The time to gear up and advocate for the long term protection of striped bass is here. This fish is the most important species on the East coast, bar none. Anglers of all skill levels, gear preference, and background enjoy this perfect fish. You see, what makes striped bass so perfect is the diversity of opportunity in the fishery–when they are abundant and healthy that is. You can catch them sight fishing on the flats, or blitzing on the beach, or in the inlet, or a mile offshore. You can catch a little schoolie and then a 30 pound fish an hour later on the same fly.
Today, however, striped bass are overfished and subject to overfishing–and have been for a couple years now. Last season, the authority that manages striped bass, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), passed Addendum VI in an effort to reduce fishing mortality (dead fish) by 18 percent. Despite that effort (the impact of Addendum VI is currently unknown), the ASMFC initiated an amendment process, which will shape the future of striped bass management.
Economically, this fishery produces a greater impact than what you see with Alaska’s salmon fisheries. According to a 2016 report, striped bass had a nearly $8 billion economic impact in 2016 (when the stock had declined considerably). Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery is valued at over $1.5 billion. Think of what an abundant and sustainable stock could produce and how much it would benefit our coastal communities.
It may seem impossible now, but the striped bass recovery in the late 80s, early 90s is one of the greatest environmental success stories in history. But just because the fish was recovered 30 years ago, does not mean that it will happen again. It’s an unfortunate reality, and s very real possibility, that this amendment process could take a turn for the worse and fundamentally change striped bass.
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This whole process is complex, drawn out, and will undoubtedly be contentious. For the next ten days the ASMFC is seeking comment on a Public Information Document (PID), which will ultimately guide what is in or out of the future draft amendment. Of the nine issues identified in the PID, there are several issues that deserve special attention: biological reference points, stock rebuilding, and conservation equivalency.
Lowering the Goal Posts
Bar none, the Biological Reference Points issue stands to be the most devastating for striped bass and those who love to catch them and share that experience with others. Think of reference points as a measuring stick that managers use to judge the stock. The current reference points are based on 1995, when the stock was declared recovered and exhibited an abundant and diverse age structure. Lowering the reference points by using a different base year is a realistic outcome of this amendment. A healthy and abundant fishery benefits all of us, and it is possible. In the early 2000s, when the striped bass population was at its highest, fishing mortality was near or at overfishing levels. Therefore, if fishing mortality is responsibly controlled, the ‘target’ level is attainable. Maintaining the current reference points is paramount for restoring striped bass and future management.
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Speaking of restoring stripers, the ASMFC is supposed to rebuild the stock by 2029, but a rebuilding plan does not currently exist. When stripers were declared overfished and subject to overfishing in 2019, a 10 year rebuilding timer started. The ASMFC is supposed to adhere to that timeframe and create a rebuilding plan per their own rules, but accountability is not a strong suit with the ASMFC. It is imperative that striped bass are rebuilt, and that starts with the ASMFC devising an effective plan.
As you probably know, striped bass are migratory and swim up and down the Mid-Atlantic coast. Managing stripers as a migratory stock under a standard set of coastal regulations promotes management effectiveness and uniformity. Conservation equivalency, however, can undermine even the best management programs, because it allows different regulations for implementing states without any accountability. And while every state does have different fisheries and priorities, they all share these fish. States that choose to implement conservation equivalency should not negatively impact the collective resource nor impede management efforts.
Conservation equivalency should be reined in, or at the least not be an option when the stock is overfished and/or subject to overfishing. Further, managers should require more accountability from states that chose to implement conservation equivalency and penalize those that fail to meet conservation objectives.
How to be an Advocate
If the reference points are lowered there will forever be less fish in the water. If rebuilding is not addressed and conservation equivalency continues to be abused, recovering striped bass is a pipe dream. This fish is too important to settle for subpar management and relative scarcity. You can submit an electronic comment to ASMFC up until Friday April 9th.
This is complex and time-consuming, and we aren’t even at the actual amendment stage. However, getting involved today and commenting on the PID will inform and guide the draft amendment, which will hopefully prioritize the long-term health and abundance of striped bass. The American Saltwater Guides Association is working to make this entire process understandable and provide motivated individuals with all the necessary resources to be effective and informed striped bass advocates. Click on the link below for the American Saltwater Guides Association’s one-stop shop for navigating the PID and how to submit a comment or attend a virtual hearing.
Think of the impact this community had on Pebble Mine and Bristol Bay. The highest levels of government realized that Pebble was the wrong mine in the wrong place, and Bristol Bay’s sustainable economy was more valuable. Those successes, while Pebble is still not completely dead, are attributable to public input and pressure. That energy and level of involvement will be needed to restore striped bass and protect the resource for generations to come.