Mixed Signals for Striped Bass
By Richen Brame
CCA Regional Fisheries Director
Atlantic striped bass are arguably the premier sport fish on the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Maine and are a highly prized fish sought avidly by anglers. They reached a peak of abundance in the early 2000s, and this teeming population provided anglers with thousands of hours of outdoor recreation and fueled an unprecedented economic engine.
As is well known, abundance is one of the primary drivers for the recreational fishery. When anglers have a reasonable expectation they might encounter and perhaps hook a fish, they will respond by going fishing more often.
Yet the Atlantic striped bass population has been in a decline since about 2004, primarily due to below average recruitment for several years. Managers have awaited a strong year class to help recover the population, but it was seven years before that happened in 2011. Thus seven years of below average recruitment have dragged down the abundance, likely decreasing effort and economic benefits.
Anglers pointed out they were not seeing the numbers of fish they had seen in the past, and indeed one had only to look at the number of released fish to see anglers were not encountering nearly as many fish. The number of striped bass caught and released alive declined precipitously from over 23 million fish in 2006 to just over 5 million in 2102. Anglers simply were not encountering the numbers of fish they had just a few years previously.
Yet managers did nothing to correct this decline
The most recent stock assessment (2013) proposed new reference points by which to judge the health of the stock. It indicated for the first time that the fishing mortality was above the target and the spawning stock biomass was below the target. In short, a clear signal that the population is headed in the wrong direction and corrective action is warranted. The scientists advising managers indicated there should be at least a 31 percent reduction in mortality to return to the target and halt the decline in spawning stock biomass.
Fishing at a rate above the target and nearer the threshold has another pernicious effect – it can lead to an age structure with less older, “trophy” sized fish. The best way to insure a healthy number of larger, older fish is to reduce mortality and allow them to live to a ripe old age. The large 2011 year class is the best available mechanism to start rebuilding abundance quickly. Unless they are somehow protected they will be subjected to intense fishing pressure since they are the most abundant fish in the system currently.
It is against this background that anglers awaited action by the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board last week in Alexandria – the creation of an addendum that would address this problem. The hope was there would be public hearings this summer so that the Addendum could be adopted in order that corrective measure could be put in place by the start of the 2015 fishing season. The Board had no problem putting the new reference points in the Addendum for public hearing this summer, but the train came off the tracks when they started discussing measures to reduce mortality. One state proposed to “phase in” the reductions over a three year period, and this was adopted as an option in the addendum.
After eight years of a decline in abundance, the last thing we need is a proposal to wait three more years to “phase in” reductions in harvest. It is clear that the recreational fishery on the coast would likely move to a one fish bag or a higher minimum size to achieve the necessary reductions. While it may be relatively simple to pare down a commercial quota by 10 percent each year over three years, how exactly does one phase in going from a two-fish bag to a one-fish bag? Would anglers be forced to achieve the reductions in the first year yet sit by and watch the commercial quota reductions take three years?
Anglers want striped bass restored to a higher level of abundance so they have a better chance of catching a striper and perhaps a trophy on occasion. Most understand we may not be able to return to the teeming populations of the early 2000s, but they do expect managers to act when abundance declines as much as it has. Most anglers stand ready to take the necessary reductions in harvest now to improve the population, as long as it is done in a fair and equitable manner.
CCA believes the ASMFC should act as fast as possible to halt the current decline. That means approving Addendum IV for public hearing, preferably without the three-year phase-in option, at their August meeting, and putting in place measures that achieve at least a 31 percent reduction in harvest in 2015.
The time for mixed signals is past; anglers want a strong, clear signal that decisive action is forthcoming.