Striped bass are overfished, and overfishing is occurring. These are facts, which are reported by the same entity responsible for ensuring the management of this species. Sure, everyone knows someone who catches stripers every outing or follows an Instagram page that routinely posts pictures of quality bass. But up and down the coast, anglers and guides are describing a greatly diminished striped bass population and, subsequently, loss of the positive economic impacts. And to quickly dispel some striped bass myths: NO, the stock is not shifting towards federal waters; and, NO, the aggressive removal of menhaden/bunker is not the main culprit—while this is an issue of concern. We as fishermen are killing far too many fish. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves: a big thank you to the American Saltwater Guides Association for helping us understand this complex issue and for all the work they do for our coastal fisheries. Be sure to check out their recent letter to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission!

Today, Wednesday August 7th, is the last day to voice your opinions, before the Striped Bass Management Board considers two important measures for striped bass. Please email your respective commissioners today and tell them: “approach the issue with a greater than 50/50 probability of success; end overfishing and rebuild the stock in no more than 10 years; and, reject any effort to lower the biomass reference points through the amendment process.” For more on these two measures, check out this American Saltwater Guides Association Action Alert.

Striped bass are an anadromous species; they are born in freshwater estuaries and then return to saltwater, only to return to these estuaries to spawn. The Chesapeake Bay, the largest of these estuaries, facilitates 70-80% of striped bass spawning. The Hudson and Delaware Rivers allow spawning for the rest of the stock, with a minimal amount of spawning occurring in smaller East coast estuaries. After spawning, the population makes their annual North-ward migrations, where they run the gauntlet of millions of fishermen. Aggressive removals and inadequate management practices over the last 10 or so years have left us with an overfished stock where overfishing is occurring. This article will explore in-depth how we got here and the next steps. But understand this: the long-term health of the striped bass stock is in serious jeopardy. So, follow along to get a better grasp for this issue.

Background

Before we examine the current state of striped bass, it is important to take a step back and examine the early 1970s-80s, when the striped bass population was on the verge of a total collapse. A drastic measure averted the looming collapse: the 1984 Striped Bass Conservation Act, which mandated a fishing moratorium for any state not complying with Amendment 3 to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Interstate Fishery Management Plan of 1981.  During these years, striped bass numbers were at the lowest point witnessed by biologists, managers, and anglers.  So, it was no surprise that the moratorium was necessary. Throughout the 1980’s, restoration and management efforts were accomplishing Amendment 3’s goal of protecting the relatively strong 1982-year class of juvenile striped bass. As a result, striped bass rebounded and were declared recovered in 1995 by managers.

It is also important to understand the regulatory framework that manages striped bass. ASMFC oversees the management of marine species within state waters, including striped bass. Striped bass stocks were effectively saved by the Striped Bass Management Board—a component of ASMFC—in the 1980s; however, this was the only example of a successful ASMFC fish stock restoration effort. Since striped bass are now declared overfished, ASMFC has never recovered and maintained a stock in its 77-year history. ASMFC has no federal mandate to require that it must respond to and repair an overfished stock. This absence of a statutory mandate, along with tremendous political pressure to maintain the status quo, explains why ASMFC has watched Atlantic striped bass overfishing occur and allowed the species to become overfished. Yes, the overfished and overfishing statuses are different—more on this later. It is impossible to understand how ASMFC allowed the striped bass fishery to reach today’s levels without a basic understanding of Amendment 6.

In 2003, Amendment 6 to ASMFC’s 1981 Interstate Fishery Management Plan passed with this goal: “the long-term maintenance of a broad age structure, a self-sustaining spawning stock; and also to provide for the restoration and maintenance of their essential habitat,” (Amendment 6). This is an immensely important agreement for striped bass, because Amendment 6 contained a series of “management triggers,” which are agreed-upon reference points that would prompt managerial actions. The first reference point of importance deals with female spawning stock biomass (SSB): if the SSB falls below the threshold (slightly over 200 million pounds), the stock will be deemed “overfished” and appropriate measures must be adopted by the Management Board to restore the stock. Similarly, the other relevant reference point deals with Fishing Mortality (F): “when the fishing mortality threshold (F=0.41) is exceeded, overfishing of the striped bass population is occurring.” (Amendment 6, §2.5.1) The five management triggers were intended to compel the Management Board to take the necessary steps to restore the stock when certain events dealing with the SSB and F thresholds are reached and/or surpassed. Without going into too much regulatory detail, here are two ‘triggers’ that today have been ‘tripped’:

“1)If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality threshold is exceeded in any year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year; and, 2) If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within the timeframe established in Section 2.6.2 [not to exceed 10 years].”(Amendment 6, 4.1)

The Amendment 6 triggers and reference points were put into place to ensure that the 1980’s near-collapse of the striped bass stock would not happen again. But, today, the Management Board has ignored stock assessments, biologists’ opinions, anglers’ accounts, and the tripping of two triggers, leaving the future of the striped bass population in uncertain territory.

