George Bucci has been fishing the waters off New Jersey’s coast for about 30 years, and says the striped bass population has taken a sharp dive in recent years.
He remembers boom times after a moratorium on the fish ended in the late 1990s.
“I would go in the ocean in ’98 and just see miles and miles of striped bass,” Bucci said.
But overfishing has brought it back to critical levels.
“I almost strictly target striped bass,” said Bucci, 52, of Northfield. “In the last five years, I’ve seen the decline in the population. I wouldn’t call it a steady decline, I would call it a sharp decline. ... The biomass has shrunk to the point where the juice isn’t worth the squeeze almost.”
The dwindling population led the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board in October to amend the rules for commercial and recreational fishers alike.
The commission, in amending the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic striped bass, is aiming for an 18% reduction in commercial removal of the popular fish from 2017 levels, according to a release from the organization.
Recreational fishers will be limited to one fish and a “slot limit” between 28 and 35 inches.
“States that wish to implement alternative measures will need to submit conservation equivalency proposals for Technical Committee review and Board Approval,” said Tina Berger, commission’s director of communications. “Alternative measures must achieve the same conservation benefits (18% reduction in removals) as the ocean or bay measures approved in the addendum.”
To cut down on deaths from catch-and-release fishing, the commission will also require anglers to use circle hooks when fishing with bait in striped bass fisheries. Implementation plans are due to the commission by Nov. 30.
Bucci fishes all along the East Coast and said the conservation equivalency allows some wiggle room, a “loophole,” for the states under the commission’s jurisdiction. He usually does catch-and-release anymore himself, only keeping two bass this year and throwing hundreds back.
“The problem is they can play with those numbers,” he said. “If New Jersey party boats and charter boats would rather kill big fish, then they can go with a conservation equivalency and make it one (keeper) over 35 inches, which I have a feeling you’re probably gonna see.”
The organization first proposed the new rules in May. Current regulations in New Jersey allow recreational fishers to keep one striper between 28 and 43 inches and another greater than 43 inches. In 2017, the Garden State landed the second-largest proportion of the recreational harvest in number of fish (21%), behind Maryland.
The amendment comes in peak season for the fish, said Bucci and David Showell, 65, of Absecon, the owner of Absecon Bay Sportsman Center and Absecon Bay Fishing Safaris.
Showell still finds success in Absecon Bay. Talking on the phone from a boat with three customers Monday morning, Showell said the group had already caught a dozen striped bass and planned to take one home for each person. He doesn’t think the new regulations would affect his business in an extreme way.
“I don’t fish for the bigger fish. The fish back in the back bay ... a 35-inch fish is a big, big fish,” Showell said. “Most of the fish that are keepers are from like 28 to 34 (inches.)”
Being a “little cautious” would mean a tough few years but wouldn’t break most fishers, he said. Fishers that go into the ocean with heavy lures to catch big bass along the bottom of the ocean could be affected by the slot limit, Showell said.
“A lot of times they won’t catch a fish under 35 inches,” Showell said. “So if this goes through as it is, there’s gonna be a lot of people that are just about shut out of the fishery.”
Bucci has concerns about the slot limit for recreational fishers too.
“What we have is there’s a lot of small fish in the pipeline right now, and what we need to do is we need to protect those small fish,” Bucci said. “They don’t spawn until they’re 28 inches. So if we move the regulations to where you can only kill these 28-inch fish, then really all we’re doing is killing these up-and-coming breeders.”
For now, Showell is just basking in the success of another fruitful fishing trip. There’s still fish to be had in his primary spots.
“Everybody’s got a fish to take home for dinner,” Showell said. “It’s a beautiful day, and we’ve caught a bunch of fish and everybody’s happy as can be.”