Not Just Fun, Recreational Fishing a Big Business for Massachusetts

Jul 15, 2013

Sunrise was half-an-hour off, the sky was brightening, and already fishermen were stationed along the Cape Cod Canal every ten or twenty yards: each a solitary figure, casting, retrieving, and casting again.

On the slippery rocks exposed by the low tide, Steve Marchand pitched his lure across the water, aiming to get it out beyond the footings of the nearby railroad bridge. Marchand has been fishing the Canal for more than 40 years. He pointed to a spot just a few yards farther along the water's edge. “My father in 1985 caught a 60-pound bass right there." And in case anyone might doubt him, he added, "I've got pictures of it.”

From the Canal to the waters off Chatham, from Provincetown to Cuttyhunk, the Cape and Islands are known for great recreational fishing. It’s part of what makes the region a summer destination. Recreational fishing includes the weekend angler, vacationing families on charter boats, the lone kid at the end of the pier with a dropline: it’s a fragmented picture, but all the little pieces add up. A study out this year says recreational fishing brings 800 million dollars annually to the state. The greatest portion of that money impacts coastal areas like the Cape and Islands.

So, who’s looking out for the anglers that drive that economy? And who’s looking out for the fish?

The Massachusetts Saltwater Permit 

"You need a permit," Mario Luciarini affirmed, when asked if he had his saltwater license. He was fishing a short scramble over the rocks from Steve Marchand. As he cast, a tugboat pulled a barge east along the Canal toward the red glow that would soon be sunrise. Luciarini said that this year, unlike previous years, officials had been checking that fishermen have the state-issued permit. "Oh yeah, the game warden checks. He'll ask you if you have a permit, and if you say 'yes,' he'll ask you to show it."

Many species of fish are migratory, which means they swim up and down the East Coast without concern for political boundaries. To gather data about this valuable, wide-ranging fishery, the federal government in 2006 mandated the creation of a national recreational registry. Individual states were given the option to administer their own programs, with state data feeding into the national registry. In response, Massachusetts created the saltwater permit in 2009. The revenues raised by permit sales go to statewater fisheries management.

The permit costs ten dollars for the year, and most people buy it online. Signs are posted on telephone poles along the canal, reminding anglers of the law. They say simply: “No License, No Fishing.”

Contention About Striped Bass

Perhaps the best-known and most sought-after of the migratory fish is the striped bass. Stripers are prized for growing large and being delicious to eat. They’re also at the crux of a struggle going on now within the Massachusetts fishery.

Brad Burns is a lifelong recreational fisherman and the president of Stripers Forever, an internet organization that claims nearly 20,000 members. When I arrived at his house in East Falmouth, he was on the nearby mud flats clamming. We sat on his deck, talking, as he drank a beer. He explained, “Stripers Forever was formed to conserve striped bass for the benefit of the fishing public by making it a game fish."

Making striped bass a game fish would mean eliminating all commercial harvest. And this is where things get a little complicated.  

Each year a regional fisheries management group representing the Atlantic states decides how many pounds of striped bass can be caught. Massachusetts divides its portion between recreational and commercial fishermen. In 2011, the recreational harvest was about 3 times what commercial fishermen were allowed to catch.

“The striped bass is the most important recreational species on the East Coast," Burns said. "It supports really the entire recreational sportfishing industry on the East Coast.”

Some states have decided that the recreational value of striped bass is so high, they’ve stopped commercial fishing on it altogether. But Massachusetts commercial fishermen have fought back such efforts.  

Darren Saletta is a charterboat captain and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Commercial Striped Bass Association. I reached him by phone as he was preparing his boats for the impending charter season. He pointed out that the commercial harvest, because of the way it’s fished, is extremely clean, with very little bycatch and a low mortality (meaning striped caught but not suitable for market and killed by the process).

“It’s a great fishery for a lot of reasons," he said, "because it’s a hook-and-line fishery, meaning Massachusetts fishermen can only target the fishery by rod and reel, or hook and line.”

The commercial season on striped bass is brief – last year it lasted just 16 days. Opponents say the short duration is itself an argument for getting rid of the commercial fishery. No one, they say, is making a living from it. But Saletta explained that commercial fishermen targeted multiple species throughout the year, and each one was an important piece of their livelihood.

“It’s not uncommon for someone to be fishing for squid and black sea bass, or bluefish, in the earlier season, horeshoe crab, [or] shellfish," he said. "And then to go and enter the striped bass fishery when it’s in season. And then to switch off to perhaps tuna, or groundfish or lobstering.”

Recreational Fishing on the Scales

Striped bass can live 30 years or more. They can grow to be 50, 60, 70 pounds. One Sunday morning I pulled into the parking lot outside Eastman’s Sport and Tackle in Falmouth just as a 36” bass was being hung up on the scale. The store employee, in his capacity as the measurement official, called out the weight as the scale came to rest: seventeen pounds.

The fish was maybe ten years old. The angler who caught it, standing nearby with his father, was a fifteen-year-old named Stewart. He was matter-of-fact, and he declined an offer for a picture of the fish on the scale. He’s been fishing a long time, he said, and he’s gotten bigger fish before.

When I asked his plans for the fish, he shrugged. "Take it home and filet it, I guess."

Spoken like a seasoned angler.

Inside the store, fishermen in shorts and flip-flops were examining lures as a rod was getting re-strung. Summer is a busy time of year for the employees. According to the National Marine Fisheries, recreational fishing contributes 6,500 jobs to the Massachusetts economy. Jim Young, the shop’s manager, said summer vacationers are vital to his business. “A lot of people come in, they want to wet a line—the wife’s on the beach, they want to go cast," he said. "They may not catch anything, but they just want the fact that they can go fish.”

2013 is a stock assessment year for striped bass – meaning fishery managers are taking a close look at the health of the species. Many people say cuts in the catch are likely, to protect the future of the fishery. Which means, from the shopkeeper to the commercial fisherman, to the guy at the Canal before dawn, a lot of people are paying attention to what happens next.

Listen to and explore all our WCAI radio reports for The Long Haul:

Part 1: New England's Fishermen Face a Challenge in Every Direction

Part 2: Cooperative Research Improves Fishery Science and Relationships

Part 3: Dwindling Baitfish Stocks Worry Fishermen and Regulators

Part 4: Protected Seals Raise Many Questions

Part 5: Combatting the Sea of Debris 

Part 6:  Not Just Fun, Recreational Fishing a Big Business for Massachusetts

Part 7:  Investigating Fish Contamination Leads to Questions About Genetics

Part 8: Climate Change Forces Reevaluation of Fishery Management

Part 9:  Aquaculture on the Rise Across the Cape and Islands

Part 10:  Shared Hopes for Our Fisheries' Future