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We all need to do our part to end overfishing and reduce fishing mortality.
By Fred Golofaro  |  February 18, 2019
We can all do our part in helping to restore the striped bass fishery by how we target them and insuring their healthy release.

I spent the past weekend manning the booth at the New York Sportfishing Federation’s Annual Forum & Auction in Freeport. Shows like these provide a great opportunity to get a sense of how the fishing public feels and views a wide range of fishing related topics. Without question, striped bass and what may come as a result of the most recent assessment process were first and foremost on the minds of most of those I spoke to. There were a few questions on sea bass and fluke regulations for the upcoming season, but it was striped bass that people wanted to talk about. So much in fact that by the end of the day Saturday and I had lost my voice completely. On Sunday, those who asked got no answers for reasons that quickly became obvious to them, and I apologize for that.

Most of the questions concerned what the regulations might look like going forward, or what will it take to get the fishery back to a rebuilding stage? Some others debated the data based on their own fishing experiences this past season, claiming the fishery has never been stronger. At the other extreme were those who feel the only answer is a moratorium, claiming the stock is in worse shape than the mid-1980s when a moratorium was put in place. The reality I think is somewhere in the middle, but the ASMFC’s (Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission) Striped Bass Board made it clear at their recent meeting that they have enough reason for concern to move the process of rebuilding the stock forward by tasking the technical committee with coming up with measures to end overfishing and reduce fishing mortality.

Everything at this point is speculation, but some board members feel it will take extreme measures to restore the fishery to acceptable levels. From amid that speculation come a wide range of scenarios. Could we be looking at a larger size limit and how high could it go – 32, 34, 36 inches? Could the bag limit be reduced to one fish coast-wide? Could the season be reduced by two weeks or two months? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.

One glaring issue that surfaced in this 2017 assessment was the mortality attributed to striped bass released by hook and line anglers. One point raised by several people was why a slot limit for striped bass never appears on the table. They point out its effectiveness on redfish and snook to our south, and being that protecting the larger females in order to rebuild the spawning stock biomass is a top priority, one would think a slot might make sense. My concern given the disturbingly high mortality rate of released fish by recreational fisherman provided in the assessment, which claims 48 percent (a number I find tough to swallow) of striped bass mortality is attributed to fish released by recreational anglers, is the ability of those big fish to survive release under a wide range of circumstances.

Assuming even half of that mortality is attributed to recreational anglers, it is still way too high. But the reality is that many fishing situations do not provide an opportunity to conduct a healthy release. It is often necessary to revive big stripers before sending them on their way. How do you do that when the surf is running three or four feet, or from a wave battered jetty, or from the deck of a party boat far above the waterline. Throw in some warm water temperatures and that 30 or 40 pounder becomes a feast for the resident crab population.

However any new regulations play out in 2020, we will all need to become better at the release game, whether it is a 10 pounder or a 40 pounder. Why isn’t it mandatory to use circle hooks when bait fishing for striped bass? That’s a no-brainer that needs to get past the discussion stage and put into effect yesterday. Clams have been the go-to bait for many fisherman and stripers suck them down like candy. Even without a regulation on the books, you should be ashamed of yourself if you are not fishing circle hooks when feeding clams to these fish, and ditto for bunker chunks. With a one fish bag limit plus a lot of undersize stripers in the fishery, you can be pretty damn sure that you are going to be releasing a fish or two, or six.

We have beat up the topic of properly releasing fish yet I still see people keeping fish out of the water too long for that fish to survive. And those TV fishing show stars don’t set a very good example by displaying fish for several minutes while they promote the tackle they caught it on or the resort they are staying at. My wife has no option but to question my sanity when I see it happen. I wonder how that guy would feel if I held his head under water that long?

Maybe we all need a refresher course in catch and release. Just following these simple guidelines will go a long way to insuring a healthy release: Always have a pair of pliers within arm’s reach to expedite unhooking. Crush the barbs of trebles on all lures or switch them to single hooks. If you want a photo, have your phone or camera ready and keep fish in water until it is time to snap it. Hold fish horizontal with one hand gripping the lower jaw and the other supporting the body of the fish. Holding a fish vertically out of the water can result in organs being displaced. Avoid putting your hands where you can damage their gills. The best release is one that does not remove the fish from the water, and which can be done from small boats with low gunnels or in a calm surf. Let’s all do our part to return the fishery to a healthy state, along with whatever new measures are deemed necessary to accomplish that goal.

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