Atlantic Striped Bass

When measured in pounds, more Atlantic striped bass are harvested by US recreational anglers than any other recreational target species.

Volume of catch, however, does not accurately represent how important striped bass are to not only recreational anglers, but also to the US economy.

Striped bass are sleek, powerful, gorgeous animals. The body is mostly silver and white with an average of seven black horizontal stripes and glistening shades of purple and pink that rarely translate to film.  While it is hard to put into words, they have an unmistakable draw, uncharacteristic of any other sport-fish in the world. It’s not an understatement to say that they are a fish that changes people. To many, the pursuit is an obsession… an addiction.

Entire communities of anglers from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to Montauk, New York to the Chesapeake Bay have come to structure their lives around these fish.

Atlantic Striped Bass Biology

Atlantic striped bass (Morone saxatilis) are managed by the Striped Bass Management Board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  They can be found between Canada and Florida; however, ASMFC manages stocks between Maine and North Carolina.

Atlantic striped bass are a slow-growing, long-lived species, with a life span up to 30 years.  While a 30-pound fish is a “big one” in most anglers’ minds, the all-tackle world record, caught in Connecticut in August 2011, weighed 81.8 pounds.  The largest striped bass on record is a 125-pound specimen caught off North Carolina in 1891.

Stripers are anadromous, meaning that while they spend most of their lives along the coast and its estuaries, each spring, adults travel up natal freshwater rivers to spawn. Much of the migratory coastal stock originates from the Chesapeake Bay. Although not as large as the Chesapeake Bay spawning stock, the Hudson River and Delaware Bay also have separately identifiable major spawning stocks. Beside the big three, there are dozens of rivers reaching as far north as Maine that have minuscule spawning stocks. In total, however, spawning stocks from these rivers don’t even add up to 1 percent of the coastal population. The Chesapeake Bay is, by far, the most important producer area, accounting for approximately 80 percent of coastal migratory fish.

Females reach sexual maturity at around age six (26 to 27 inches) while males mature at around age two (17 to 18 inches). Fecundity of female striped bass is directly related to the fish’s size.  A 30-inch fish may produce a million eggs, while a 50-inch fish can put out over four-million.

Each spring as the water warms, spawning-age stripers begin migrating up freshwater rivers.  On the spawning grounds, males fertilize eggs before such eggs drift downstream and eventually hatch into larvae, where they immediately begin feeding on zooplankton.

Striped bass are opportunistic feeders but will concentrate their feeding efforts on available aggregations of menhaden (aka bunker), squid, butterfish, sand-eel, river-herring/sea-herring, bay-anchovies, and spearing.  They also frequently feed on scup, tautog, black sea bass, and bergalls in deep water.  In the estuaries, they may focus on grass-shrimp, as well as mantis shrimp and a number of species of crabs.  Lobsters are also frequently found in stripers’ bellies.

Recreational Fishery

There are many reasons that striped bass are one of the planet’s superstar recreational target species. First and foremost, they are generally accessible to both shore and boat anglers. They school up and engage in feeding frenzies right along the coast, sometimes well inside of the breakers.  They also inhabitant coastal bays and estuaries in good numbers.

Striped bass are very aggressive, and they will smash a topwater plug, fly, live bait, etc. in spectacular fashion.  The small ones are feisty and hard fighting, while the big ones provide a heavy, unrelenting pull that cause anglers of all stripes to forgo sleep to fish the late tides and early sunrises. They have garnered a following in the Mid-Atlantic and New England that is nothing short of extraordinary.

Not only are they targeted heavily by the party/charter fleet and inshore boat owners, but they have spawned a mid-Atlantic and New England surf-casting community that dates back more than a century.  Striped bass are also responsible for a much newer northeast saltwater fly-fishing industry that employees thousands.

Boat manufactures build vessels with striped bass in mind. There are thousands of small mom and pop tackle companies that develop and sell regionally popular striped bass specific tackle. There are also major players in the worldwide tackle industry that have entire research and development programs aimed at creating the next fad item to catch striped bass, because quite frankly something as innate as a small bit of rubber can generate millions when placed on a Wal-Mart shelf with the words striped bass printed on the package.

There are whole towns in New England and the mid-Atlantic with restaurants, hotels, etc. that live and die on striped bass abundance.

They are THAT important, not just to anglers, but to the coastal economy of the East Coast.

From 2007-2014 total recreational (only) landings have averaged just over 25 million pounds per year. To be clear, the term “landings” includes both fish kept plus roughly 9 percent of fish that were released and are assumed to not survive. (The research on the 9 percent discard mortality is considered to be very good science.) In 2015 the recreational catch was 18.2 million pounds and was lower than the prior average because of a cautious conservation-based management strategy adopted in Addendum IV.

Since 2003 Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) data show that anglers release 73-90 percent of all caught striped bass.

Commercial Fishery

Because of its seasonal nature, the commercial striped bass fishery contributes to a commercial fishermen’s combined income.  There are very few, if any, commercial fishermen that derive a full-time income from commercial harvest of striped bass. The average holder of a striped bass commercial permit fits the “waterman” business plan where a captain with a boat does some for-hire charter fishing, some rod and reel commercial or small mobile gear commercial fishing, and makes a go of earning a living on the water. There are also many striped bass anglers who commercially fish during the season simply to cover boat expenses, etc.

