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Chasing wild striped bass into extinction

In the predawn hours of mid-July, Chatham plays host to a chaotic scene that has become commonplace in this otherwise laconic Cape Cod village. Hundreds of fishermen flock to the shore to jockey for position and launch their boats. Frustrations run high, and arguments often erupt. There is a lot of shouting and a little shoving over violations of unwritten rules and affronts real and imagined.

It is the start of Massachusetts’ commercial striped bass season, and each fisherman who has traveled here — whether from across town or from Canada — is anxious to get a line in the water. Chatham is at the epicenter of the mayhem because schools of stripers congregate off its coast, the town’s launches are closest to them, and 60 percent of the one million pounds of Massachusetts striped bass that go to market are caught there each year. The fishery generates approximately $23 million in total economic activity.

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But there is a problem.

Striped bass are the most prized sport fish on the Atlantic seaboard, and from May through November hundreds of thousands of anglers come to fish for them from Massachusetts’ beaches and rivers and jetties putting over $1 billion into local economies from Newburyport to New Bedford, Provincetown to Edgartown. Or at least they used to.

Opinions differ as to why, but by every measure the population of striped bass is in sharp decline. In just five years between 2006 and 2011 the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reports that the recreational catch of striped bass in Massachusetts plummeted by 85 percent! As a result, fishermen and their money are staying away yet all appeals to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for conservation have run straight into a political wall.

Last year, in the face of a dire outlook for the future of striped bass, a coastwide reduction in catch limits was proposed by Massachusetts’ own director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, yet the two political appointees with whom he serves — both of whom have ties to the commercial fishing industry — opposed their own director, forcing to him to vote against his own measure.

Similarly, a petition signed by more than 1,000 citizens proposing a 50 percent reduction in the recreational and commercial striped bass harvest was presented to the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Council. The nine-member council — eight of whom have direct ties to the commercial fishing industry — denied the petition.

Cooper A. Gilkes of Coop’s Bait and Tackle in Edgartown was among those who signed the petition even though the reduction would work against him in the short term, but he sees the bigger picture. “I want the fish back. I want to go out and catch stripers every night like we used to. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the striped bass are going down quickly,” Gilkes said.

In her seminal environmental portend, Rachel Carson warned of mankind’s indifference to the effect of his actions. Fifty years later we should ask ourselves how we can continue to be this shortsighted when we know our collective actions are working against our shared interests.

The public may believe that it doesn’t have a stake in the outcome of the fight to save wild striped bass, but if the fishery disappears as it did in the 1980s, Massachusetts will lose thousands of jobs and a $1 billion economy. Yet true to the short-sighted nature Rachel Carson described, the self-interest of those responsible for managing our marine resources has blinded them to what is happening and what is at risk.

Should anyone question the generic state of our marine fisheries, just read the daily headlines of declining stocks, disaster relief funds and over-harvesting and then ask how wild stripers can be saved against the unsustainable pressure of a management system heavily tilted to commercial fishermen that thinks only about tomorrow, not the day after.

Dean Clark and Fred Jennings are co-chairs of the Massachusetts chapter of Stripers Forever.

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