The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the interstate regulatory body that manages a variety of inshore fish species on a state by state basis, is holding a meeting of the Striped Bass Management Board this week. The purpose is to begin the dialog on potential changes to the Striped Bass Management Plan in anticipation of the release of a new benchmark stock assessment that is in the final stages of the peer review process. This is a big deal because ASMFC’s previous stock assessments already show a marked decline in total biomass from a high-water mark of approximately 68 million fish to about 40 million in 2010.
Now before we go screaming the sky is falling, if you are new to the management highs and lows of the striped bass population, we are nowhere near where the stocks bottomed out during the late 1970s and early 1980s when the coastwide biomass was estimated to be below 5 million fish. The worry then was if there were even enough fish left to mount a rebuilding effort! I remember those years well because it was in the 1980s that I became a fledgling surf fisherman. I was working at The Fisherman Magazine, dealt closely with members of the recreational fishing industry and community and became a recreational advisor to the ASMFC Striped Bass Management Board. I even testified before the Congressional House Natural Resources Committee on the reauthorization of the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act. I was there during the darkest days and deeply involved when striped bass were as rare as hen’s teeth!
There are a lot of people awaiting the upcoming assessment report, most anticipating another drop in total biomass and spawning stock biomass and with good reason. Recreational landings and releases are way off the pace from where they were from 2003 through 2009. Many of these same folks have been highly critical of the ASMFC for not acting to change the management regime before the stocks were allowed to reach the current state when a tweak here and there very likely could have slowed or halted the decline.
In my humble opinion with the publishing of the new benchmark assessment it is time for the ASMFC to stop tweaking and totally rethink how they are managing striped bass. It’s time to start addressing all the factors impacting the stocks including those outside the realm of fishing mortality. Now don’t get me wrong, fishing mortality is an important part of the equation and with striped bass more than any other species in the Mid Atlantic recreational fishing accounts for the majority of the fishing mortality. Therefore a great deal of consideration must be given as to how to maintain recreational access to the fishery, but reduce overall mortality in general and the mortality on the spawning stock in particular.
Unfortunately there has been a quantum shift in the perception of the striped bass by recreational fishermen in the last 10 years as the spawning stock reached astronomical levels and almost anyone could go out during the spring run and rack up a boatload of limits of big bass. Ditto the winter fishery off Virginia and North Carolina. Big spawners were being stripped from the stocks either before or shortly after spawning at a rate that no one I know, including the oldest of the old timers, can remember ever seeing before. The striped bass went from being the poster child for angler conservation, a fish that was placed on the highest rung of the gamefish pedestal, to little more than meat on the dock for a whole new generation of anglers, and that is a crying shame! I can understand that if your only frame of reference is one of great abundance, it’s hard to picture what it was like when I started surf fishing and catching a single striped bass of any size was a cause for celebration. From a rare catch to a brace of 30-pound-plus fish almost at will is quite the dichotomy.
But I digress. Recreational fishing mortality is not the only issue that needs to be addressed by ASMFC if the striped bass resource is to be successfully managed for the future. The supposedly highly regulated small-quota commercial fishery for striped bass is nowhere near as “highly regulated” as you have been led to believe. The recent arrests of well organized criminal enterprises based around the illegal netting and sales of Chesapeake Bay striped bass is only the tip of the iceberg and that was a multi-million-dollar gambit. The commercial tag programs in New York and the New England states are easily circumvented thanks to lax enforcement and they are rife with cheating, black market sales and the lure of easy money! Some believe the illegal sale of striped bass in those states eclipses the total commercial quota allotted to them!
Similarly, there has been little or no observer coverage of the herring and menhaden purse seine fisheries, which have the capability of generating significant bycatch mortality of stripers. As far as ASMFC and enforcement has been concerned it’s out of sight, out of mind. Dead discards in North Carolina’s notorious winter trawl and gillnet fisheries easily outpace the actual landings and is so blatantly in your face that to allow it to continue is fisheries management malpractice at its highest levels! How North Carolina fisheries bureaucrats can continue to condone such wasteful practices is beyond comprehension.
One of the major factors impacting coastwide stocks levels is more regionalized in nature. Runoff pollution and the regionalized overharvest of baitfish in the Chesapeake Bay are contributing factors to the epidemic outbreaks of a disease called mycobacteriosis affecting young striped bass in that critically important estuary. Chesapeake has historically produced the largest percentage of the coastwide stocks, but its output is dwindling due to out-of-control commercial menhaden fishing, illegal nettings, legal netting and disease. The Young of the Year indexes do not tell the whole story because a growing portion of the newly spawned striped bass are simply not recruiting to the fishery. Untold numbers are succumbing to disease and many more are being harvested years before they become mature spawners.
These are my concerns and unfortunately I little faith that the ASMFC and its member states have the political will to address them. Each state in the commission has its own colloquial constituency to appease and that has been a factor behind the Commission’s failure to act sooner. Striped bass represent one of the greatest fisheries management success stories and, unfortunately, the gains have been squandered in recent years. Some organizations, the Recreational Fishing Alliance for one and the New York Sportfishing Federation for another, have already begun gathering public comment on how best to address the concerns and the realities of the current state of the striped bass stocks so the ASMFC can be guided into making smart choices and going in new directions. These efforts will pick up steam after release of the Benchmark Stock Assessment Report. If striped bass are important to you as an angler or as someone in the recreational fishing industry I hope you will start paying close attention and take steps to get involved.