Photo courtesy of Kyle Schaefer @soulflyoutfitters

The Road to An Overfished Stock with Overfishing Occurring

ASMFC missed several key opportunities to stabilize the decline of the striped bass stock, due to no federal mandate and the political backlash of regulatory corrections. Based on data and expert analysis, 2004 was a critically important year for striped bass stocks. This was the year that the SSB began its decline. Yet, ASMFC managers expressed little concern, because striped bass recruitment numbers (i.e. young of the year juveniles entering the population) were at a 20-year high. These recruitment numbers saw sharp fluctuations in recent years, but generally are trending downward (Figure 3).

ASMFC managers expressed their first legitimate concern for the striped bass stock during the October, 2008 meeting. Representatives from Northern New England highlighted diminishing striped bass numbers and access in their regional waters. This concern was ultimately justified, when the 2011 Stock Assessment Update was released, which stated: “overall the conclusion is that stock abundance has declined since 2004.”  Under rational–and even normal–management practices, this concern for the longevity of the striped bass stock should have initiated management actions by the ASMFC through Amendment 6.

The Current Concern

Today, the striped bass stock is overfished AND subject to overfishing, according to the 2018 Stock Assessment, which examines 2017 data. This Assessment found that the 2017 SSB was estimated to be 151 million pounds—51 million pounds below the SSB threshold and 101 million pounds below the SSB target. This is alarming. Especially, when examining the SSB trends.

Similarly, the 2017 fishing mortality data revealed a grim outlook for the future of striped bass. Fishing mortality was above both threshold and target reference points. Simply put, too many fish are being killed. Remember, those ASMFC management triggers? Well now in 2019, the Management Board should take action, due to two Amendment 6 triggers being tripped.

ASMFC April 30, 2019 Update

Using this data and tripped triggers, the Management Board met on April 30, 2019 to determine how they would proceed: would they initiate an addendum to Amendment 6 or draft an entirely new governing amendment, a process which would take years and stoke the small but loud political voices of the pro-harvest crowd. The state of Maryland has advocated for the full amendment route, because this would allow managers to lower the reference points and allow more striped bass removals.

Kismet Outfitters owner, Abbie Schuster, said this about the state of striped bass: “Marthas Vineyard is still a bountiful fishery full of life, but entire class sizes of striped bass are missing. The huge ones are EXTREMELY scarce. We need to protect this resource for the generations to come.”

The Board initiated the addendum to Amendment 6, with the goal of developing “a Draft Addendum to consider measures aimed to reduce F [fishing mortality] to the target level.” However, the Board did not address the overfished status of striped bass [spawning aged fish estimates falling below a certain level]. One would think that the most recent estimates, which found the striped bass SSB to be 51 million pounds below the threshold level, would be enough to address the overfished stock. But no, the Board did not task the Plan Development Team to address the overfished stock, despite this being an explicit component of Amendment 6.

Additionally, the Board simply tabled the decision to initiate a full Amendment to the Atlantic Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan. In its August 8th, 2019 meeting, the Board is expected to move forward and vote on whether or not to initiate a full Amendment. The Board will address, “the needed consideration for change on the issues of fishery goals and objectives, empirical/biological/spatial reference points, management triggers, rebuilding biomass, and area-specific management.” (ASMFC) This is an attempt to reevaluate the 1995 reference points. This could have potentially disastrous effects on the long-term vigor of the striped bass population, if the pro-harvest crowd gets what they want–a lowering of the reference points. In other terms: the Board would not work to restore the stock to its previous highs, but rather manage the stock at its current lower biomass. This is an unacceptable option that must garnish opposition from striped bass fishermen. Conversely, if the Board listens to biologists and fisheries experts, the reference points could actually be heightened. However, at this time, that possible outcome does not seem likely.

The ASMFC Technical Committee made a series of recommendations for the upcoming Draft Addendum. In a memo to the Management Board, the Technical Committee wrote, “In order to have a 50% chance of being at or below the F target (F=0,197) in 2020, removals for 2020 needed to be 5.9 million fish. This is a 17% reduction from 2017 levels.” Once the addendum is accepted, however, it will go to the states. There, it is more than likely that the pro-harvest states–Maryland leading the charge–will oppose or attempt to hinder these reduction measures.

To achieve this 17% reduction, which only has an estimated 50% success rate, the Technical Committee made these recommendations:

  1. Change the coast size limit of Striped bass from 28” to 35”
  2. 19” to 21” in the Maryland jurisdiction of the Chesapeake Bay
  3. 20” to 22” in Virginia’s jurisdiction of the Chesapeake Bay

Supplementing the Technical Committee recommendations, the Management Board also tasked the Plan Development Team to look into other options: a slot limit (the effectiveness of slot limits has a wide range of opinions), circle hooks when fishing with bait, and—if necessary—seasonal restrictions. Circle hooks are something all fishermen should be adopting with open arms; they greatly reduce the odds of gut-hooking fish and do not substantially alter hook-up percentages. However, it seems irrational to assume that season restrictions would be effective, because the states that are taking too many fish do not seem willing to voluntarily reduce their harvests. The Plan Development Team is expected to release a Draft Addendum at the August 8, 2019 ASMFC meeting.

