Protect striped bass population

Federal fishing officials are warning anglers and commercial fishermen it is illegal to catch striped bass in waters outside three miles.

The ban on catching stripers is in an area called the “Exclusive Economic Zone,” or EEZ, which runs from 3 to 200 miles offshore and is under federal jurisdiction. The ban, which dates back to 1990, is not in place in state waters that are inside three miles.

In recent years the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement has teamed up with the U.S. Coast Guard and state agencies to enforce the ban. NOAA Fisheries Special Agent Jeffrey Ray said in New Jersey the agency will be working with the N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife to enforce the ban.

The effort runs from November through February and could include dockside or at-sea inspections as well as aerial reconnaissance.

“There’s a lot of striped bass activity and we want to make sure the information is out there that people cannot catch striped bass in the EEZ. There will be patrols in the EEZ,” said Ray.

In the past the efforts have included putting undercover agents posing as patrons on party and charter boats to make sure they stay within three miles. There have been dozens of cases brought against captains that fished in the EEZ, including one against a charter boat operator based in Avalon several years ago.

“It creates an unlevel playing field for charter and party boat captains who abide by the law and don’t take patrons into the EEZ,” Ray said.

One goal of issuing the warning is to raise the awareness of charter and party boat patrons about the ban.

New Jersey does not have a commercial fishery for striped bass but other East Coast states do have one and the enforcement effort has uncovered illegal poaching violations in some of those states. While striped bass come inshore in the spring, during the winter many go offshore.

“In the winter months there is a huge spawning population offshore. There’s a huge population of giant striped bass in the EEZ,” said Max Appelman, who oversees the striped bass fishery management plan for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The popular game fish went through a drastic stock collapse in the 1980s due to pollution and overfishing. Strict measures, including a 1986 federal law, brought stocks back and in 1996 they were declared fully rebuilt. Since that time some have pushed for the EEZ to be reopened for fishing.

“The question I get a lot is it’s a healthy population, why can’t we fish on it,” said Appelman.

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service studied the issue for several years before deciding in 2006 that is was prudent to retain the ban. The only exception is a small section of ocean in the EEZ near Block Island, R.I. that mainly is to allow fishermen to transit through federal waters with fish landed in state waters.

It may be a good thing the ban has been retained. Appelman noted some recent data is showing the spawning stock biomass is declining and the fishing mortality rate on the species is rising. This led to cutbacks this year of up to 25 percent on striper catches in state waters.

“The stock status is that it is not overfished, and overfishing is not occurring, but there have been some alarming trends,” Appelman said.

Cutbacks, Appelman noted, often spikes the need for more enforcement action though the cuts in East Coast catches only pertained to state waters.

Allyson Rogers, a spokeswoman for NOAA, said so far this year there have been patrols in the EEZ but no enforcement cases thus far. She noted one reason for the program is for NOAA to build partnerships with state agencies.

“The purpose of joint enforcement is to strengthen partnerships and show a united front. It’s mutually beneficial for all partners,” Rogers said.

35 years with The Press of Atlantic City, the Asbury Park Press and other newspapers.

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