by TOM FOTE & edited by GARY CAPUTI

For months I've been contemplating writing a story for the JCAA newspaper about my feelings on striped bass management and fisheries management in general and Gary said he would help. But each month, it seems there is so much to cover, I've been putting it off. What happened at the most recent ASMFC Striped Bass Board Meeting and the following day convinced me it was time to write it.

After the Striped Bass Board voted to rescind their vote to maintain quotas at 1996 levels, the next morning I went to the Cape Cod Canal and tried to fish for stripers. I was fishing near the power plant in a parking area and while looking around the lot, all I saw were senior citizens and other low-income individuals with rod and reel in hand trying to catch food for the table. Two older gentlemen in particular were using cane poles and instead of fishing for stripers, they were fishing for sardines. When I asked them why, they told me they wanted fish to take home to eat and in a month of trying, they had yet to catch a single "keeper" `striped bass in the canal, even though they had caught many sublegal fish.

I didn't tell them I was with the ASMFC, as a matter of fact, I didn't say anything. I just listened to what they had to say. I was trying to get a break from the management process, which was why I was at the canal's edge that morning, and all I heard were people, constituents of the ASMFC management process, complaining about why they were not allowed to take the striped bass they were catching home to eat. These people didn't want fish to sell, they didn't want to stock their freezers, all they wanted was to catch a couple of fish to eat that night. The only fish available to these people were those fish accessible from the shore around the canal. All the fish I saw caught while I was there that day and the other times I was there, a total of three morning and three nights, were sublegal fish, fish that could have fed these citizens that were being denied by the management process.

If they had the money, they could have chartered a boat and probably been allowed to take home a single keeper. But these were people using tackle that looked wore by time, as did the cars they were driving and the clothes they were wearing. The same sort of people I fished with as a boy at Canarsie Pier, Steeplechase Pier or climbing the girders under the Marine Parkway Bridge to catch a bucket of scup to take home to feed their families. These are the forgotten people in the management process. They don't attend public hearings, they don't` have the time nor the inclination. They don't have high-priced lobbyists to make demands on the process in their behalf and they are not represented in management plans. But these are the people who have the greatest right to fair access to these resources, people who privately harvest for their own dietary needs, and what little enjoyment catching fish offers for them in what little spare time they have. This is the most traditional user group, dating back to the days when we were still living in caves.

In modern times, people who fished to provide for their families began selling their excess catch, and this was the birth of commercial fishing. Whether it was clams, crabs or finfish, the public always had the right to direct harvest of these resources for their private use. What has happened in this country with fisheries management, is government agencies, be them state, federal or cooperative ventures between the two, manages resources not for the widest public access and use, but for a few businesses or individuals to make money harvesting at the public's expense. As a child, my wife would go crabbing in Barnegat Bay, I caught them in Great South Bay, and it was common to go home with a couple of bushels of crabs to eat. Now, we're lucky on days when we catch a couple dozen crabs because the public resource has been allocated to commercial crabbers at the expense of the larger, traditional user group.

When I moved to Toms River in 1977, we were still able to go out and harvest a bushel of crabs, prior to the profusion of commercial pots that are found in every backwater where water quality permits. Today, there are so many commercial pots in the bay, it is actually a hazard to navigation, yet the state calls it a fair and equitable allocation of a public resource. Fair to whom????

What we need is a breath of fresh air in fisheries management in this nation. A completely new look at the basis upon which management decisions are made and resources allocated. The country of New Zealand has the right attitude. What their government uses as a criteria for commercial allocation is to only permit them to take that portion of the allowable annual harvest that is surplus above and beyond the needs of the general public that wants to harvest fish for personal consumption. If we managed striped bass in this manner, here's how it would work. Let's use the state of Maryland as an example.

There are over 400,000 licensed anglers that fish Chesapeake Bay. What the state marine division would do is survey these citizens and determine what they need to fill their needs, be it 25, 50 or more fish per year, and set aside that portion of any allowable harvest for these "primary" users. Then, and only then, the surplus could be allocated for commercial harvest. That's how New Zealand's farsighted and patently fair process would work in Maryland. But what the bureaucrats in Maryland actually do is provide their commercial fishermen with the major portion of the harvest, while restricting their common citizens to ridiculous bag limits, short seasons and size limits that prohibit those that need to harvest fish the most for personal consumption. The personal consumption public that wants to fish have left out standing in the cold.

Another example of a screwed up attitude toward the "primary" user group, the general public, was recently exhibited by the state of Delaware. This state came to the ASMFC with a proposal to dramatically increase their harvest quota, touting a study similar to one conducted by Maryland as justification. They figures presented supposedly showed they could greatly increase their catch because of low mortality due to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware's recreational sectors maintaining higher size limits and reduced bag limits. This major increase in harvest quota was to be allocated in 18 inch fish for their tiny contingent of commercial net fishermen. Not one of the fish gained in this increase would be slated for the state's large number of recreational fishermen, many of low income who want to catch "safe" fish to eat. At the same time, they are forcing recreational fishermen, the primary users, to harvest fish larger than 28 inches, which their own studies have shown to be "unfit"` for consumption due to PCB contamination. They'll give all the 18 inch fish to the commercials so they have "safe" fish to sell, but they tell their citizens that they can only eat striped bass of a size their own study says is unsafe. These priorities can not be allowed to continue. It is unfair to the general public and potentially injurious to public health. If Delaware had been using the New Zealand plan, they would have surveyed their primary users, citizens and subsistence fishermen, to determine their needs and the overage would be allocated for commercial harvest. Unfortunately, they chose to do just the opposite.

We need look no further than the reauthorized version of the Magnuson Act, now called the Sustainable Fisheries Act, and the definition of recreational fishing in the bill. There is no mention of recreational fishermen harvesting fish for consumption, only that they fish for sport or recreation. It complete ignores the primary user group, the private citizens who fish not just for sport, and many not for sport or recreation at all, but to put a wholesome meal on their families' tables.

The New Zealand management plan is what citizens in this country should demand, before my worst nightmare is realized. Paul Smith, a past president of JCAA, recently handed me a copy of a sportfishing magazine from England and the only gamefish that was left to write about was the lowly skate. The stocks of other fish in their waters were decimated and recreationally extinct. That means they were unavailable in numbers large enough to support recreational harvest and their subsistence and low-income fishermen were unable to fish for the table. Is this where today's fisheries management process is leading us all? It's way past time for rethinking the system and it's priorities.


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