Captain Jamie Boyle with a great fly rod fish

As stakeholders up and down the East coast await this document and the subsequent public-comment period, one thing is certain: TOO MANY STRIPED BASS ARE BEING KILLED. And before everyone immediately turns to the commercial fishery for blame, understand some of these metrics. Where commercial fishing (landings and discards) accounted for 701,051 fish, recreational fishing killed 6,357,836 fish, according to the ASMFC Summary of the 2019 Benchmark Stock Assessment. In simple metrics, commercial removals account for roughly 10% of striped bass mortality, yet the recreational sector is responsible for 90%.

THE MARYLAND PROBLEM

The Chesapeake Bay is the spawning ground for an estimated 70-80% of the entire striped bass population, making it arguably the most important region for the stock. However, this region also disproportionately removes the most bass. The health of the Bay can play a big role in the year to year fluctuations of the entire stock (young of the year indices). Especially, as habitat loss, lack of food, pollution (agricultural and residential runoff), hypoxia (dead zones), and disease continue to plague the Bay—despite recent signs of improvement. So, while these semi-natural factors can have significant effects on the stock, the amount of striped bass harvests in the Chesapeake Bay—mainly in Maryland’s jurisdictional portion of the bay—must decrease.

Maryland regularly ranks as the top state for recreational harvests. Maryland managers do little to reign in these high harvest numbers and adhere to their irresponsible regulations. The state has consistently exceeded its fishing mortality target, making no meaningful reductions. For example, the Maryland recreational sector “averages over 1.25 million fish,” yet their target removal number is 572,000 fish. On the other hand, Virginia, which shares the Chesapeake Bay fishery with Maryland, has recently made commendable efforts to decrease their role in overfishing. The Spring of 2019 was incredibly telling for Maryland’s ‘business as usual’ priorities. When Virginia canceled their Spring trophy season due to concerns of the stock’s health, Maryland took no action.

This is another fault in the regulatory framework of Amendment 6 and ASMFC. There is no mandate for states to conform to management decisions or for ASMFC to hold certain states accountable. And when you have a state like Maryland that continues to harvest fish—in striped bass’ most important spawning region—at a disproportionate level, Northern states see less and less fish, and subsequently make matters worse when they harvest their portion of the population. Something needs to change in Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay to effectively restore the population.

Striped Bass Outlook

While Maryland does account for the most recreation removals, they are not the only state contributing to this problem. Coastal states offer recreation anglers with tremendous and unfettered access to striped bass. For example, states like New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts all enjoy robust recreational fishing participation. This is a double-edged sword, because it fuels local economies, but it also kills hundreds of thousands of fish. Striped bass are a resource shared by the entire mid-Atlantic, and the restoration efforts must be a holistic process.

The striped bass fishery represents a massive economic impact for the entire Mid-Atlantic Region. Whether it’s mom and pop tackle stores, guiding businesses, fishing tournaments, boat and equipment sales, you name it, a healthy striped bass population facilitates this recreational economy. Without a healthy population, these economic benefits will significantly diminish. When asked about the current state of striped bass, Why Knot Fishing co-founder Joe Gugino had this to say: “I’m extremely worried about the future of our striped bass fishery; especially considering our current fisheries management framework. Something needs to be changed immediately if this biomass is going to have any chance of recovery.”

It’s a grim reality, but recreational anglers are not constrained by any annual catch limit and, subsequently, are responsible for 90% of striped bass mortality. And to be clear, it is every anglers’ right to responsibly harvest and eat striped bass that they catch. However, should ASMFC not include adequate actions in their Draft Addendum, anglers that care about the long-term health of striped bass should voluntarily chose to release significantly more bass. Likewise, recreational anglers should understand the implications of their ‘limit fishing’. Fishing to fill a cooler with your limit (and in many cases your guide’s limit too) seems to be setting a bad precedent and contributing to the current precarious state of striped bass. Something needs to change. This resource needs to be protected with fair and common-sense management actions that balance state accountability, a strong spawning population, and significantly decreased fish mortality. How that is achieved is anyone’s guess, but we are hoping an adequate framework is released in the upcoming August 8th ASMFC meeting.

The view from the 2019 Cheeky Schoolie Tournament. This is the World’s largest fly fishing tournament and is catch and release only!

Want to know how to help? Check out this Action Alert released by the American Saltwater Guides Association. Email your commissioners and tell them to “approach the issue with a greater than 50/50 probability of success; end overfishing and rebuild the stock in no more than 10 years; and, reject any effort to lower the biomass reference points through the amendment process.” The effort needed to protect striped bass will be massive and prolonged. But if us anglers want to share this amazing resource with future generations, a full-tilt effort is necessary.



This article was written by Flylords’ Conservation Editor, Will Poston.