Spring is here, and for many of us on the East Coast, that means striped bass. Every spring stripers storm into coastal rivers to spawn and sustain their population. After spawning, stripers exit these coastal tributaries and begin their annual migration north, giving coastal anglers great recreational opportunities. If you are lucky enough to live close to the colder waters where these stripers spend their summers, you will enjoy action all summer long. However, with the current overfished and subject to overfishing status of the stock, this spring will most likely be a different story.

Sure, fishermen will find stripers, and some will even find pockets of big fish. But the aggregate success among striped bass fishermen this spring will continue trending downwards. It’s a simple yet unfortunate calculation: less fish in the ocean translates to less catching, which in turn affects many other sectors within coastal economies.

Photo courtesy of Flylords Team Member, Nate Holmes. Nice striped bass sightline bracelet, Nate!

Last year, around this time, the striped bass stock was declared overfished and subject to overfishing. This finding resulted in the management authority–The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC)–moving to constrain the amount of striped bass killed. Certain states, however, are taking advantage of ASMFC’s rules and preventing the swift rebuilding of the striped bass stock. States can opt out of ASMFC’s recommended regulations and implement their own, if the regulations achieve the same conservation goals. This is called conservation equivalency and has consistently been abused. Striped bass are in poor shape due to ASMFC’s unaccountability, states’ shortsightedness, years of high harvests by the recreational sector, and environmental factors. All of this threatens one of United States’ most special and participated-in fishery.

Follow along to learn more about the complexities of striped bass management, this season’s regulations, and what all this means for anglers and the economic sectors that depend on striped bass.

Striped Bass Management Background

Striped bass are currently managed by Amendment 6, which was adopted in 2003, “to allow commercial and recreational fisheries consistent with 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 contains triggers to address overfishing and an overfished stock. To be clear, an overfished stock is when the female spawning stock biomass (SSB) falls below the threshold (202 million pounds). The stock is experiencing overfishing when fishing mortality exceeds the threshold (0.240).

Striped bass have been overfished since 2013 and experiencing overfishing for 13 of the last 15 years, according to ASMFC. According to Amendment 6, “if fishing mortality exceeds the threshold and biomass (SSB) is below the threshold level, the Management Board must act to reduce fishing mortality to the desired target level or lower” and ‘rebuild the SSB to the target level’ within 10 years.

The striped bass Management Board (Board) adopted Addendum VI to Amendment 6 this past October (2019), to reduce fishing mortality back to the target level in 2020. However, Addendum VI does not directly address the issue of declining SSB.

Technically, according to ASMFC rules, the Board has to rebuild the SSB to the target level (252.5 million pounds) by 2029. The Board, however, has repeatedly neglected directly addressing this responsibility. To make matters worse, the current reductions of Addendum VI will restore the SSB back to the target level in 2033 with a 50 percent chance of success, which does not even take into account conservation equivalency proposals. Measures to address SSB are expected to be discussed at the upcoming May ASMFC meeting. But with the effects of COVID-19, what will happen is anyone’s guess.

The goal of Addendum VI is to achieve an 18 percent reduction of fishing mortality relative to 2017 levels for both commercial and recreational fisheries. Consequently, if you are a striped bass angler, you probably noticed a change to your respective state’s striped bass regulations.

2020 Regulations

Addendum VI sets new regulations for 2020. Commercial fishing quotas saw an 18 percent reduction. The recreational sector faced an 18 percent reduction as well: one fish per day @ 28-35” for the ocean and one fish per day larger than 18” for the Chesapeake Bay. States have the right, however, to implement different regulations through conservation equivalency. This is a mechanism to grant states a degree of flexibility to address “socioeconomic considerations within their own states while achieving conservation targets.” Conservation equivalency has been used by states positively, but more often than not it is abused by states to allow more harvests. Let’s see which Atlantic states adopted the ASMFC recommended regulations and which ones broke away and implemented their own regulations.

Photo courtesy of Matt Rissell, Buzzards Bay Outfitters

Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Delaware, Maryland (OCEAN, not for the Chesapeake Bay fishery), and North Carolina adopted ASMFC’s recommended regulation for coastal recreational fisheries: one fish per day @ 28-35”. Virginia adopted a very similar regulation for its coastal recreational fishery: one fish per day @ 28-36”.

