Jersey anglers keep striped bass
just for themselves
The Cape Cod Times - June 20, 1999
Pretty soon, just after July 4, New Jersey residents vacationing on Cape Cod get to do something they can't do at home.
Swim in clean water?
Nope, what we have in mind is something that's illegal in New Jersey, but legal in Massachusetts.
In New Jersey, you can't go to a restaurant and order striped bass. In a few weeks, you can easily get incredibly fresh striped bass at dozens of Cape Cod restaurants.
Massachusetts allows the public to eat stripers. New Jersey doesn't.
Isn't that amazing?
I mean, it's not like New Jersey is landlocked. There are literally billions of stripers swimming off the Jersey coast.
It's not that there's some crazy health advisory in effect. New Jersey bass test out just fine.
It's not that Jersey fishermen are so stupid they can't catch a few linesides. They, like their Massachusetts counterparts, will catch zillions of the things this year. The ocean is full of 'em and we have the technology - a rod, reel and baited hook.
The crazy thing is that New Jersey law prohibits selling or marketing striped bass. They can't be sold, not for human consumption, not for anything. (You can sell the right to catch a striper, though, via charterboats and the like.)
In New Jersey, they've chosen not to plug into the American food chain that starts with the harvester and end with a waiter flourishing a pepper grinder over a fine plate of fresh fish.
So: The only people in New Jersey who can eat striped bass are those with the time, inclination, money and access to catch one themselves.
(Well, I guess if you are neighbor to somebody who has all those things down pat, you're handed off a fish once in a while too.)
New Jersey's army of sportfishers has convinced that state's legislature to ban the sale of stripers. Period.
The result? The anglers get all the fish, all the time. Just them.
Boy, I feel like Rush Limbaugh. The Striper Nazis. Is this whacko, or what?
There is simply no conservation reason for this law. None. Zippo. Bupkis.
Indeed, Rollie Schmitten, who until recently was the top fishery official at the National Marine Fisheries Service, told Congress in 1997 that, "Our information records go back to the 1880s. This year's science showed that there are more striped bass now as at any time of the history of this nation."
If Rollie hadn't been laterally transferred, he'd be even more generous this year. Folks, there's more stripers out there than you can shake an Ugly Stik at.
So how come the Striper Nazis convinced the assembled delegates of the great state of New Jersey to tightly allocate this wondrous fish of all the people to such a small, privileged group?
The anglers have explained how much economic activity is generated by keeping stripers a recreational-only kind of fish. It goes something like this: Rod and other gear expenditures, $50 million; boat charters, $20 million; fuel, beer, grub, $120 million; motels and such, $230 million. And so on.
It's sort of like banning the commercial sale of tomatoes, according to Nils Stolpe, who heads up the Garden State Fishing Association. Compare the two: The gardener spends lots on fertilizer, compost, manure, pesticides, etc.; seed and plants; land costs; gas for the Volvo to drive to the supply store; and so on, which makes most backyard-grown tomatoes worth about $15 a pound.
This, versus the commercially-grown tomato available in the grocery store where anyone can get one for, oh, 49 cents, available to everyone. Stolpe says this is like trying to say we should all have to grow our own tomatoes because they cost so much more, and that is somehow Good.
There's the fear-and-loathing-of-commercial-fishermen argument. Refer to the popular press nonsense about "clear-cutting the ocean bottom," and the like.
Then there's the notion of "greed." But - along the Atlantic States, statistics show recreational fishermen take and kill about seven times the stripers the commercial sector takes. Commercial anglers are licensed, regulated, accounted for and kept tabs on; recreational anglers have no licenses and little constraint. Well, there's minimum sizes and you can only take one fish home a day; but there as here, you can catch them all day long, til your arm grows weary, if you want - and many want. There is a catch-and-release ethic much in vogue among most recreational anglers and all Striper Nazis. Catch the fish, pet it awhile, and let it go. Bye-bye, fishy.
Personally, I find catch-and-release a philosophically complicated thing. I do it, most people do. I know that when trout fishing, chances are high the trout lives to fight another day. Bass fishing is another thing; a huge percentage of recreationally-released stripers die. Both the recreational and commercial fishers end up with dead fish. Only the regulated commercial harvest benefits the general public, which gets food. Good, healthy organic food.
We would like to think that New Jersey's anglers real concern is conservation. We'd like to think they have made serious effort to know the facts about the fish they claim to "protect."
We'd like to think their arguments are not a lot of we-want-it-all, quasi-conservation propaganda.
There are money-minded sportsmen behind that New Jersey law. They're up here proselytizing in Massachusetts, by the way.
Scary, isn't it?
Molly Benjamin is a Times columnist. She can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org