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A recent proposal, if approved, would open the transit zone around Block Island to the legal possession and targeting of Atlantic striped bass.
By Toby Lapinski  |  October 5, 2018
When the 3-mile line was drawn in 1984, legal fishing "islands" were created which were surrounded by waters which became illegal for the targeting and possession of striped bass.

On October 31, 1984, Federal waters were designated as off-limits for the possession and targeting of Atlantic striped bass by way of the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act -- P.L. 98-613. This effectively enacted a protection zone outside of 3 miles from shore in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for striped bass to do their fishy thing, hopefully providing a safe haven for them to grow and continue to re-build the stock. Unfortunately, when this law was enacted, it was done so with a hard-and-fast line at 3 miles from shore, with little to no thought put into how that line actually plays out in the real world.

A simple look at a chart which includes Southern New England and Long Island, say from Chatham to Montauk, returns isolated pockets of legal striped bass fishing waters at times surrounded by illegal waters. These spots include in such famous fishing places as Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island, to name a few. That last one, Block Island, has been the epicenter of some amazing fishing in recent years, and by many accounts, even greater amount of illegal fishing activities.

You see, when those rather arbitrary 3-mile lines were drawn, Block Island became an island of legal water surrounded by an ocean of illegal angling waters. Anglers are allowed to possess striped bass in the Block Island Transit Zone (BITZ), which is basically the Federal waters inside a line drawn from the Southeast corner of Block to Montauk Point on one side, and Point Judith on the other, but only while under power. This Band-Aid, if you will, legalized the transportation of one’s catch made legally inside the 3-mile line at Block, back to their home port of Long Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts or mainland Rhode Island. But it specifically allows ONLY for the transport of said legally-caught fish. If an angler is found to be actively targeting striped bass in these waters, or if they stop their boat while in possession of striped bass for any non-emergency reason, then they are in violation of Federal law. A lot, and I mean A LOT of unscrupulous anglers have figured out ingenious ways to buck the system (of which I will not be stating here out of fear of educating the uninformed), and even more simply ignore it altogether, feeling they are above the law or the cost of getting caught is far outweighed by the profit of fishing. They do this for any number of reasons from greed to glory, but to me it shows their true character.

The Block Island Transit Zone includes Federal waters inside a line drawn from the Southeast corner of Block to Montauk Point on one side, and Point Judith on the other. (Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries)

So, this brings us to today’s news as there is, yet again, an attempt to open up legal angling for Atlantic striped bass in the BITZ. Similar actions have come and gone many times over the past 30 years; each time they receive full support by some and strict opposition by more.

This time around the proposal stands before NOAA Fisheries as follows:

NOAA Fisheries is considering removal of the current prohibition on recreational Atlantic striped bass fishing in the Block Island Transit Zone. The Transit Zone is defined as the area of federal waters within Block Island Sound, located between areas south of Montauk Point, New York, and Point Judith, Rhode Island. It is unique because it is a small area of federal waters substantially bounded by state waters.
Existing federal regulations prohibit recreational and commercial fishing for Atlantic striped bass in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ); however, fishermen may possess and transport Atlantic striped bass caught in adjoining state fisheries while crossing the Block Island Transit Zone.
We are requesting public comment on the removal of the prohibition on recreational fishing for striped bass and on other options to improve management of Atlantic striped bass in the Transit Zone. The public comment period is now open.
Submit Comments

Electronic Submission: Submit all electronic public comments HERE.

U.S. Mail: Submit written comments to Kelly Denit, Division Chief, Office of Sustainable Fisheries, 1315 East-West Highway, SSMC3, Silver Spring, MD 20910.

Fax: 301-713-1193; Attn: Kelly Denit.

Next Steps
NOAA Fisheries will review all public comments and consult with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to consider whether regulatory revisions are appropriate. All proposed regulatory revisions would be published in a proposed rule in the Federal Register for public comment. After a review of the public comments on the proposed rule and if appropriate, NOAA Fisheries will publish a final rule in the Federal Register to implement the regulatory revisions.

So where do I stand on this subject? This is where things get tricky as I have no hard and fast take on it one way or the other.

Keeping the BITZ closed is the simple answer. First up, why would anyone consider opening up more real estate to fishing for striped bass when it’s pretty darn obvious that the stock is not as healthy as it could be? While I am not suggesting it here today, the logical step in a scenario such as that is to actually limit where and when one can harvest striped bass, not expand upon it. Even if the BITZ was eliminated, there would still be a line across which one could not legally target striped bass in another place, so it really just adjusts where one is legal or not, so why even bother? If anglers are complaining about where the current line is drawn, then it is likely that somewhere down the line a group of anglers will come forward with issues about the new line and we’ll be back at square one. Just because anglers (for-hire, private and commercial combined) are already doing something illegally is not a reason to legalize it. Would it ever seem conceivable that a speed limit on a given stretch of road would be revoked simply because everyone driving there was speeding anyway? No, I do not believe it would; instead public outcry would most likely result in more enforcement of the existing speed limit. Now I know that speeding in your car and fishing for striped bass are not one and the same, but to me conceptually this argument is very similar.

Opening up the BITZ is not so simple, and ere’s where I may receive some flak, but I’m going there nonetheless because I seldom see, hear or read anyone willing to openly discuss this subject and present both sides of the argument for consideration. The Federal line, which prohibits the targeting of striped bass in the EEZ, simply does not make sense as it is currently drawn when applied to the real world. For all the reasons noted in the second paragraph above, by strictly adhering to the line being 3 miles from the nearest point of land produces islands of legal fishing waters surround by those which are illegal. By definition this forces otherwise law-abiding anglers into situations where they must break the law unless transit zones such as the BITZ are created. From this you also get the possibility of confusion on the part of the angler and requirements for additional funding requirements in already heavily-taxed and resource-poor public agencies. As noted back in the spring, budget cuts are a legitimate threat to enforcement. Keeping these “illegal islands” of water simply puts more strain on the environmental police and stretches them even thinner.

Well, there you have it; once again the subject of fishing in, and the policing of Federal waters therein, is in the headlines of fishing news here in the Northeast. Regardless of which side of the fence on this subject you fall, now is the time to make your voice heard. I can say with absolute certainty that those who have a monetary stake in this game will get involved, let’s make sure that an even voice is heard and that all sides of the argument are considered. Submit your public comment today electronically, via snail mail or fax (who still uses a fax machine???), just be sure to go on record and let NOAA Fisheries know how you feel about the subject. When this shakes out in a few months, for better or for worse, the last thing I want to hear is masses of people complaining that things didn’t go the way they wanted, and then come to find out they simply sat on their collective hands when there was an opportunity to be heard.