By SARAH SCHUMANN/ecoRI News contributor
PROVIDENCE — Long a favorite of saltwater anglers and a top earner for commercial fishermen, the iconic striped bass took on new symbolism in the 1990s when strict management measures brought it back from the brink of annihilation.
Now, two alarming tendencies may be poised to undo the dramatic recovery of the species.
Speaking at a meeting Wednesday of the Senate Special Task Force on Fisheries, Mark Gibson, director of marine fisheries for the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), warned that recent stock assessments are raising some concerns among managers and recreational fishermen about the status of the fish he called the "gold standard of fisheries recovery.”
The apparent decline of this beloved species, Gibson said, can be traced to two factors: disease and poaching.
A disease called mycobacteriosis, Gibson explained, is affecting large numbers of stripers in the Chesapeake Bay region. The infection, which can cause skin lesions, internal organ damage and fatality among stripers, appears to be exacerbated by warming waters, he said.
Due to migration patterns, the prevalence of the disease in the Chesapeake Bay may be causing a decline in the numbers of fish available off the coast of Rhode Island. “There’s clear evidence that there’s an additional source of mortality out there,” Gibson said.
He also said illegal fishing of striped bass continues to undermine his agency’s conservation measures. Last summer he saw several high-profile cases of fishing in off-limits areas or exceeding the legal catch limit.
“These fish belong to the citizens of our state,” said Steve Medeiros, president of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association. “And thieves routinely violate the management measures that are designed to maintain a healthy catch.”
In response, recreational and commercial fishermen and representatives of DEM law enforcement pressed the Senate Task Force to increase the penalties for illegal possession of striped bass. Speakers held that those penalties, which stand at $50 per fish, are not nearly harsh enough to dissuade poachers from illegally catching striped bass, which sell for about $100 per fish.
Proponents of increasing the penalty for illegal possession of striped bass advocate a structure of increasing severity, with the first and second violations incurring relatively lenient fines of $100 and $200, respectively, and the third resulting in the more serious charge of a misdemeanor, as well as seizure of the vessel used for fishing.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the interstate body responsible for coordinating transboundary management of near-shore fish such as striped bass, is readying additional conservation measures. According to Gibson, these measures, which include reductions in the number and size of fish that can be caught, constitute a “what-if addendum” that will be implemented only if the next stock assessment confirms that a steep decline is indeed occurring.
Whether stripers will return this year in robust numbers reminiscent of their famed 1990s comeback, or in dwindling numbers consistent with the past few years, is a question front and center in fishermen and managers’ minds. An answer to that question will be available shortly, as this year’s striped bass are expected to arrive in Rhode Island waters within the next few weeks.