Decades ago, when a combination of hospital waste and tar balls regularly washed ashore onto what was once a very polluted New Jersey beach, I learned how to surf fish. I was an early teenager trying to figure out what made the grizzly ‘old fisherman I met on Long Beach Island so crazy about wanting to catch a Striped Bass. It seemed a mysterious event to me as I listened to the ol’timers talk about how they would catch Stripers, “back when we had bass”. I was not sure about what they meant by “when we had bass”, but as I began to delve deeper into my life’s pursuit the reality of their past tense as to why we had no bass was, for the short term, beyond my understanding. These ‘ol Timer bass fisherman, short of their scruffy nods towards the Holy, offered little information to share with me. I quickly realized that I had to learn the ways of Striper fishing on my own, as all of the locals where not about to divulge their well-kept secrets. Back then, before cellphones and the world-wide-web, it was considered proper to not discuss the whereabouts of well-guarded surf holes, times to fish and baits used in order to catch a bass. As a kid I began to wonder who was tighter lipped about the whole experience- the fish or the fisherman. These early communication challenges, coupled with having to wade through weed lines of syringes and other waste that was short dumped by garbage barges a few miles offshore, just for a chance to catch the elusive Striped Bass, laid down a gauntlet daunting enough to make me turn to a recreational life dedicated to being on the surf. Night after night I would plug the beaches of LBI, and night after night I would come home, short of a few Bluefish in late summer, empty handed. While I was gaining confidence in my understanding of beach structure, moon phases and fishing tackle, I was completely stumped as to why there were no bass to be caught. Little did I know that I had stepped not only into medical and oil waste on the beaches, but also right into the beginning of a key predator population crash. The first serious years of my commitment to surf fishing were the worst years in the late 20th century for the population cycle of the Striped Bass.

Dirty beaches and a sportfish population crash. I am certain that anyone over the age of fifty will recall the dark days of the 1970’s and early 1980’s when our local beaches were littered with unmentionable waste and the Striped Bass population took a complete nose-dive. Most recreational anglers born after 1972 came to the game when the Clean Water Act, coupled with fisheries conservation, became powerful tools in the fight against water pollution and the support for fisheries management in both fresh and saltwater. The result of these tandem conservation efforts yielded rapid benefits that younger anglers have experienced in both the outstanding catch potential of Striped Bass and an overall improvement in habitat health and water quality as a whole. While one conservation effort may not alone have helped to restore the habitat and health of Striped Bass, Weakfish, Black Drum and other east coast surf zone species, it is should be quite evident to any reasonable observer of the issue that one effort certainly helps the other in terms of the overall good for both the fish and those who do the fishing. Why then, with the obvious successes of past conservation efforts evident not just on paper but in the coolers of recreational fisherman, is the concept and practice of marine fisheries conservation so frowned upon by the very people it ultimately helps? Somewhere along the line, and I’m not so sure by who or when, the word conservation became redefined into some sort of evil government black box of ill-will, set upon the masses to strip them of their very right to catch a fish. During this shift of logic the practice of catch limits and minimum catch size has been demonized by a vocal minority that appears to seek short term gratification at the expense of not just the Greater Good, but at the expense of their own children and grand children. While this fringe thought process is more then a bit perplexing, it is joined by an unusual logic that is equally out of balance; a mix of regulations and limits offered up by federal and state fisheries management who write the catch and size standards that, in the case of the Striped Bass, seem completely out of line with breeder stock conservation and protection.

So here I sit, pondering my place as a 21st century recreational fisherman and wondering why is the Striped Bass population on the verge on another crash while all around me I read and hear nothing but backwards, counter-intuitive logic and behavior streaming from those who think they know best about how to protect our limited fish stocks. Being older and wiser, and also having enjoyed almost twenty straight years of uninterrupted Striped Bass fishing success, I now feel empowered to reach out in an attempt to shine the spotlight of the obvious onto a monumental argument that won’t go away- How do we protect our recreational marine fisheries in a way that offers sustainability to future recreational fisherman and also gives protection to the fragile and stressed pinnacle coastal predator species such as the Striped Bass, Weakfish and Summer Flounder? Based on all arguments I have heard to date we are stuck between the collective high tide line and the seawall on this issue as conservation minded anglers.

Sustainability- this is the keyword in my ongoing blog that can be found here on the Anglers Conservation Network blog pages. Stay tuned and chime in with your thoughts about how we can build a consensus that will shine The spotlight of the obvious into the eyes of those who just don’t get “it” so that we crusty ol’Timers may never have to say to younger anglers, “when we had bass”, ever again.