It’s become a common refrain this time of year and I hear it from friends, readers, captains and tackle shop owners. “Lots of sea bass, and big ones. Why can’t we keep them?” Fishing reports echo the same sentiment week after week as the finest kind of sea bass assault baits meant for porgies, fluke and weakfish. Why can’t we keep them is the million dollar question. You can understand the differing views on striped bass and to a lesser degree, fluke, but when it comes to sea bass, it seems crystal clear that these fish are being mismanaged, or more accurately, over-managed. And that’s especially true when it comes to New York.
According to National Marine Fisheries and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, sea bass stocks are nearly 2-1/2 times the rebuilding target for the fishery. Lobstermen complain they are so abundant they are threatening the lobster population by devouring tremendous numbers of baby lobsters. Fluke fishermen in some areas have complained that baby sea bass have made it impossible to keep bait on the hooks. The current quota system is flawed and makes no sense given the state of such a robust fishery. Current regulations reduce fishing opportunities for anglers, create economic hardship for many of those in the recreational fishing industry, and to make it worse, give an unfair advantage to for-hire fleets in our neighbor states of Connecticut and New Jersey.
Here in New York, the minimum size is set at 15 inches with a three fish bag limit from June 23 through August 31, and a seven fish bag from September 1 through December 31. While I’m no fan of New Jersey’s fractured sea bass season, anglers there may take 10 fish at 12-1/2 inches from May 15 to June 22, a period when New York boats cannot even target them. Their bag limit drops to two fish at 12-1/2 inches during July and August, then jumps to 10 fish at 13 inches from October 8 to 31st. In November and December, Jersey anglers can keep 15 fish at 13 inches. Across the Sound in Connecticut, they have a season that begins May 19 and runs through the rest of the year with a five fish bag limit and a 15-inch size limit. From September 1 through December 31, the limit on for-hire boats jumps to 7 fish at 15 inches. The current system of state by state quotas is leaving New York anglers, and especially the for-hire segment, at a distinct disadvantage to fishermen in neighboring states.
Restrictions placed on the fishery by Magnuson Stevens leave little or no flexibility for fishery managers at NMFS and ASMFC to modify the regulatory process. They set quotas and a formula that states or regions must work within to establish their final regulations. States then come up with options that must meet those guidelines. The real solution in the case of sea bass lies in amending Magnuson Stevens. Unfortunately, the recent passage of the Modern Fish Act did little to resolve the problem. As the frustration continues to build among New York’s anglers, boat captains and those in the tackle industry, the call for non-compliance is growing increasingly louder. Recently, Congressman Lee Zeldin voiced his support for New York to go out of compliance and set its own regulations to help level the playing field for New York’s fishermen. With saltwater fishing participation down and fishing businesses struggling to make a profit, it has become increasingly difficult to watch poor management practices compound the problem. And in the case of sea bass, it is an especially tough pill to swallow.