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Connecticut has indefinitely suspended its Bonus Striped Bass Program and a proposal has been made to change how violations are issued for striped bass poaching.
By Toby Lapinski  |  January 13, 2020
Connecticut and other coastal states will be implementing measures in 2020 to reduce striped bass harvest. (Photo courtesy of CT DEEP)

It has been a busy week for striped bass fishermen in Southern New England, and not just because the recent shot of warm weather charged-up the local holdover population. Two big news items began circulating late last week, one relating to the enforcement of striped bass poaching offenses and the other the bonus striped bass program in Connecticut.

As some background, the state of Connecticut was allocated 17,813 pounds of commercial striped bass as part of Addendum IV to the Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan in 2014. With no commercial striped bass fishery in Connecticut, the fish were transferred to the recreational sector in the form of 3,018 fish (size 22 to 28 inches) in 2019. Anglers who possessed a tag, which were available at six of the DEEP offices across the state, could then harvest one fish within the size range from either the marine or inland waters from May through December. Only one tag could be issued per license holder, and once the tag was used a card recording date of harvest and size of fish was to be returned to the DEEP.

On January 10, 2020, the Bonus Striped Bass Program was put on hold, indefinitely, as follows.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (Department) is suspending indefinitely the Bonus Striped Bass Program beginning in 2020. The 2018 ASMFC Atlantic Striped Bass Stock Assessment concluded that the stock is overfished and experiencing overfishing. As a result, Connecticut and other coastal states will be implementing measures in 2020 to reduce striped bass harvest. In light of the overfished condition of the coastal striped bass stock and the need to reduce harvest, the Department has decided to suspend the Bonus Striped Bass Program until the stock recovers. Low rates of program participation, as evidenced by low numbers of Striped Bass Bonus Program Voucher returns in recent years, also contributed to the Department’s decision to suspend the Striped Bass Bonus Program.

For further information, contact the DEEP Marine Fisheries Program by email at deep.marine.fisheries@ct.gov, by mail at P.O. Box 719, Old Lyme, CT 06371 or by telephone at 860.434.6043 between the hours of 8:30 AM and 4:30 PM, Monday through Friday.

The Striped Bass Bonus Program has drawn criticism since its original inception in 2011. Opponents argued that even though there is no commercial striped bass fishery in Connecticut, a dead fish is a dead fish regardless of who harvests it (commercial or recreational), and transferring the quota as per this program simply serves to further the divide between the two groups. Additionally, by allowing anglers to legally harvest a striped bass between 22 and 28 inches, it opened up an opportunity for unscrupulous anglers to attempt to abuse the system. Some opponents to the program would even claim a tag, fail to use it and essentially “protect” that fish which would have otherwise been harvested under the program.

Connecticut will no longer be issuing striped bass bonus tags. In 2019 3,018 tags were issued allowing anglers to harvest a single additional fish between 22 to 28 inches.

Supporters of the program argued that it provided a way for anglers who might not otherwise have an opportunity to harvest a striped bass annually the chance to do so. It also had the goal of enhancing urban and shore-based fishing where landing a “keeper” can be difficult. When the program was initiated it only included waters of the Connecticut River as an attempt to help protect the diminishing numbers of river herring found there as it was theorized that the increased numbers of striped bass being seen in the river at the time contributed to the herring decline. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall, the point is moot for the time being.

It didn’t stop there as I recently came across the January 2020 edition of Wildlife Highlights issued by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEEP). Amid news stories of the state’s bald eagle population and hunter education opportunities, an item relating to striped bass poaching immediately caught my eye. In short, a legislative proposal was recently made in Connecticut to change what Environmental Conservation (EnCon) Police Officers are allowed to issue when encountering striped bass violations in the field. (See below)

Proposal for Striped Bass Enforcement
The DEEP has proposed legislation to enhance enforcement of striped bass sport fishing regulations. Under current State law, Environmental Conservation (EnCon) Police Officers can write tickets (infractions) for any sport fishing violation, with the exception of striped bass violations, for which the only option is to issue a misdemeanor summons. If found guilty, the violator faces heavier fines than for other sport fishing violations.

Unfortunately, due to the overburdened nature of the State's courts, existing laws are not having the desired effect. Prosecutors routinely decline to prosecute (nolle prosequi) fishing-related misdemeanors. Additionally, a misdemeanor case requires substantial time and effort on the part of DEEP EnCon Officers, making it all the more frustrating when such cases are dismissed. The Environmental Conservation Police Division and DEEP Marine Fisheries Program agree that allowing officers to write tickets for striped bass sport fishing violations would actually provide more effective deterrence against poaching. The new legislative proposal would provide that ability by converting hundreds of written warnings into tickets and paid fines and, over time, would likely translate to reduced striped bass poaching. This change is urgently needed given the recent finding by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) that the Atlantic striped bass stock is overfished and in need of enhanced conservation.

I was not aware of this, but apparently with other species of fish EnCon Officers in Connecticut may issue a ticket to offenders at the moment of intercept, but with striped bass they must issue a misdemeanor summons. At first glance this seems like a positive course of action as a misdemeanor summons carries with it stiffer penalties, especially when considering the current status of the striped bass stock in that we should be doing all that we can to curb illegal harvest. However, there is a major problem in how it shakes out as the court system—not just in Connecticut—generally doesn’t look harshly upon fisheries violations. Quite often the judge presiding over the case has such items as drug charges, violent crimes and the like on the docket the same day he or she is hearing a fisheries violation. One can almost not blame them for considering the act of “keeping a fish or two over the limit” rather minor of an infraction in comparison to someone who was caught with an excessive amount of a controlled substance for example, but we as fishermen know otherwise.

Further, quite often as noted in the above press release, prosecutors routinely decline to prosecute these fishing-related misdemeanors. This means that all of the taxpayer money and EnCon officers’ time—both of which could have been better spent in the field—are essentially wasted. This undoubtedly results in far more warnings being issued to offenders, the equivalent of less than a slap on the wrist, to the vast majority of poachers. It also means that violations become harsher for infractions relating to other fish species than for that of striped bass which is in direct opposition to the original intent of breaking out striped bass. I can only imagine the frustration being felt by each every EnCon Officer out there at this conundrum.

With increased fishing activity in the winter months at places like the Housatonic River, incidences of illegal striped bass harvest like this photo from 2017 have become more prevalent. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut State Environmental Conservation Police)

To combat this problem, the proposal would put striped bass violations in line with other species of fish and a ticket could be issued for offenses. This means that the per-offense penalty would go down, but the total number of annual tickets issued would increase dramatically therefore resulting, in theory, in a more efficient reduction in poaching. All of those warnings being issued before, and there are plenty to be had thanks in no small part to the abundance of small fish wintering over in the tidal rivers of Connecticut, would now become tickets with set fines. Failure to pay said fine would result punishment as with other tickets.

So perhaps this is the best way to address the rampant poaching that seems to be going on these days. Well, that is, until an environmental-specific court system is established to handle all items relating to fishing, hunting and all related cases to be presided over by judges who are extensively familiar with the laws and related concerns, but I’m not holding my breath for that to happen anytime soon.

Again, at this time this is only proposed legislation. The governor will submit budget recommendations with legislative proposals in February, so I’ll be sure to monitor its status and report back as updates become available.