Illegal and Unethical Commercial Fishing Kills Thousands of Stripers
by Paul Haertel, JCAA Striped Bass Chairman
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association March 2011 Newsletter)
According to news reports, thousands of striped bass have recently been killed by illegal and unethical commercial netters fishing in North Carolina and Maryland. The first travesty occurred in mid-January when a commercial trawler off North Carolina was found to be responsible for dumping and estimated 3000-4000 large striped bass off the outer banks of North Carolina. Outraged recreational fishermen took photos of all the dead bass floating on the surface. The suspected cause at the time was high-grading which occurs when small fish are thrown back dead so that they can be replaced by larger ones that were more recently caught. North Carolina had allowed a commercial limit of 50 stripers per day so therefore the larger bass were more valuable when they were sold. The boat responsible for the carnage was located by authorities who interviewed the Captain. He claimed that his net had become so full that the net was too heavy to bring into the boat and therefore the net had to be opened so the fish could be released.
Numerous complaints about the incident resulted in the NC Division of Marine Fisheries changing the law in order to prevent high-grading and to ensure that fish would not be wasted. A new limit of 2000 lbs .of stripers per boat are now allowed each day. Furthermore, trawlers are now allowed to transfer any excess catch to other trawlers, a practice that had previously been illegal. While many anglers applauded this action, I had my doubts that the new law would result in stripers being saved. Previously each boat was allowed to harvest 50 stripers per day and now they are allowed 2000 lbs. per day. Under the previous law, stripers would have had to average 40 lbs. each in order to take that many pounds in a day. This is something even netters are unlikely to accomplish. I also suspected that large trawlers would simply transfer their excess catch to other trawlers so that they all could return to port with their limits. North Carolina’s annual commercial quota for bass caught in the ocean is 480,000 lbs. with 160,160 lbs. of that allotted to the trawl fishery. Since commercial fishermen have not caught their entire quota in recent years, the relaxed rules make it more likely that they will now be able to fill their quotas. While it certainly is better that the practice of high-grading seems to have been curtailed, the end result may be that even more stripers will be killed.
As of early February it appears that there is very little transferring of excess stripers from one boat to another. Once again, on or about 2/2/11, thousands of dead stripers were found to be littering the ocean’s surface as evidenced by photos taken from a helicopter. There is no doubt that these fish were, once again, dumped by trawlers. The question of exactly why these stripers are being dumped is unresolved. Some claim that it is simply the fact that the nets became too full and the excess bass were dumped as there were no other trawlers nearby to transfer them. Others claim that the stripers were, in fact, lost in the act of being transferred or that they were dumped because the seas were too rough to make a transfer. Some individuals believe that transfers are not being made in order to prevent the price of the bass from being driven down and also so that the state’s quota will not be quickly filled, thereby making it possible for the offending trawlers to continue to fish for and devastate a public resource. There have even been claims that the stripers are being discarded out of spite as the commercial fishermen are upset over the fact that recreational fishermen have been reporting their unethical actions. It was further reported that they were thumbing their noses at authorities in an act of defiance to prove that they can get away with anything.
Whatever the reason, we need to put an immediate stop to this carnage. I spoke with Dr. Louis Daniel who is the Director of North Carolina Marine Fisheries Division. He stated that the trawler fishery will be closed at least until after a special marine fisheries commission meeting which is scheduled for 2/10 and 2/11. He further stated that his agency’s investigation could not confirm that thousands of bass were killed and suggested that the number may have been more like a couple hundred bass being lost in each incident. His agency also dismissed one of the photos taken from a helicopter as being birds sitting on the ocean rather than dead bass. He went on to say that some of the discarded bass were under the minimum size limit of 28”. Regardless, though, Dr. Daniel seemed sincere in his desire to properly manage our striped bass resource and intends to do whatever he can to correct the situation. He stated he will be recommending changes that will prevent the unnecessary waste of striped bass. He further explained that he does not have the authority to make regulatory changes. However, he intends to make recommendations for regulations that will benefit our striped bass resource, and while this will take time, he is optimistic that his proposals will be in effect by next year.
Over 20 years ago JCAA worked hard to make striped bass a no-sale fish in New Jersey. JCAA has always supported and worked toward making striped bass a no-sale or game fish along the entire east coast as it is in New Jersey and five other east coast states. JCAA believes that this is the best solution. In the interim, I suggest that we ask North Carolina to eliminate the netting of stripers in the ocean and restrict their commercial fishing for them to hook and line only. At the very least we should encourage them to eliminate their trawler fishery for striped bass and transfer its quota to other commercial netters who are not as destructive. Those who would like to help may mail their comments to Dr. Louis Daniel, NC Director of Marine Fisheries, 3431 Arendell St., Morehead City, N.C. 28557, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-682-2632.
The situation in Maryland is not much better. Within the first two days of the Chesapeake Bay gillnet season which began on 2/1, authorities seized 10 tons of illegally caught striped bass. Authorities also confiscated an illegal 2,100 yard long net that recently had been placed in the bay. At that time there were only a few fish in it which were released. The net had been hidden, submerged and not properly marked with floats as are the legal nets.
I also learned that in 2008, a staggering 43 % of Maryland’s 3,940 active watermen received summonses for violating the law. It certainly appears that these offenders just accept their fines as part of the cost of doing business. However, Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources has taken notice and legislation creating stricter penalties was recently passed and will become effective on 2/22. Those wishing to recommend game fish status or otherwise comment may do so by writing to Secretary John Griffin, Maryland Department of Resources, 580 Taylor Av., Tawes State Office Building, Annapolis, MD. 21401, or email him at email@example.com or call (410) 260-8367.