In Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket, There Ain’t No Stripas

Loligo squid is what brings stripers into the rips. Photo by John McMurray.

An aggregation of small-mesh bottom trawls off the coast could be ruining a historically significant striper fishery.

Above & Top: Loligo squid are getting wiped out off of Martha's Vineyard  & Nantucket, and they're what brings stripers into the rips. Photos by John McMurray.

Above & Top: Loligo squid are getting wiped out off of Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket, and they’re what brings stripers into the rips. Photos by John McMurray.

Man, I hesitate to write this, because I don’t wanna cause any more economic harm to the islands’ charter fleet, by, well, saying it publicly… but I think it’s become so obvious that most striper fishermen already know it…

The historically significant striped bass fishery that made Martha’s Vineyard (and Nantucket) the iconic fishing destination it is, just ain’t what it used to be.

Very few local guides or anglers with any history here would argue this isn’t the case… There seems to be a consensus that all those rips that used to stack up with fish from June to September don’t really produce anymore. Least not like they should. And the beaches? Well of course there are still fish caught, but the fishery appears to be a shadow of its former self.

It’s not just anecdotal… A quick review of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass Derby catch records show a definitive decline.

Why?

Heat map of 2014 Squid Fleet Effort. Note the concentration off of Martha's Vineyard & Nantucket.

Heat map of 2014 Squid Fleet Effort. Note the concentration off of Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket.

For a few years a lot of us just assumed it was related to the general decline in striped bass abundance, but let’s be honest here… the striped bass do indeed appear to be coming back, at least to some extent, with the 2011 year class starting to flood the coast. But the area around those two Islands arguably hasn’t recovered, at all.

While of course, nobody really knows for sure, a likely answer to the question can be found by simply taking a walk down to the South Shore of either island in June or July and looking out on the horizon.

Over the past few years, it’s been filled with squid trawlers, sometimes a dozen, sometimes upwards of two-dozen, trawling back and forth, mowing the lawn… not just within eyesight, but often pretty damn close to the beach.

Certainly there were trawlers that fished this area in the past, but such a dense concentration of small-mesh bottom trawls is a fairly recent occurrence.

While the squid industry disputes this point, it’s pretty well agreed upon by islanders that there are a lot more boats around these days… The available data indicates this to be the case as well.

And yes, the occurrence of such aggregation of boats happens to coincide with the downfall of the islands’ striped bass fishery.

So why are all these trawlers, all of the sudden, fishing here? Well, who the hell knows, but it’s likely a combination of new electronics (particularly the new AIS technology, now a requirement) that brought the first several following boats into what is essentially a spawning squid funnel, and the fact that they just figured out that they could fish here with minimal effort and catch a (expletive)-ton of squid.

The Problem(s)

AIS shot of squid boats concentrated off of SW corner of Martha's Vineyard.

AIS shot of squid boats concentrated off of SW corner of Nantucket.

Here’s the problem though… Or rather, there are a bunch of problems…

Anyone who’s spent any time on the water surrounding the islands knows that this area is incredibly biodiverse and productive.

There are a ton of recreational and commercially important species there, particularly in the spring and summer months, either spawning or eating those squid, such as summer and winter flounder, scup, black seabass, blueback herring, and yes, striped bass…

So you can imagine with all those bottom draggers pulling mesh as small as 1 7/8 inches, in relatively close proximity to each other, that all this other stuff gets caught to, and subsequently discarded.

In fact, bycatch in the squid fishery in general is pretty significant. It’s actually around 35% of their catch. I mean that’s just crazy, man. So for every tow, more than a third of it gets discarded, presumably dead? We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds of striped bass, summer flounder, black seabass.

If you want the local, on-the-water perspective of what that looks, like I suggest checking this article out: Squid trawlers leave a wake of death south of Martha’s Vineyard.

Squid Spawn Here…

AIS shot of squid boats working off of SW corner of Martha's Vineyard.

AIS shot of squid boats working off of SW corner of Nantucket.

I should also to point out that this area off the islands is an important spawning area for longfin (loligo) squid. In fact it’s considered “essential fish habitat” for that species because spawning occurs in-mass in the summer months.

Pretty self-explanatory why concentrated effort on spawning squid aggregations could be problematic down the road. But to add a layer to that, the occurrence of squid mops (egg masses which attach to the bottom) getting pulled up by these bottom trawls is pretty well documented.

Yes, there is some debate on whether or not such eggs hatch after being pulled off the bottom, or pulled out of a net and tossed back in, but common sense would tell us that most of them don’t.