The New Jersey Issue

The 2020 regulations get complicated—and ugly for the fishery—in the states that formulated their own regulations using data that is difficult to verify and unenforceable measures, specifically New Jersey and MD’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay. New Jersey and Maryland have more or less become the quintessential poster-children of misusing conservation equivalency.

Each year, New Jersey is one of the states with the highest fishing mortality. According to ASMFC data, New Jersey accounted for 20.1 percent of coast-wide recreational striped bass harvests from 2004 to 2018. Additionally, the state is an important staging area for striped bass, as they prepare to spawn in New York’s Hudson River. In what has become standard form, New Jersey broke away from the bulk of states and devised its own regulations. Its conservation equivalency proposal was approved and is now in effect: one fish per day @ 28-38” year round and a bonus program where tag holding anglers can harvest another fish per day @ 24-28” (applications for a bonus tag are currently suspended, due to COVID-19). Whereas New York has put in place protections for spawning fish, New Jersey allows the harvesting of breeding-size fish year round.

Photo courtesy of @Woozyfishing

New Jersey does not have a commercial striped bass fishery but still is allocated a commercial quota of 177,048 pounds. So, New Jersey reallocates its commercial quota to the recreational sector with a bonus tag program using conservation equivalency. On paper this seems fair and equitable, but in reality the lack of reporting, enforcement, and accurate recreational fishing data puts the efficacy of this plan in question. The American Saltwater Guides Association put it like this: “About 5,000 [bonus tags] were applied for in 2018 and only 1,100 were returned. Are you honestly trying to tell us that from September to December 31st, only 1,100 fish [out of 5,000] were harvested between 24-28″ in the entire state of New Jersey?”

New Jersey’s 2020 regulations will not achieve the much-needed reduction in fishing mortality that Addendum VI seeks.  The ASMFC Technical Committee approved this proposal while noting, “the [conservation equivalency] measures would achieve less reduction than the Addendum VI measure would.”

The Chesapeake Bay Dynamic

The Chesapeake Bay is the most important area for striped bass; it supports 70 percent of the entire striped bass population. This amazing estuary, however, succumbs to political and external pressures that often negate the best interests of the striped bass stock. Past attempts to reduce fishing mortality in the Bay failed, as Bay-wide harvests consistently exceeded Maryland Department of Natural Resources and ASMFC targets.

Recreational and commercial harvests in the Chesapeake Bay form the majority of coast-wide harvests. “The majority of commercial striped bass landings come from Chesapeake Bay; roughly 60% by weight annually since 1990, and 80% in numbers of fish,” according to Addendum VI.

The Bay is a unique fishery. In years’ past, the year-round fishery in the Bay had a diverse age structure of resident striped bass—yes, even in the summer months. Sustained fishing pressure, ineffective management measures (conservation equivalency), and various environmental conditions have severely strained the Bay’s resident population and migratory visitors. Addendum IV states, “from 2015-2018, that percentage [recreational harvests coming from the Chesapeake Bay] increased to 45%, likely as a result of the strong 2011, 2014, and 2015 year classes moving through the fishery.” So, the most important habitat for striped bass removes the highest percentages of the entire stock.

The hopeful conception of rebuilding the stock by relying on the strong year classes was squandered by the Chesapeake Bay’s commercial and recreational fishermen and Maryland’s irresponsible regulatory schemes. One of the reasons for the Bay’s year-in and year-out resistance to instituting conservative regulatory measures comes from the Bay’s commercial and for-hire sector.

These sectors form a relatively small yet very loud constituency and enjoy disproportionate influence in Maryland’s state politics. With this political influence, the Chesapeake Bay’s charter/for-hire and commercial fleets have maintained a tight grip on their allocations. For example, Maryland’s 2020 conservation equivalency proposal reduced the commercial quota by 1.8 percent and placed the vast majority of the recreational reductions on the private-recreational sector, to the blatant benefit of the charter/for-hire fleet. Wasn’t everyone supposed to take an 18 percent reduction because of Addendum VI, you may ask. The short answer is yes as long as conservation equivalency is around though, states can do what they want (more or less).

Maryland’s 2020 regulations game ASMFC’s conservation equivalency program, again. Chesapeake Bay recreational anglers will be subject to these regulations:

MD Spring Trophy Season May 1-15 One fish per day larger than 35”
MD Season (PROPOSED) May16-August 15 and September 1-December 10 (no targeting from August 16-31) One fish per day larger than 19”; two fish per day for Charter/For Hire boats
VA Spring Trophy Season CANCELED N/A
VA May 16-June 15 and October 4-December 31 One fish per day @ 20-28” in the spring. One fish per day @ 20-36″ in the fall.