Federal Waters

As mentioned earlier, striped bass are managed by the ASMFC, whose jurisdiction is primarily from shore out to three miles. While striped bass do occur in federal waters (outside of three nautical miles, in the exclusive economic zone, or EEZ), targeting them there is prohibited under federal regulations.

The EEZ was closed to striped bass fishing in 1990 via the ASMFC management plan, and later the prohibition in federal waters was strengthened by an executive order signed by then President George W. Bush prohibiting commercial fishing of striped bass in federal waters.

The intent of the original prohibition was to protect strong year classes entering the population and to help rebuild an overfished population. Today it serves as a badly needed buffer, particularly for the older, larger adults often found outside of three miles and for those fish overwintering off North Carolina and Virginia, which school in very specific areas just before spawning the next generation. Over the years there have been two proposals to have the federal moratorium lifted.  One in 2003 and one in 2006.  Both proposals were unsuccessful.

Collapse and Rebuilding

Starting in the mid-70s, striped bass young-of-the-year surveys began to show a definitive decline in juvenile abundance in the Chesapeake Bay.  By 1980 there was a clear pattern of well below average young-of-the year indices. While commercial and recreational landings reached record highs in the early 70s, they declined by almost 90 percent during the following decade, as newer year classes weren’t replacing the older ones.

Declining water quality and what had become rampant pollution in the Chesapeake Bay probably contributed to the resultant stock collapse, but in the end, “recruitment overfishing” was determined to be the major contributor to the decline. In other words, too many fish were being killed before they could spawn and replace themselves, and fishing was of course the only factor managers could really control.

It is important here to note that when this occurred the natural practice for recreational anglers obsessed with striped bass fishing was to keep every fish they caught and to sell every fish they didn’t take home. The minimum size in the fishery was 16 inches even though trophy fish of 50 pounds were common in big fish locations.

Despite what was at times overwhelming political pushback from fishermen and politicians, ASMFC adopted an Interstate Fishery Management Plan in 1981. Although the report spanned more than 300 pages, the plan ultimately did nothing to rebuild the striped bass stock.

Rebuilding didn’t begin until ASMFC adopted Amendment 3 to such management plan in 1985.  Amendment 3 was a simple, 3-page document intended to protect a relatively strong 1982 year class, and all those spawned in subsequent years, by imposing a steadily increasing size limit, which would ensure that 95 percent of all females from such year classes would survive long enough to spawn at least once.

Amendment 3 had been given new teeth by the 1984 Striped Bass Conservation Act, which required the states to comply with the plan or face federal moratorium  Beginning in 1985, many states voluntarily imposed moratoria of various lengths, while the rest changed their regulations in compliance with Amendment 3, by imposing increases in minimum size limits that were expected to reach 38 inches by 1990.  As a result, abundance of females on spawning grounds in Maryland doubled between 1985 and 1988, and young-of-the year indices had begun to improve dramatically by the 90s.

In late 1989, ASMFC adopted Amendment 4 after the three-year average of the Maryland young-of-the-year index rose above the threshold value used to define a recovering stock.  Under Amendment 4, the states began to ease regulations in response to growing abundance.  The commercial fishery was still greatly reduced compared to historical levels.  Recreational bag limits of one fish were imposed on all states.

Improvement in the spawning stock and successive high young-of-the-year indices prompted managers in 1995 to declare striped bass had fully recovered, 10 years after stringent, yet politically unpopular management measures were implemented.

Amendment 5 was then adopted to address management of recovered stocks. The amendment allowed all coastal states to adopt a two-fish bag limit and 28-inch minimum size, and substantially liberalized the commercial fishery.  Through “conservation equivalency,” it also broadened states’ options for meeting management goals.

Amendment 6 was passed in 2003 with the intent to maximize the overall benefits of the fishery. The goal was to allow fisheries consistent with maintaining a self-sustaining spawning stock and a broad age structure.  It did this through a new set of reference points and management triggers, which will be described below.

Amendment 6 restored commercial fisheries to the states’ historical average landings (starting in 2004) using a 1972 to 1979 base line.  This ended up resulting in a 43 percent increase from the 2002 commercial quota.  For recreational fisheries, Amendment 6 required all states to either implement a two-fish bag limit with a 28-inch size limit or come up with an alternative measure that had the same conservation benefit.

ASFMC recommended as part of Amendment 6 to reopen federal waters (EEZ), and recommended it again in 2007 through Addendum I. However, it didn’t fly given a likely increase in fishing mortality.  Addendum II simply revised the definition of recruitment failure, in relation to the Chesapeake young-of-the-year indices.  Addendum III was passed in the summer of 2012 to address large-scale illegal harvest in light of recent poaching arrests. It required states and jurisdictions to initiate a tagging program for all commercial removals to better track harvest and stymie poaching.

Current Management – Reference Points

The real utility of Amendment 6 is that it put in place new set of target and threshold “biological reference point” management triggers.