Yes, I understand that squid are considered healthy right now (not overfished, and overfishing isn’t occurring), and that some argue they can sustain this kind of pressure. But well, this sort of concentrated fishing is pretty damn new, so I would argue that we just don’t know, and IMO it likely can’t.

No Squid, No Stripers

Last year alone, over 19 million pounds of loligo were taken off of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in the spring and summer months. That is an astonishingly large amount of available “bait” taken out of the ecosystem.

One could certainly argue that taking such large amounts from such a small area could literally be cutting off the bait supply, which used to fuel those epic striper bites in the rip lines, etc. And that this is a likely reason the stripers just haven’t been coming back.

But it goes even deeper than that. Local fishermen argue that recent levels of industrial squid fishing off the islands have affected everything. And that it’s become much harder to catch any fish around the islands anymore. While there’s no causal data to prove it, historically productive fishing grounds are now relatively lifeless.

Solutions?

Local fishermen admit that the squid boats have always been there, just not so close and not so many of them.

Islanders aren’t asking for any reduction in the squid catch, or that they just go away… But what they are asking for is for those boats to move farther off the coast, where they aren’t working that proverbial funnel, and where they aren’t potentially cutting off the islands’ bait supply.

The Mid-Atlantic Council is currently in the process of developing a Squid Capacity Amendment, the initial intent of which was to deal with latent capacity and new entrants in the fishery. But during the scoping process, the localized depletion of squid off of Nantucket was flagged by a local fishermen.

And so during the development of alternatives, several possible “buffer zone” alternatives were put on the table. Unfortunately, due to a lot of push back by the squid industry, those alternatives were taken out.

Reasons ranged from, it didn’t fit the original intent of the action, to it would extend the Amendment’s timeline (regardless of the fact that staff said, on the record, that it wouldn’t), to there was no real quantitative analysis they could do (even though staff said that there was… e.g. time and area/gear conflict).

Yet probably the most compelling one is that such “localized depletion” of prey species and its effect on predators can’t really be proven.

While it might be common sense to you and I – e.g. you remove 19 million pounds of squid in an area, it would of course have an effect on predator abundance – there is no real causal science that could show this is the case.

So industry just calls it anecdotal, and waxes that such localized depletion claims are without merit.

Yes, the Council certainly can act on such anecdotal information, but it’s very rare that they do.

On Addressing Localized Depletion (In General)

And therein lies a big problem/gap with fisheries management right now. It’s very hard to address this localized depletion issue.

I mean to just about everyone, save industry who obviously doesn’t want it acknowledged, it’s intuitive.

A bunch of boats dragging small-mesh nets as big as football fields, which catch a crapload of bait (millions of tons!) well, the predators probably aren’t gonna stick around.

How could that not be universally realized is a complete mystery to me.

Of course this is not just a Martha’s Vineyard/Nantucket issue. The New England Council is dealing with this with their Herring Amendment 8 action, which may have buffer zone alternatives as well. The pushback from industry though – who would just have to move offshore some – is immense.

How that plays out is anyone’s guess, but the lack of good localized depletion science doesn’t bode well.

Where Are We Now?

Getting back to the Martha’s Vineyard/Nantucket-specific localized depletion issue…

Well, as mentioned, buffer zones will not be analyzed/considered as part the Squid Capacity Amendment… and that really sucks.

A council member (ahem, me) moved to have a new action – to consider buffer zones off of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard – made a priority for the Council in 2017. That motion ultimately failed by a few votes. But the action did end up getting into the “Possible Additions” category. Given all the other Council business, I’m pretty sure we won’t see any action on it this next year, but who knows.

Without getting into too much detail here, one thing to note is that the excessive number of squid caught in this area will to some extent be addressed in the Squid Capacity Amendment with alternatives to remove/reduce the carryover from the winter fishery. In other words, the number of squid caught here will essentially be capped, at a pretty high level of course, so I’d argue that is doesn’t sufficiently address the problem.

I mean come on man, this sort of localized depletion problem can really only be addressed by moving the squid boats six, maybe 12 miles out.

Regardless, the issue is not dead… Just sleeping as far as I’m concerned.

Awareness!

I guess what I’d like now is just for anglers to become aware of it. As many as possible. So please do forward this blog post.

I don’t want this issue to just go away, because the reality is that a once epic fishery is, sadly, being destroyed.

Yeah, we can’t prove it’s the squid boats that are causing it right now, but it seems pretty clear, to most of us, that they are.

And there’s an easy solution that wouldn’t force any sort of reduction in squid quota down the industry’s throat.