Virginia managers understood the precarious state of striped bass last year and made the difficult decision to cancel the 2019 trophy season. In a show of support for the entire stock of striped bass and conservation principles, Virginia will not have a spring trophy season in 2020, and its Chesapeake Bay recreational regulations go beyond ASMFC’s 18 percent reduction (that’s a good thing). Maryland, on the other hand, refuses to adopt similar conservation-principles.

Maryland deployed another devious conservation equivalency proposal for the Chesapeake Bay’s 2020 recreational fishing season—the regs are still being finalized, but the proposal should represent the finalized regulations. MD is proposing a complex series of regulations that, according to their data, will result in a 20.8 percent reduction in removals. Maryland used questionable data and relied on unenforceable measures to get ASMFC Technical Committee’s approval for this proposal (currently awaiting ASMFC Board approval). For example, Maryland calculates that 46 days of no ‘targeting’ striped bass would correlate to a 5.67 percent reduction in removals.

Anyone who knows stripers, knows that they’ll show up when you least expect; I remember hearing a story of a young angler who was fishing frozen squid for scup off a pier in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard landing a cow striper. When stripers are present in an area you cannot prevent anglers from catching them. How Maryland expects to effectively enforce this is anyone’s guess. Granted, COVID-19 and the actions Maryland took to slow the spread of the virus—prohibiting all forms of recreational fishing and boating—made enforcing the April no targeting provision much simpler. Regardless, however, the fact remains Maryland is clearly favoring the politically-powerful charter fleet and continue to impede striped bass conservation with these regulations.

After reviewing all the conservation equivalency proposals, the Technical Committee is unsure whether the suite of proposals will achieve the required reductions. “The predicted coastwide reduction in total removals may be different than 18% after accounting for conservation equivalency measures.” Infuriating, yes.

Post-Release Mortality

Maryland’s head-scratching conservation equivalency proposal seeks reductions in removals by relying on convoluted post-release mortality data. Currently, ASMFC calculates the post-release mortality figure using Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) data and an assumption that nine percent of all striped bass caught and released will die. In 2018, for example, ASMFC estimated the recreational sector accounted for 2,826,667 dead fish due to post-release mortality. I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but let’s just leave post-release mortality at an arbitrary number that—especially in the Chesapeake Bay—is HEAVILY influenced by environmental conditions, such as water temperature, salinity, pollution, oxygen content, and disease.

Coast-Wide Impacts

Striped bass are arguably the most important recreational marine fishery on the East Coast. According to NOAA’s 2018 Fisheries of the United States report, striped bass were the most commonly caught non-baitfish species and the had the highest harvests along the Atlantic Coast. Additionally, recreational anglers harvested and released more than 36 million striped bass, placing the fish third on NOAA’s Total Recreational Catch (harvest and released) list.

Photo courtesy of @Woozyfishing

MRIP data also shows that the recreational striped bass fishery enjoys some of the highest participation rates on the Atlantic Coast and country-wide. Back in 2007, when the SSB was over 200 million pounds and there was an exceptionally large 2004 recruitment class, recreational anglers took more than 24 million trips to catch striped bass. Because of the quality and abundance of striped bass, recreational anglers came out in numbers, producing massive economic impacts along the coast. Good fishing directly correlates to high participation and positive economic impacts. Think about the all the marinas, tackle stores, guides, towns, restaurants, etc. that profited from the additional business—it’s a massive impact.

In 2019, when ASMFC declared striped bass overfished and experiencing overfishing, trips fell to roughly 15.8 million—that’s a 35 percent decline in directed trips and is attributable to the decline in striped bass. Think about the business, profits, local tax revenues, conservation excise tax revenues, booked trips, you name it, that was lost as a result. We need to rebuild this fishery not only to share it with future generations but also to support the thousands of businesses and communities that benefit from a healthy and abundant striped bass population.

The above considerations have not even discussed the effects of COVID-19, specifically. The effect of COVID-19 and social distancing rules on the striped bass population remains to be seen. In localities that allow various forms of fishing, it’s safe to expect an increase in participation and pressure on the stock. On the other hand, some states have places prohibitions on forms of fishing, so that should have a positive effect. Maryland, for example, has banned most forms of recreational fishing and boating, so there may be some rays of hope coming out of the Chesapeake Bay. Additionally, Massachusetts just prohibited fishing guides/charters from taking clients out. So how much this actually impacts striped bass is really a crapshoot, and any benefit could be nullified by a different consequence of COVID-19.

