DURHAM - They're fat, healthy and plentiful _ not to mention very hungry.
Striped bass prowling the eastern seaboard disappeared in alarming numbers during the 1970s _ following years of overfishing and pollution in their Chesapeake Bay spawning grounds _ but an aggressive stock recovery program that began in the early '80s has returned the stocks to normal, even record, levels.
This summer, local fishermen have happily reported abundant catches of the feisty sportfish, popular because of its size, aggressive nature and inclination to hunt near land, within reach of shore and bridge fishermen.
But despite a recovery that wildlife biologist Doug Grout calls "a success story," the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages the stock, last week voted to keep catch and size limits at the current levels.
Poaching, dead discards and steady fishing pressure, among other reasons, caused the overall "target mortality rate" outlined in regional regulations to remain "at or slightly above" an expected 28 percent, said Grout, a New Hampshire Fish and Wildlife Department employee, yesterday.
That caused the fisheries commission to "freeze" current limits until at least 2000, waiting until the mortality rate drops to adjust its baseline limits for the otherwise healthy stock, ASMFC officials said.
Before strict regulations came into effect, the mortality rate exceeded 60 percent, Grout said. "No stock can handle that," he said.
Currently, Grout said Maine and New Hampshire are the only Atlantic states diverging from the ASMFC's recommended allowable limits of two 28-inch or larger fish per creel (a basket for carrying fish).
New Hampshire now allows only one fish per creel, measuring at least 32 inches. Maine allows one fish between 20 and 26 inches and one longer than 40 inches per creel, a liberal diversion that caused the ASMFC to force Maine to impose a "season" on the fishery.
After conservation efforts caused the stock to finally start turning around in 1989, fish numbers reached target levels in 1995. In 1993 and 1996, the fish spawned in numbers that conservationists had not seen in "40 or 50 years," Grout said.
Fishing guide Bernie Stein, who charters his 20-foot Ms. Lainey out of Perkins Cove, wasn't alarmed by last week's "status quo" vote by the fisheries commission.
Creels are full, and that's enough to make fishermen happy, Stein said.
"I think the stock is in excellent shape, and they're feeding ferociously," Stein said. "People aren't catching them every time they're out, but that's fishing for you."
Grout said he has heard reports of fishermen catching large numbers of smaller fish this season and, encouragingly, bagging more and more larger fish, many exceeding 40 inches.
Fishing guide Jon Savage, owner of Cap'n Sav's fishing charters out of Rye Harbor, also agreed. Although a bit slow since the beginning of August, he called this year's striper fishery "better than ever."
Still, Savage said conservationists in New Hampshire have urged state fishery officials to propose a 36-inch limit to the ASMFC _ a mistake, he said.
The 10-year guide veteran said such a move would let other states take over New Hampshire's allotted fish mortality quota, since Granite Staters, statistically, would kill fewer fish under such a size limit. If the state then wanted to lower limits in the future, it might find resistance, Savage said.
"Once you give somebody something, it's often tough to get it back," Savage said.
Stein said he'd like to see the ASMFC impose more standard limits on the prized fish for Maine and New Hampshire. "The fish don't know what state they're in," Stein said. "I think they should have one rule for everybody."