The primary wintering grounds for the majority of the East Coast’s striper population is off North Carolina. Serious guides and veteran anglers who’ve for the last 8- 10 years fished big winter bass schools off the Carolina Capes will tell you how things are changing. They’ll tell you how the big fish once stretched along beaches from Cape Charles, VA down to Cape Hatteras, NC, how you wouldn’t need to search far to find huge schools of 30-50-pounders, how in the past few years this fishery has been drying up. They’ll tell you how you have to run farther now to find the schools that are smaller and fewer, though big fish are still among them. There are those who claim the fish have simply gone farther off shore. Fishermen with historical perspective will tell you that’s bull—t. They’ve been searching to 20 miles off shore for the fish, but haven’t found them. According to one guide, a NOAA ship dedicated to tagging the biggest breeder winter bass, this year is striking out finding them. The read is that the healthy comeback population of big breeding bass made possible–after a near stock collapse– by comparatively conservative management in the mid-80’s into the 90’s is being fished down. It appears as though the fishery along the NC coast has fallen and that the fleet has moved north to join boats already fishing Virginia waters.
A recent release from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) appears to reassure us that all is well yet if you dig into statistics over the last half dozen years you see that there are wild fluctuations in the numbers. Indeed, ASMFC changed the formula on which to base its findings, and despite the recent optimistic “spin” it is evident that the spawning stock biomass (the total weight of all spawning age fish ) has declined for the past four years. More: fishing mortality is at the maximum rate at which bass should be killed by fishermen. They call that maximum, “target mortality.” It does not produce a quality fishery. Further, the rate at which larger breeding size fish are being killed is much higher than for smaller fish.
Digging deeper into the figures, Stripers Forever, an internet-based organization [ www.stripersforever.org which you should check out ] that advocates game fish status for wild striped bass, can show that the target mortality rate has been surpassed. A plurality of members responding to annual surveys by Stripers Forever has shown with consistency that the fishery has been declining in quality, meaning larger fish.
Though the majority of the recreational community has consistently asked that striped bass be managed at a much lower fishing mortality rate, there are still numbers of “sport” anglers who high-grade (release fish that have no chance of surviving, especially when caught using obviously deadly methods like yo-yoing) in order to haul in ever larger bass. Some charter boat operations are consistently guilty of such practices. Along with that, fishery managers (both state and Federal) continue to favor management that parcels out our remaining marine resources to a small, vociferous commercial fishing industry .
The studies presented to the public by striped bass managers, include no real estimate for margins of error. The methods for determining uncounted mortalities like commercial discards in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) where no stripers may be taken and kept, are poor, and there are no comments about illegal commercial catches even though arrest and confiscation records show the illegal catch is very large, likely equaling a large part of the overall commercial mortality.
At the northern end of our striped bass range—the first indicator of trouble– larger fish have become scarcer for several years. “By every measurement,” says Stripers Forever, “mortality is rising and spawning stock biomass is shrinking. One doesn’t have to extend the dots for more than a year or two to see that a huge problem looms ahead.”
SF is confident, and let us hope they are right, that if the pressure of commercial quotas by very effective commercial lobbies were totally removed, that the ASMFC would manage striped bass at a much lower fishing mortality rate. If that happened, a quality fishery could be preserved for millions who find the creature so compelling, a creature that supports a dedicated recreational industry valued at upwards of $2 billion.