Each summer, Maine’s recreational saltwater anglers eagerly look forward to the northern migration of a variety of fish species. For a number of years, one of the most reliable species was the striped bass.
In parks along the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers, and in private or for-hire boats, the anglers flocked to the state’s tidal water in search of stripers.
And for years, those hard-fighting fish weren’t too tough to find.
During the past two years, that trend has changed.
The 2008 season was “abysmal,” according to Patrick Keliher, the director of the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries & Habitat.
The 2009 season, he said, has been better … at times.
“Mixed. Very mixed,” Keliher said. “What I am hearing across the board is that the season started off fairly well for most people. Reports from the southern part of the state all the way up through the midcoast were encouraging. And then came the rain.”
Keliher said the regular rainstorms of June and July didn’t affect the stripers per se. It did affect their dining habits, however.
“We had a huge pulse of fresh water and it seemed to change the habits of all the bait that was in-shore,” Keliher said. “I started to get the calls that the fish seemed to be disappearing. In some areas, it went from catching a dozen or more fish in an outing to zero, for two, three, four days in a row.”
Keliher said that since the steady rain stopped, he has begun hearing more encouraging reports, and he hopes the trend continues.
One of the state’s most respected saltwater guides agreed with Keliher’s assessment of the 2008 season. And he admits that 2009 has turned into a struggle as well.
“Last year was a disaster. It didn’t turn out very well at all,” said Capt. Dave Pecci, 51, a guide who runs Obsession Sportfishing Charters out of Bath.
Pecci spends a lot of time on the Kennebec River, and takes frequent trips onto the Atlantic to fish for tuna, sharks and bluefish. But anglers for striped bass make up enough of his business that he’s a member of the striper advisory panel of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Pecci said the struggling economy has hurt his business, and a second tough year of striper fishing hasn’t helped matters a bit.
“I’m looking at a 25, 30 percent reduction of business this year [because of the economy] and on top of all that, the fishing hasn’t been that good,” said Pecci, who has been fishing on the Kennebec since he was 12 years old and guiding for the past 20 years.
Pecci obviously doesn’t want to give up on a striper season that’s still under way, and upon which he relies for part of his yearly income. He doesn’t want to be a voice of doom and gloom.
“We’re hearing anecdotal information that there are stripers offshore,” Pecci said. “The thing that’s the most frustrating to me is that we have a tremendous amount of bait along the Maine coast right now. But [the stripers] aren’t getting here. They’re just not traveling here. We’re seeing some stripers here, but not the numbers that we have in the past.”
That concerns state officials, guides and anglers alike.
Matt Boutet, 31, an avid angler from Saco, said he fished 105 days for stripers in 2008. This year, his total’s a lot lower. He’s still catching some fish, but not nearly at the rate he was four or five years ago. And he’s working a lot harder to find the stripers in the first place.
“When I complain about bad fishing, it means that maybe I went out and caught five or six fish. Even as recent as 2006, I could go out on my lunch break and do that,” said Boutet, who admitted that during 2008, he had more than 30 days during which he caught no fish at all.
“I fished with a guide on Wednesday, fished from 5 a.m. until about 11:30 [a.m.] and got about 10 fish. The thing was, we probably burned about a half tank of gas driving around Casco Bay before we found that pod of fish. And that was probably the first time in two weeks that I’d seen any fish.”
Now, the million-dollar question: What’s going on with the stripers that many Mainers had grown accustomed to successfully targeting?
Perhaps, Boutet surmises, too many anglers have been successfully targeting them, and too many fish are being taken.
“I just think we’re killing too many fish, coast-wide,” Boutet said, referring to the take of stripers all along the eastern seaboard. “If you look at the numbers coming out of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the spawning stock has been in a decline for a period of time now, and at the current level of decline we’re going to be at the overfishing threshold in a year or two.”
Boutet pointed to statistics that indicate that recreational anglers are predominantly responsible for killing stripers — either intentionally or through injuring fish they catch and release. Commercial kill has remained steady, Boutet said, while increased recreational pressure accounts for 80 percent of the stripers killed each year.
Boutet is concerned that fisheries statistics lag behind the decision-making process, so managers are always reacting to situations that existed in the past, and relying on data that was gathered a couple years earlier.
Keliher said biologists still believe that there are plenty of striped bass swimming along the eastern seaboard.
“The population of striped bass is in question, but the best available science shows that the population is still pretty robust,” Keliher said. “However, the fishery in Maine has been declining over the past five or six years.”
Keliher said the variability of spawning success from year to year was a major concern and was contributing to a troubling trend.
“What you want to see is a good representation [in the population] of year classes from all years,” said Keliher, who pointed out that larger fish, having faced more environmental and angling challenges in their longer lifetimes, are apt to be less prevalent than other, younger fish.
But that hasn’t really been the case, he said.
“There are a lot of slot fish [between 20 and 26 inches long, one of which can be kept per day in Maine] and fish above the slot, but very few small fish are being caught,” Keliher said.
Pecci and Boutet used the same term to describe a possible scenario that may be affecting striped bass in Maine waters: “Canary in a coal mine.”
Pecci said fisheries managers believe the decline in stripers caught in Maine is a migration issue, not a stock issue, in that the population level of stripers has not noticeably declined.
“The thing that concerns a lot of guys up here is, is Maine the canary in the coal mine?” Pecci said. “We’re at the northern end of the migratory path. Does that mean that stocks are contracting and we’re seeing the beginning of that? Nobody has an answer, including myself.”
Boutet is one of those concerned.
“It would make sense that we’d be the proverbial canary in the coal mine. As the population decreases in size it would make sense that the range would contract,” Boutet said.
Boutet said that possibility creates another potential problem: Since fishing is still good in southern states, he says it’s hard to get officials to make reforms.
And all along the coast, the regulations on striped bass are different. In Maine, you can keep just one fish a day and it must either measure from 20 to 26 inches in length or longer than 40 inches. Many other states have more liberal bag limits, and stripers are likely to be targeted for longer periods during the year.
Keliher said getting rules reforms adopted at the regional level has proven to be a challenge.
“While we’ve got a seat at the table [when striped bass decisions are made], we have not been able to necessarily impact positive changes in management to allow the age classes of fish to fill in, so we’d see more fish and bigger fish,” Keliher said.