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Fishermen brace for cuts to striped bass fishing

East End fishermen are speaking out against proposed cuts that could reduce the harvest of striped bass by up to 18%, compared to 2017 levels.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates fishing in coastal states from Maine to North Carolina, drafted the proposed regulations in response to a 2018 assessment indicating that stripers have been overfished.

To boost their population levels, officials are considering an array of options that could include a shorter season, mandating the use of circle hooks when fishing with bait and new limits on the size of allowable harvested fish.

Montauk-based charter boat captain Steve Witthuhn is a member of the Marine Resources Advisory Council of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the body that will be responsible for enforcing any new regulations.

He said in an interview last Thursday that striped bass is the “holy grail” of the industry.

“When you touch that, you’re touching a lifeline for some people,” he said. “We want to make sure that it’s done right.”

Mr. Witthuhn said once the term “overfishing” is used, something needs to be done.

“The abundance is now in jeopardy, so they look a little heavier into that,” he said.

Data from the report shows that the stock of female striped bass in 2017 was estimated at 151 million pounds, which is below the target level of 202 million pounds for a sustainable population.

The report notes that the female “spawning stock biomass” peaked in 2003 and has been in decline ever since.

In a statement, Michael Armstrong of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who chairs the fisheries commission’s Striped Bass Management Board, said the proposed changes are a “critical first step to stem overfishing as quickly as possible and begin efforts to rebuild the biomass.”

Under current rules, recreational fishermen in New York are permitted to take one fish of at least 28 inches per day during the open season, from April to Dec. 15.

Commercial fishermen must adhere to strict limits on striped bass.

Capt. Mark Phillips of the Illusion in Greenport, for example, was issued tags for 219 stripers this year, according to his wife, Mary Bess.

“Once they finish their tags, they’re done harvesting striped bass,” she said.

The report also raises concern about catch-and-release mortality. An estimated 90% of the recreational striper catch is released alive, due to angler preference or regulations in place, according to the report. It estimates that 9% of fish released alive die as a result of being caught.

To mitigate this, the proposal could require the use of circle hooks, which are less damaging to fish, and shorten the season by eliminating April and December.

Officials have also proposed two other options: limiting keeper fish to between 28 and 35 inches or setting 35 inches as a minimum, according to the report.

Several local charter boat captains favored the “slot” size option.

“A lot of the sport fishing community is pushing for a very large sized fish,” said Capt. Richard Jensen, who charters the Nancy Ann IV out of Orient. “I personally want to keep the fish at 28 [inches].”

Mr. Jensen, who has been fishing full time since 1970, said prior rules put charter boats in a separate category, allowing two fish a day per customer.

He said officials should look at allowing charter boats to keep smaller fish to keep their customers satisfied.

In addition, Mr. Jensen noted, fish over 35 inches are “really not that great to eat.”

But the thrill of an impressive catch remains.

“Now, everyone has a camera in their pocket and can get the picture” before returning the fish, he said.

He listed several things he’d be willing to give up if the limit could stay at 28 inches, including the April and December weeks of fishing and giving up fish for the crew.

“My customers want to go home and eat their fish,” he said.

Mr. Jensen said historically, when populations are in trouble, regulatory agencies have set greater size limits in order to reduce the total amount of harvested fish.

“But then you’re targeting the big breeding fish,” he said. “In my eyes, that’s not good conservation.”

Others, including Ken Holmes of the Orient-based Brooklyn Girl, fear the restrictions could exacerbate concerns about mortality.

“We don’t want to keep fishing [striped bass] and throwing them back to catch a bigger one,” Mr. Holmes explained. “The more you throw back, the more likely it is that some of them don’t survive.”

He opposes the increased size limit: “They’re going to hurt us bad, and they’re going to hurt the fish.”

Instead, Mr. Holmes proposed that training on how to release fish properly should be required for recreational anglers.

“They ought to address that with the public,” he said, noting that it could positively impact the mortality rate.

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) is an outspoken critic of the proposed cuts.

He said the proposed cuts would be a “major blow” to New York fishermen and claims the commission’s assessment is flawed, since it draws data from the entire eastern seaboard.

In an op-ed written last month, Rep. Zeldin called for the NYSDEC to go into noncompliance, allowing the State of New York to set its own quota that safeguards conservation efforts while supporting its fishing industry.

He said the restrictions often unfairly impact New Yorkers.

“Year after year, New York fishermen are dealt unfair quotas that pale in comparison to neighboring states, and this season has been no different,” he said in a statement, pointing out that much of Long Island fishing takes place in waters shared with neighboring states. “When two boats are fishing next to each other, one is allowed to catch up to double the amount of the other because they are landing the fish in New Jersey instead of New York. This is absolutely ridiculous, and our local fishermen are the ones who suffer the consequences.”

The report acknowledges the impact new limits could have on fishermen and states that the reduction in striped bass fishing is “likely to translate into a short-term negative impact on the regional economy and jobs associated with the fishing industry for this species. However, the positive long-term economic impacts stemming from stock recovery and subsequent catch increases in successive years will likely outweigh the short-term impacts.”

Mr. Witthuhn said the outcome of these regulations will determine future action.

“If we’re back at this place in two or three years, the word ‘moratorium’ will be put in place,” he said.

A public hearing on the proposed measures was held in Farmingdale Sept. 4 but public comment is still being accepted online until Oct. 7. Comments should be emailed to [email protected] with the subject line “Draft Addendum VI.”

The fisheries commission board plans to meet in late October to review public comment and consider final action on the addendum. The changes, if approved, would take effect with the 2020 season.

In his statement, Mr. Armstrong noted that the board will likely reconvene to consider a “longer term strategy to fully rebuild” the striped bass population.

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