They just need to move. For the local island(s) economy that depends on the striped bass resource and for the squid resources that I do believe will ultimately suffer if we keep hammering away at them in an important spawning area.

Stay tuned…

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is the Owner/Operator of One More Cast Charters in Oceanside, NY.

32 comments on “In Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket, There Ain’t No Stripas

    • Great article
      Less & less # s of fish!
      Smile solutions need the big boys of government
      To see results of less Bait fish!
      To long to many studies truth is in the water!
      Or what is lacking in the water!

      • I have fished Nantucket for 50 years both from boats and beach. I have never seen it less productive and trending worse. I know it’s beautiful water so there must be a reason like lack of bait. I think the squid boats stirring up the buttom could definitely be the culprit.

  1. Striped Bass have moved further north for the last 25 years! Don’t let them talk you into blaming it on the backs of the commercial fishermen! You’re driving a wedge between the commercial fishermen and the pleasure fishermen! There’s an administration now that doesn’t believe in global warming!!! It’s time to stick together!

    • They’ve been doing those same tows for 100 years!! You can’t just move 6 or 12 miles away and catch squid, the boats are working there because of good fishing and minimal by catch..you don’t wanna fish somewhere else for less squid and more bycatch. All those boats are subject to federal observers and have a tracking system so there’s no cheating going on they have so many rules and regulations to deal with they are only doing what they are told to do to feed themselves. The fish are seen offshore in huge numbers by spotter planes and have been seeking colder northern waters for years it gets too hot in the shallow rips off the island in august anyways..

    • Ten years ago the water was at the very least 4° Colder. I’ve never seen so many striped bass in my life. But there 60 north east of the islands now where the water is 4 to 10° colder.
      I would say global warming is more of an issue than the squid boats. Commercial stripe bass fishermen only kill 20 percent of the striped bass the other 80 percent are killed bye recreational fishermen. That’s A scientific fact! When you fight a 30 pound striped bass on a fly road the chances of that bass living if realeased is far from good. 1 out of every four striped bass recreational fishermen catch and release die. I’m glad that they have made it one fish per person and only 15 per boat 3 days a week. You’re not throwing back fish and killing them because you don’t take an hour to catch the fish they don’t waste all there energy like using a fly rod.

  2. John-
    Great Article. Everything you said was spot on. It’s incredible that the group, mid-atlantic council, who is meant to protect our fishery is focused more on the economics of the fishery than on preserving the fishery.

  3. Fished Nantucket beaches at nite since
    1974
    The spawn cycles were obvious like a sine curve 7 years apart but fishing was consistently good
    In the 70’s ave catch of beaches was 7-16#
    By 1983 catch was 10% of the 70’s and ave was 25#
    New restrictions on length seemed to help
    Tremendously and by the late 90’s the amount of fish exceeded even the mid 70’s
    Most fish were not keepers
    By 2000 80% keepers and I had the best fishing til 2010 or 11
    Regarding the staggers
    In the 70’s you would see 2 or 3 each nite
    In the 90’s maybe 6
    But by 2008 or so a dozen
    But the last 5 years I count 13 every nite

  4. It just never stops. You think you’ve seen all the hammering a fishing area can take and up pops another. Trawling that takes place in waterways like this is severely detrimental. Whether it’s in this “funnel” or Pamlico Sound.

  5. The ‘council’ has never protected anything but catching fish for commercial profit. Until the seas are barren they will do everything to protect the wholesale slaughter of these important fish spawning grounds by draggers, trawlers and ‘commercial’ striped bass fisherman.

    Thanks for putting up a great article that explains the logical result of ignoring the actions of this activity just off shore.

    • Like I said it’s a scientific fact that commercial fisherman only kill 20% of the quota recreational fishermen take the other 80% so I don’t see how commercial Street best fishermen are depleting the striped bass it might have something to do with how warm the water gets here in the summers now

  6. I was told some time ago by a CT DEP Commissioner…”It’s easier to control the people than it is to control an industry” No truer words been spoken in 60 years.

  7. Pingback: Is commercial squid fishing damaging the MA striper fishery? | Fly Life Magazine

  8. Pingback: Is commercial squid fishing damaging the Massachusetts striper fishery? – fisherynation.com

  9. So why are all these trawlers, all of the sudden, fishing here? Well, who the hell knows, but it’s likely a combination of new electronics (particularly the new AIS technology, now a requirement) that brought the first several following boats into what is essentially a spawning squid funnel, and the fact that they just figured out that they could fish here with minimal effort and catch a (expletive)-ton of squid.

