August 22, 2010

Where have all the small stripers gone?

Guides and anglers see some massive fish being pulled in this summer – and that could point to a large problem for the popular fishery.

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BATH - The silver and black-striped fish that Ray Paradis pulled out of the Kennebec River was like a good omen: big, fat and shiny, all 29 inches of it.

click image to enlarge

Fishing boat captain George Harris shows a 30-inch striped bass caught while fishing on the Kennebec River near Bath. Harris says that in the past couple of years it’s rare to see a striper under 20 inches long, which is raising concerns about the future of the fishery.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Harris nets a striper reeled in by his client, Ray Paradis, on the Kennebec River, which is still considered a destination striper fishery.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

That's the problem with Maine's striper fishery right now, fishermen and guides say. The fish they are catching are 28, 29, 30 inches and larger -- but that's all they're catching.

Many fishermen say the smaller fish are missing in Maine's striped bass fishery and have been the past few years.

It's strange, and it might be bad news.

"The fishing is good, but how long will it last?" said Forrest Faulkingham, president of the Maine Association of Charter Boat Captains.

"I got seven fish today, the smallest was 27 inches, the biggest was 33. The people I took out were thrilled. The problem is we didn't catch any small fish. I think the stock is in trouble."

all accounts the slow striper fishing of recent years picked up this summer.

While it may have slowed in some areas after the July heat wave, guides say they're busy with clients -- and fish.

But many are worried about the future.

Dan Wolotsky has guided for eight years in the Kennebec River, and he's no longer seeing high numbers of stripers in the river.

Wolotsky said fishermen used to be able to drive by the river and see sea gulls feasting on bait fish and stripers breaking the surface, but not anymore.

"It was like a big arrow saying, 'There are the fish.' You rarely see that, at least in the part of the state I'm in, and I'm on the water 12 hours a day," Wolotsky said.

When Paradis and his wife, Anne, moved to the shores of the Kennebec in Arrowsic seven years ago, it opened the door to the world of striper fishing.

That was when catching a bunch of stripers in the river was as easy as putting a boat in the river and finding the hot spots.

Paradis was in paradise.

Now he's not surprised when he catches one in four hours of fishing.

"You take what the river gives you," Paradis said.

The problem, some say, is the small fish are gone, or not making it as far as Maine, and that's a bad omen for the entire striper fishery.

"People got used to going out and catching 25 to 40 fish a day. Well, it isn't happening," Faulkingham said.

Duncan Barnes, a board member with the Coastal Conservation Association in Maine, said a fish disease called myobacteriosis in the Chesapeake Bay is one threat to the fish, and there are others, like the low numbers of small fish.

Myobacteriosis is a chronic wasting disease first discovered in the Chesapeake striped bass a decade ago. It causes tumor-like growths and lesions on the fish scales.

"It's better in 2010 than it was last year and certainly in 2008, when it was basically a total disaster.

"But if you took a look at the big picture of stripers in the last 10 to 15 years it's been on the wane," said Barnes, who also is on the Stripers Forever board.

Whatever the cause of the striper trends, guides who make their living off the Kennebec -- still considered a destination striper fishery -- say things are not right.

Many used to wonder how many small fish they'd catch, not whether they'd catch one.

"We're still catching fish, but not like we used to," said boat captain George Harris, who grew up fishing for stripers in Rockland.

"About five years ago it started to peter off. We've seen the range shrink so drastically. This year I saw two fish under 20 inches. Last year I saw one fish under 20 inches. That's out of hundreds of fish we caught."

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

 

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