BOSTON — Commercial fishermen pleaded with lawmakers this week not to interfere with striped bass catch limits, saying it is not the Legislature's place to manage fisheries.
But others who run recreational fishing charter boats argued if state lawmakers do nothing, striped bass stocks will continue to dwindle and tourists who come to Massachusetts to fish in coastal communities will disappear, hurting local economies.
The two sides spent nearly five hours trying to convince lawmakers of their opposing viewpoints during a packed hearing of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. The committee is chaired by Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, and Rep. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer.
The commercial and recreational fishermen, charter boat captains, scientists and seafood restaurateurs testified about the potential impacts of four bills aimed at restricting striped bass catches and declaring it a "game fish," essentially prohibiting commercial fishing. Five other states have passed similar legislation declaring striped bass a game fish, including Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut.
Recreational fishermen fell on both sides of the issue with some pushing for limits, while others argued restrictions unnecessarily pit one group of fishermen against another.
Capt. James Goodheart, who runs a charter boat for recreational fishers out of Newburyport, said his business depends on an abundance of striped bass being in the water. Goodheart said people who fish with him catch and release the bass, but they enjoy the sport of catching them. Without more fish, they will not come, he said, testifying in favor of catch limits.
Fishing tourists travel from all over the country, staying in local hotels, buying bait at area tackle shops and dining in Newburyport restaurants, Goodheart said.
"There is an economy that wouldn't be there without these fish," he said.
"There is a myth out there that the recreational fishing community is behind this bill," said Patrick Paquette, from the Massachusetts Striped Bass Association. "To pit a commercial fisherman against a recreational fisherman ... I would hope legislators would sit back and say this has to be the wrong thing to do. Please don't take one group of extremists as being the voice of the recreational community, because they are not."
Capt. Michael Pierdinock, who runs charter boats on the South Shore, said he opposes the bills because since 1995 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has done a good job managing and restoring the striped bass stock.
"It is the crown jewel example of fisheries management," Pierdinock said.
Other recreational fishermen and charter boat captains said there is a real need for limits, arguing their livelihood is being impacted by a lack of fish.
John Kaufman, who fishes off Martha's Vineyard, said the numbers of striped bass have been in radical decline. "We have a problem. The commercial industry has a history of being blind in terms of the numbers," Kaufman said.
Commercial fishermen said this is the third time in three years they were forced to defend themselves over striped bass fishing. In previous legislative sessions, similar bills never made it out of committee.
Peter Kelly, a charter captain from Marion, said he has been fishing in Massachusetts waters for more than 45 years. He theorized that the warmer water in the past few years was driving more fish further off the coast. That is why recreational fishermen, who cannot afford to fuel boats to go further out, may be seeing less fish, he said.
"As fuel keeps going up, recreational catches are going to keep going down," Kelly said.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates fisheries and has representatives from each East Coast state, allows Massachusetts fishermen to catch two million pounds of striped bass each year — split between recreational and commercial fishers. Commercial fishermen argued they do not catch more than their 1 million pound share.
But backers of catch limits said striped bass are overharvested.
David Ross, a scientist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said striped bass "is a fishery that needs protection," and pointed to research that shows the numbers of pounds harvested by recreational fishers has decreased by almost 1 million pounds since 2006.
Along with the commercial fishing industry, other businesses would be hurt by catch limits, a group of local restaurant chefs said. Chefs referred to striped bass as a "superstar fish" that draws people from around the country into Massachusetts seafood restaurants.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said it was a "dangerous path" to bring fishing management issues to the legislative process. Federal agencies are better suited to make decisions around allocation and conservation, he said.
"If we truly care about conservation, perhaps we ought to look at the biological measures that impact the stock, rather than who is on the other end of the reel," he said.
Tarr said striped bass fishing began in Massachusetts in the 1600s.
"I hope it won't end on our watch," he added.