    No. The reason they are there is because of the serious over regulation on other species which make squid one of the only alternatives left. Simply put the limits imposed by the enviro scum who have been running NOAA have created this problem. Plain and simple. And not PC. Deal with it while you argue about the New administration that hopefully fixes this mess brought on by past administrations!

    • Commercial fishing industry has always been incapable of self regulation they just fish until one species is obliterated and then move on to the next species they have no concept of sustainable fisheries. “My grand-father and my father fished these waters and there were plenty of fish so that’s I am going to do! Why doesn’t everyone stopped picking on us poor commercial fishermen!” Except that doesn’t work anymore commercial fishermen are their own worst enemies in the long run. They are not part of the solution and they will ultimately over fish themselves into oblivion.

      • Maybe something like wicked tuna has something to do with it making thousands of people interested in going out and buying a boat. I bet there were way less fisherman back in the day then there are now .

  10. Mr. McMurray,
    Yes,i did not say captain, because no captain would ever make the ASSUMPTIONS that he has.. I sit at council meetings and listen to him talk about climate change and he writes like it has no impact on stripped bass migration patterns..
    Stripped bass migrations are starting earlier and ending later.. the fish are further east than the boats are looking. In fact they are being caught in the great south channel by tuna fisherman!!
    I have read countless articles about marthas vineyard and nantucket being inundated by SEALS. Mr. MCMurrary convienently neglects to mention they may be impacting not only stock abundance as well as NEAR shore migrations patterns.
    There is plenty of observer data available to show that stripped bass are not being caught by squid boats in any meaningful numbers..
    What i did see on facebook was plenty of pictures of stripped bass on Pete Kaizers facebook page. When i read his fishing reports, he does paint a different picture. He never seems to tell his potential customers that there are no strippers..
    I believe Mr. Mcmurray is looking at the vinyard/ nantucket , ” local depletion issue with one eye, partially open..

  11. Anyone who has been in the striped bass fishery for more than a few years understands that striped bass bites are way more dependent on bait concentrations than water temps. If climate change is affecting migration patterns, then how the hell do I have striped bass eating plugs well into July, sometimes early Aug in recent years, when that never, at least in my experience, happened before. That is absolutely dude to menhaden concentrations no one has seen here in decades. Yeah, I know what you are gonna say next. That bait is holding them all here, even though they generally leave by Aug… But how do we explain how there are no squid in the rips, or really anywhere around the island anymore. At least not in numbers that fuel those sorts of bites. And from what I hear here seems to be plenty of fish off of Block. I’m certainly not gonna claim that climate change or seal populations have nothing to do with the decline… because I don’t know. But I’m sure as hell not gonna say that squid boats and localized depletion have nothing to do with it either, because I believe they do, likely with the same conviction you believe they don’t. Perhaps we both have only one eye partially open. Woulda been nice to see some objective analysis, or at least staff look into this a bit. But I’m pretty sure that ain’t gonna happen, least not this year… Really because you guys didn’t want it to happen.

    • You entire article is based upon word of mouth and speculation.. you state, you dont know if squid boats are part of the cause but you believe they are.. you say there is local depletion,why because someone told you so.. you spend no time in those waters. What you have is an AIS picture of squid boats and an off year for strippers..
      Maybe the recreational trip limit and the constant high grading,has lead to a depletion of trophy size fish. Trophy hunting, certainly has played a huge role in mortality and depletion
      Everyon is entitled to an opinion but to write so definitively with no facts at all is pure deception and speculation.

  12. There are no squid in the rips. No bait at all. I’m glad people make money off squid. The fact is they are not getting to to east and south side of nantucket shoals. How do I know? Well to start out I have 2245 days on the water in the last 15 years all of them in the areas off nantucket and mv. Then I have my landing in my fish log as well. So when someone writes the fishing is down and way off, they are 100% correct. Fish follow bait everyone knows that. No bait=no fish.

  13. The amount of pressure is such a small are is killing the shore fishing on the back side of Nantucket. Not to mention the by catch. Every year our Black Sea Bass quota gets cut yet the squid fleet catch thousands of pounds of Sea Bass bycatch. This year its going to be the Fluke quota that gets cut but the bycatch will continue.

