(Jan. 4, 2012) A string of arrests in the resort area last month have highlighted the ongoing battle between fishermen and government authorities over the striped bass, with both anglers and state regulators predicting that the contention will continue as the spring spawning season approaches.
The issue treads a very fine line – in fact, a physically invisible one – between state and federal maritime jurisdictions. Under U.S. law, states have sovereign right over ocean waters out to three miles off their coastlines. From the three mile mark to the 200 mile mark, seas are federally controlled as the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Beyond 200 miles are international waters.
Fisherman are able to identify these territories only by nautical charts. But the delineation is very important for the fishing of striped bass, also known as rockfish. While the species can be caught in Maryland waters, it is still protected federally.
And while federal enforcement on the open seas is light, the Maryland Natural Resources Police are able to arrest anyone caught catching striped bass in the EEZ on the grounds that they are conspiring to transport poached game into the state.
On Dec. 1, Stephen Howard Pfeiffer of Ocean City was cited for possessing and transporting striped bass from the EEZ into Maryland waters. On Dec. 4, again, Kirby Edward Short of Bishopville was cited for catching and possession striped bass in the EEZ. Further, On Dec. 8, Edward McCabe Tingle of Selbyville, Del., Asher Lee Rogers of Selbyville, Robert Fisher Jr., no address given, and Travis James Timmons, no address given, were cited for catching, possessing and transporting striped bass from EEZ into Maryland waters.
In total, 15 striped bass were seized by the MNRP and donated to a local shelter for needy families.
In 1985, concerns over low breeding stocks caused federal and state governments to close all waters to striped bass fishing. But beginning in 1990, most states began to gradually re-open the species to harvesting by both recreational and commercial fishermen under the close watch of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the umbrella group which involves the natural resources divisions of most east coast states.
The ASMFC also recommended that federal waters be slowly re-opened, but the idea was nixed.
“It was in 1996 that they [the federal government] said they would not open the EEZ, mostly just because it would be imprudent at the time to do so,” said ASMFC Fisheries Management Coordinator Kate Taylor.
“It was mostly because there was a lot of public perception that the larger females are in the EEZ waters, and that if you opened it up it would lead to increased mortality,” Taylor said.
The ability of government organs to respond fast enough to the potentially rapid depletion of stocks due to the killing of breeding females was doubted then, and still is, Taylor said.
Rockfish migrate north-south with the seasons, typically swimming through open ocean but stopping in bays and river estuaries along the way, particularly in the spring when they breed. Young fish usually stay in estuary areas until they reach adulthood, when they begin migrating through sea waters to breed.
“They’re swimming north and south up and down the east coast, stopping in the bays in the spring and sometimes in the fall,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist Harry Hornick. “As they get older, they’ll leave the bay and become migratory.”
This is why the minimum size requirement for recreation striped bass fishing is different depending on if you’re fishing from the ocean – where fish must be at least 28 inches long – or from the bay, where the minimum is reduced to 18 inches due to the younger fish.
“The reason there’s a different size limit in the bay is the pre-migratory component of the stock there,” Hornick said. “Those are our fish that are less than a year old.”
But some fishermen chafe at the additional protection given to the migratory ocean stock.
“We’re really getting rooked, big time, on the striped bass,” said Monty Hawkins, a West Ocean City charter boat captain.
“The way the fish migrate, if you’re not in a port that’s part of a major estuary, you have no access to striped bass,” Hawkins said. “When the fish migrate, they generally go a little further out [than three miles].”
Thus, Hawkins said, the majority of the coastal stock stays in the EEZ and does not venture close enough to shore for fishermen to catch them – at least not on a scale that can support charter boats and large-scale recreation. When they do come close enough to shore, it is only during the migratory season, where the bays and estuaries of New York and New England are flush with fish.
“It’s not something I can take ten guys out to do,” Hawkins said. “Basically, striped bass have been closed to my industry since 1985.”
Taylor said that the recreational sector accounts for most of the catch quota of striped bass. In 2011, the east coast saw 26 million pounds of rockfish harvested recreationally, and 7 million commercially. She did give some credence to the feeling that the fish had, lately, been staying further out in open water.
“Within the past couple of years we have seen the fish, because of water temperature or ocean currents or whatever, tend to stay outside of the three mile zone,” Taylor said.
But Hornick warned against the impression which he said some fisherman had, that striped bass are ‘using’ the EEZ as a refuge.
“I think that’s stretching the fish’s mental capacity a bit,” he said.
Still, Hawkins was resentful of the continued federal ban that gave the advantage to inland anglers.
“Every fisherman on the east coast contributed to the rebuilding of that population, but we haven’t equally enjoyed its success,” Hawkins said.