Basically, we have a spawning stock biomass (SSB) “target” reference point (the number of spawning fish managers strive to keep fish in the water), and a “threshold” reference point for management action. The goal is to manage stripers so that we reach the SSB target, but if that level of fish falls below the threshold, it becomes “overfished” and management action is required to get it back to SSB target.

Managers also have a goal of keeping fishing mortality at a certain level that will allow us to achieve the SSB target, and keep striped bass from falling below the SSB threshold. If estimated fishing mortality exceeds the threshold, then Amendment 6 requires ASMFC to take action to get us back to the target.  If it exceeds the threshold, then we are “overfishing.”

These reference points, and management triggers, are supposed to enable managers to be more responsive to the ups and downs in young-of the-year indices and future stock abundance.

Recent Stock Assessments

Chesapeake Bay young-of-the-year production has been comparably good for the better part the last two decades. However, from 2006 to 2010 we had below average young-of-the-year production in the Chesapeake Bay, likely due to environmental conditions. Thus, the number of striped bass caught began to decline after 2008 as the last of the good year-classes dwindled.  Further decline was forecast before a banner 2011 year-class could recruit into the fishery.

A 2011 stock assessment indicated that the stock was not overfished, and overfishing wasn’t occurring, yet the resource was undeniably trending downward.  Even so, ASMFC took no action, banking on the 2011 year-class to recruit.

A 2013 benchmark stock assessment went a few steps further documenting the decline, but also indicating that if ASMFC stayed on the same management path, we likely would be overfishing and would likely achieve an overfished state as early at 2015.

Thus after unnecessarily prolonged debate on how to proceed, the ASMFC Striped Bass Board approved Addendum IV late in 2014, which reduced harvest by 25 percent along the coast and 20.5 percent in the Chesapeake Bay.

Addendum IV also required all coastal jurisdictions (excluding Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River) to reduce their two-fish bag limit to one fish while retaining the 28-inch size limit, but it allowed each state to submit conservation equivalent measures.

The Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions were required to submit a management program that achieves the 20.5 percent reduction from 2012 harvest in the Chesapeake Bay.

Commercial quotas were reduced by 25 percent across the board.

Addendum V

 An assessment update was released late in 2016.  It showed that while the stock wasn’t “overfished,” the spawning stock biomass wasn’t anywhere near the target, and was close to the overfished threshold.  Fishing mortality on the other hand came in slightly below the target and well below the threshold, so overfishing was not occurring.

The assessment update also sought to gage whether states achieved the reductions required in Addendum IV.  Analysis of 2015 recreational catch data showed that coastal measures were indeed successful.  Reductions along the coast exceeded expectations, achieving a 47 percent reduction. This is good!

Anglers in the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions, however, caught 58 percent more fish than the 2012 baseline, instead of reducing their landings by 20.5 percent. In other words they landed about twice the bass that they were entitled to. This is bad!  But…when the actual 2015 reductions for both the coast and the bay were combined, the reduction was very close to 25 percent, so in theory, the goal was achieved.

There was no requirement in Addendum IV to hold the Chesapeake Bay states accountable for any overage. The overage made sense to many because the large number of 2011 fish still in the Bay more than offset the increased minimum size of Addendum IV. It should be noted that one of the stated goals in Addendum IV was to protect the strong 2011 year-class; given the increased bay landings that goal does not appear to have been achieved.

Instead of offering to adjust management measures to comply with Addendum IV, the Chesapeake Bay jurisdiction is now simply asking for more fish, claiming that the current measures are causing an “economic crisis.” There are plenty who question the legitimacy of such an argument as 2015 recreational fishing data are clear that recreational fishing effort is up, more fish are being caught, and more charter trips are being run.

An ASMFC commissioner tied to the Maryland DNR moved to initiate an amendment to liberalize regulations imposed by Addendum IV.

The rationale was that eliminating the fishing mortality underage could allow a 10 percent increase in landings, based on the estimated recreational landings in 2015.  However, the underage is so small that ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee made it clear that the margin of error makes such a change statistically irrelevant. Thus, there really is no biological justification for an increase.

Any such addendum will take at least a year to complete.  A new benchmark stock assessment is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2018, which will provide managers with more information to make better management decisions.  And the intent all along was to give managers three years to accurately gage the impact of the measures implemented in Addendum IV. Thus, there is little reason to try to change the management measures imposed by Addendum IV now.

Regardless of those facts, the motion to initiate an addendum narrowly passed, with the New England States voting against, and the mid-Atlantic states generally voting for it.

The addendum is currently being developed, and will likely be put out to public shortly after ASMFCs May meeting.  In the coming months, there will be public hearings on the addendum before ASMFC takes action.

Fissues.org will cover this and all striped bass management actions in great detail. We will monitor every meeting, hearing, assessment, etc. We will report on what is going on and what we think is coming. If you don’t want to miss any of our coverage we suggest you take three simple actions right now.

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback/Trackback
    May 7, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    On Addendum V and “Liberalizing” Striped Bass Regs – Fissues

  2. Pingback/Trackback
    May 17, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    ASMFC Spring Meeting Summary – Fissues