Starting in 2015, striped bass fisherman on the east coast will see their bag limit cut…and that’s a very good thing.
While anglers who’ve experienced stellar catches of large bass on the occasional charter trip might find it hard to believe, stripers are in trouble, and the overall recreational catch along most of the coast has been declining for years. Since the striped bass stock was deemed recovered in 1995 (from near extinction in the 1980s), the fish have suffered a series of body blows including overfishing, poor spawning success (especially in Chesapeake Bay, traceable from at least 2006), and deteriorating habitat leading to disease.
Though astute anglers were sounding the alarm for years, their front-line cries were continually chalked up as “anecdotal evidence” not confirmable by the science of the day. That all changed with the last official stock assessment of 2013, which clearly showed that overfishing had been occurring for at least six of the past nine years. Still, it took thousands of striped bass anglers and recreational fishing organizations—national and regional—to get the attention of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the federal group charged with striper management.
The result was a series of September public meetings held by the ASMFC from Maine to North Carolina. At each meeting it was sharply evident that most anglers and guides supported a reduction in overall striper mortality. On October 29, the decisive reduction hearing and vote by ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board was held in Mystic, Connecticut. As that hearing progressed, hard-core fishermen in attendance (myself included) quickly realized that a clear-cut win for the fish was far from given. The gears of political maneuvering ground unevenly and long into the evening, choked periodically by the sand of special interests.
Outspoken charter and head boat captains claimed their customers would stop booking if they weren’t able to kill one or more big spawning-age fish per trip. And if a catch reduction was to be put in place, they wanted its implementation to be protracted over three years. In the end, however, the fish won: The reduction vote passed and will be implemented in 2015. The coastal states will see a 25-percent reduction from the 2013 harvest level, while Chesapeake Bay states and jurisdictions get a bit of wiggle room with a 20.5-percent reduction from the 2012 level; the justification (read: compromise) being that they reduced their harvest under local management programs by 14 percent in 2013. The ASMFC Striper Management Board’s Technical Committee will continue working with Chesapeake-specific reference points in future management. The commercial industry will see a 25-percent reduction in quota, though according to Richard Brame, South Atlantic and Gulf States Regional Fisheries Director of the Coastal Conservation Association, “Since [commercial] quota has not been met, some states will see little if any reduction in commercial harvest, which is troubling.”
For the coastal states to achieve their 25-percent reduction, the benchmark bag limit will drop from two fish at 28 inches to one fish of that length—but that stipulation is flexible. States have the option of developing alternative regulations that still achieve the 25-percent reduction through size limits, slot limits, and/or trophy regulations. It’s called “conservation equivalency.” All of these measures are predicted to bring fishing mortality to the ASMFCs “target” rate within two years. The newly reduced target and threshold mortality reference points will be in place for a minimum of three to five years until the next benchmark stock assessment is done. At that point, if the overall abundance and spawning stock biomass has rebounded, ASMFC could introduce another addendum increasing harvest.
Of course more issues still remain unanswered. For instance, there was a strong spawn year in 2011, amidst a long run of dismal reproductive years before and since. We should now be seeing more small “schoolie” size fish from that year, but they seem mysteriously lacking. There is the continued pounding of prime spawning-size female bass by commercial operations, unguided fishermen, and charters running multiple trips day and night. Off Rhode Island’s Block Island, for example, literally thousands of big breeder fish were taken over the course of several weeks last summer. Fisheries managers must formulate plans mandating the release of many more breeding-size fish.
Though we will not see instant results from the new regulations, the ASMFC Striped Bass Management Board’s proactive vote should be considered the best step in a long time in helping one of our iconic game fish. As a striped bass angler of 60 years, I say that’s a very good thing.