COVID-19 poses a serious threat to our fisheries management systems. The potential impact on data collection from social distancing orders may leave a black hole for 2020’s fisheries data. Additionally, due to the economic hardships affecting communities all along the Atlantic Coast, there will almost definitely be calls to liberalize regulations. In our recent interview with ASGA, Vice President and Policy Director Tony Friedrich had this to say: “Our number one fear is that there will be an outcry to roll back marine fisheries regulations to compensate for the recent economic losses. We are working at the highest levels of government to stop that effort.” Hopefully, fishery managers can see the long-term benefits of sustainable and abundant fisheries and resist the urge to give resource stakeholders a short-term free pass to further harm fish stocks.

Thoughts from Guides

I reached out to some well-known fly fishing and light tackle guides to see what they had to say. As you can guess, they want what’s best for the fishery, because that means more and better business for them.

Blitzing bass are a sure way to get your heart pumping. Photo courtesy of Matt Rissell, Buzzards Bay Outfitters

Captain Kyle Schaefer of Soul Fly Outfitters, who guides in Maine and hosts foreign trips, left me with: “Watching the striped bass stock fall to its current level and know that our managers still haven’t remedied the situation is heartbreaking. Striped bass are a way of life for Atlantic anglers and businesses. I continue to guide for these fish but in the back of my head I know that if we don’t rabidly stand up for stripers they will continue to be mismanaged and overfished into oblivion.”

Captain Jamie Simmons of Buzzards Bay Outfitters had this to say: “We are at a critical point right now with the state of the Striped Bass population. Regarded one of the most successful fishery management stories for years due to the effective management results in the 80’s and 90’s we unfortunately find ourselves in the same place again with declining numbers. Without effective management now the Striped Bass face a tough road ahead.”

Captain John McMurray of One More Cast Charters said:”Science aside, there’s been very noticeable decline since 2012.  My striper bookings are down for sure, and that’s clearly due to availability. I wouldn’t say the fishing is terrible, but it certainly isn’t what it used to be.  If it gets worse, the saltwater guide industry in the northeast could be in real trouble.” John is also the President of the American Saltwater Guides Association.

Captain Chris Newsome of Bay Fly Fishing said, “Striped bass are the heart of my guide business. The decline in striper numbers has resulted in my guide season being shortened by one third over the past decade. Conservation of the fish stock has been needed for a long time. Hopefully, new regulations will aid in the return of striped bass abundance.”

2020 Spring Run Outlook

We’ve painted a very grim picture, but it’s not all despair. The strong 2015 year class should be 24-25” this season and available to anglers up and down the coast; I know I am looking forward to chasing these fish once all this craziness blows over. However, as was true in Chesapeake Bay in 2011, we cannot allow the 2015 year class to be decimated. That means all us recreational anglers must act in the best interest of the stock. Fortunately, the stock is not close to the levels in the 1980’s. But why wait–the time to preserve striped bass is now.

I’m not saying don’t go out and fish or don’t take home a striped bass for dinner. I am, however, hoping anglers are cognizant of where the population is right now. Think twice before you drag that schoolie up the sand or harvest that breeder-size striper. Do you have access to fresh, locally caught striped bass? If so, get your fish from your local fishermen—they’ll surely need the business after COVID-19, and the commercial striped bass fishery represents 10 percent of total removals and is actually accountable. Also, I know it’s been repeated many times, but help your guides out; book a trip for the upcoming fall run or next year. You get the point…be stewards of this special fishery, and hopefully managers can carry out their end of the bargain.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a quote from Peter Jenkins. Peter owns Saltwater Edge, one of New England’s premier tackle shops, and had this to say: “Striped bass are every man and woman’s fish. They can be caught on bait, lures, or flies on a boat or from shore March to December. They are the premier fish of the Northeast. The passion that is shared by all generations of fly fishermen, surf-casters, and light tackle fishermen is fueled by striped bass. All of that is threatened by the decline of striper stocks, and that is a direct result of the lack of accountability at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.”

Cover photo courtesy of Matt Rissell, Buzzards Bay Outfitters.

 

Organization of the Month: American Saltwater Guides Association

Massachusetts Suspends All Guided Fishing Due to COVID-19

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