates on the breeding stock across the migratory range, we are headed for the wall no matter what. Between diminishing returns from all the record-breaking year classes of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and a number of year classes that simply didn’t make it in years since, we are going to find ourselves working on what I’ve been calling a “pre-collapsed” striper stock very soon. We’re approaching a brick wall at 90 miles-per-hour; plan—as I understand it—is to jack up on the brakes shortly after impact.
As I noted in the essay for Nichols’ book, managers seem to be at least a few moves away from making any decisive changes. I suspect that one perverse element of ASMFC’s non-action is that before regulators can start trying to pull stripers out of the immediate nose-dive, they’re going to have to relinquish the unbelievable bass rebound coming out of the 1980s and 1990s—the only entry in the “wins” column on the NMFS/ASMFC fish-management scorecard, a victory that has underwritten 20 years of self-congratulatory press releases from the Commission. Like alcoholism, the massive striper downturn veteran stripermen have been discussing for 10 years at this point, will be impossible to address until managers can admit there’s a problem.
There are some compelling reasons no one at the Commission is too thrilled to do so. Notably, against the fast-growing laundry list of eerie similarities between current events and the state of stripers circa 1981, one major point of contrast is creating fleet-wide migraines: Where, upon passage of the moratorium, party and charter fishing businesses quickly redirected clientele into a host of solid alternative fisheries like near-offshore school or giant tuna, sharks, winter flounder, weakfish, cod, white marlin, pollock, fluke, or scup, among others, those same businesses have, in the intervening 25 years, lost almost all of the once-viable Plan-B’s to overfishing or hyper-regulation. Following ASMFC’s lead as we emerged from a massive collective belt-tightening, captains returned to a fishery in an explosive rebound; lights-out fishing after a long drought—not to mention a flood tide of exuberant media coverage—quickly touched off a gold rush for the fishing industry. Striper fever attracted a whole new generation to the sport, and charter captains, eager to capitalize on escalating demand, gradually sold clientele on the many merits of chasing stripers.
The loss, incrementally, from the mid-1990s through the late 2000s, of most one-time alternative fisheries didn’t seem so ominous when the striper stock looked, as the saying goes, “too big to fail.” Fast-forward to June, 2014, though, and all those little cuts we brushed off over two decades—draggers, then disease, demolishing flounder stocks, the demise of near-offshore tuna fishing, then the slashing of school bluefin bag limits, the cod collapses….Suddenly, absent striped bass and their devoted following, lots of charter boats will be lashed to their slips. Bottom line is this: if ASMFC has been slow to acknowledge the obvious striper troubles we’ve watched unfold for years, I doubt anyone is in a rush to torpedo an alarming percentage of East Coast charter revenues. Maybe I’m just bitter, paranoid.
Just when I’ve settled on that explanation—that too many years studying corporate environmentalism have left me on black-helicopter watch—I’ll raise one of my sources who lives and breathes the policy end of fishing and get a quick reminder that I’m hopelessly naïve, that I’m nowhere near paranoid enough.
Even now, in the months since the big assessment came through, some northeast states have actually proposed increases for their waters next season, probably, I suspect, as a means to snatch up future bargaining chips (paper fish) they can give back, rather than forcing their striper fleets to put one of their two “keeper” bass on the chopping block when the inevitable reckoning sends state delegations back to the regulatory drawing board to avert total striper collapse.
The worst of it all—what has left me in a more or less permanent state of disgust—is knowing that, at least for the next year and quite possibly much longer, the regulatory establishment has made it pretty clear we’ll be fishing under the status quo. From extensive observation this last year, I gather that means there will be a whole striper navy extracting every ounce of striper flesh not bolted to seabed from the federal ocean, Block Island to Montauk. A handful of scum bag pin-hookers from Montauk will rake in every available short buck they can lay hands on, a ludicrous number of striper tags at the ready to cover the body count of bass crowding the deck as many nights as they can get in before the meat dries up or scatters and we all move that many fish closer to the end of the line.
As infuriating as the whole sordid mess that is our once-rebounded striper fishery feels looking back over a season of severely concentrated big bass bonanza—Block Island or bust, Newport or bust—I maintain a well-concealed tatter of hope that there are enough of us around who care about the longer view of Rhode Island fishing to make a difference at the individual level. The trick is to maintain the resolve to do the right thing even the nights we’re bobbing around in a 20-boat fleet watching another slaughter and the cynical part of us is shouting that nothing any one of us or them does makes a @#$% lick of difference if no else on the scene can look past the meager $3 his bass are worth today to the empty murk of squandered value in a patch of ocean without them in it.
While I must admit that my time on the water has put me in too many situations that have memorialized the human capacity for greed in memorable ways, I have made it a point in more recent seasons to keep a sharp eye open for humans at their best—a guy passing off a fish to a seasick kid, or another backing up his catch-and-release ethic with a well-timed “teachable moment” that lets him demonstrate for a neophyte, without arrogance or an air of condescension, the unique satisfaction of hooking and fighting a good fish then sending her back no worse for the wear. Time on the water has a way of dusting off the best of what each of us carries through life—humility, generosity, patience or perseverance—and I have to admit, in my less cynical moments, that I have learned (and at other points delivered) some important lessons not straining to hear a lecture over the wind and thundering surf, but watching a stranger in the distance do a righteous thing and smile to himself, unaware there was a soul around to take note.
If a few more of us take responsibility for modeling the active, hands-on elements of striper conservation—pass on solid values and skills not by preaching, but by doing—we all might well see that mindful casting and a spirit of respect for our quarry prove as contagious as anger, greed or stupidity among the scoundrels of striper fishing, that when those tasked with regulation fail to regulate for whatever reasons, we who love and respect our home waters will find a way to get the job done right.