  14. Brian B,
    2245 days. sounds like the charter business is still going strong. You cant be commercial, and only work a half a year. The squid boats did not catch all of the squid!!!! My recollections of the vinyard and nantucket fisheries for strippers,are based upon a prolific amount of sand eels.. are you going to tell me the draggers caught them as well.. or is there another reason they have greatly diminished in numbers.. Their dissapearance may very well be cause of your stripper shortage.
    JOhn also pointed out the huge numbers of strippers he catches in the ny bight.. maybe these enormous schools of bunker have inturupted your stripper migration as well..
    Maybe you should lobby for higher menhadden quotas and your stripper population will return..
    Believe it or not the squid migration starts east and moves west.. Squid show in the sound and then move and spread out south of the islands,where we encounter them..
    Johns 19 million pound catch off the islands, is an out right lie. that is close to how many pound were caught total in the summer period. Over 5 million of those pounds were actually caught off montauk NY. And it did not effect stripper catches there..
    My pupose for these replies is to show conjecture and assumptions can go both ways.. It sounds like the stripper population off the islands has been in decline for years.. yet the real causes, overbuilt water fronts, seal population explosion, disappearance of sandeels, highgrading by recreational sector (up and down the coast) as well as climate change goes under the radar..
    Seems to me the easy answer is to throw a few hard working guys, who feed the nation,under the bus with absolutely no scientific backing.. That disgusts me
    I would never ever do that to a fellow fisherman.. recreational or commercial..

  15. Dried up rips.
    I have lived on for Nantucket for 12 years. The first 7 I worked on charter and commercial boats. What I have seen on the water in the last three years is scary. This needs to change. People need to get behind this.

  16. How about we work together on the issue instead of bashing everyone. Its important to stay on topic with this one. The poof is there in the article and shown at fisheries meetings. No matter what it is, there will be a negative impact with that much fishing pressure in a small area. That area being the main highway the squid use to get nantuckets harbor and the islands surrounding rips.
    I could tell you, whoever is reading this, that ive been a mate for four consecutive years on Nantucket and that i beach fish every night and go on to tell you about my personal experiences, but any Joe Shmoe who reads this article can see what these squid boats are doing is harmful to the ecosystem. This is a resource that the islands depend on especially Nantucket. No, we are not saying that squid is the only bait source for stripers. No, we are not saying we want the draggers to stop squid fishing. But more squid definately need to pass through to those waters. What we need to be talking about is the changes that need to be made. Something needs to be tweaked and real soon. Clearly the only people who are happy with current squid regulations are the ones squid fishing.

  17. They are ruining the fishing, not to mention the enormous amount of dead bycatch they leave floating on the surface. Scup,stripers. Anything that is eating the squid is hauled up and killed too! They need to end this non-sense. They are ruining the fishery and it’s because of the squid boats south of Nantucket and the vineyard!

  18. This conversation needs to be had. If the observations from the islanders and other parties are found to be true, the squid industry will come to its end anyhow. Ultimately the fish lose to our ignorant debates. We have learned years ago to err on the side of caution and protect.

    There’s no reason we can’t have a sustainable fishery if we work on it now. If we wait too long it will be over.

  19. I have been a resident on Nantucket since 1973. In 1976, I started to commercial fish and also do marine salvage work. In recent years, due to the decline of ground fish and unintentional mismanagement by the National Marine Fisheries (fisheries management not an easy task), I also run fishing charters.
    That being said, after many conversations with both commercial and recreational fishermen from the southern cape and islands, we would like to commend John McMurray for his excellent and logical article pertaining to the recent lack of striped bass, squid, and other predator fish in the near coastal water around southern Cape Cod and the Islands.
    In the early 1990’s, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, in their wisdom, passed a regulation stating “after June 9, all small mesh bottom trawlers were prohibited inside the 3 mile state waters”, due to the excessive and indiscriminate harvesting of all species in their pursuit of spawning squid and causing harmful disruption to the squid mops.
    Historically, after June 9, the small mesh bottom trawlers moved outside 6-12 miles WSW of Nantucket. Unfortunately, since 2011 to present years, we have witnessed the steady decline of both spawning squid and their predators to an all time low!
    Remember back in 2006, the industry and the Mid-Atlantic Council agreed to keep the trimester II inshore quota to a minimum, recognizing that the inshore trimester II spawning event is critical to the future sustainability of the squid fishery.
    By taking a precautionary approach, we believe there is, somewhere, a distance between 6-12 miles from shore that would accommodate a decent harvest for the industry yet also allow for a thriving squid spawning event AND avoid excessive indiscriminate by catch. (Federal Observer Program Data shows a 35% by catch in this fishery)
    At this point, the use of a time and area spawning closure and/or implementation of buffer zones could accomplish this task.

  20. Pingback: To Mass. DMF Director Dave Pierce Phd., Loligo Fishing Nantucket & Marthas Vinveyard – fisherynation.com

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