By Capt. John McMurray
Was the reduction managers finally implemented too little too late?
Are you a striper nut? Do you love to throw flies at cruising fish on crystal clear flats or at big stripers busting baitfish on the surface? Yeah, man… me too. But if you’ve spent more than a few days on the water in the last few years, you’ve probably noticed that it’s getting harder and harder to find fish.
Without a doubt, the coastal striper population is changing. There aren’t many anglers around anymore who don’t agree that there’s been a significant decline. Of course there are still fish to chase, but what we don’t have is the consistent striped bass fishery that many of us built businesses and lifestyles around.
Why? Well, despite a commercial industry and a subset of the recreational one intent on killing a lot of fish, it isn’t entirely due to fishing.
The stock has experienced over a decade of poor recruitment (a fancy way of saying spawning success). Surveys done in the Chesapeake Bay, which produces around 80% of the coastal stock have shown average to well below average young-of- the-year numbers since 2003, with the anomalous exception of
2011. 2012 was one of the lowest on record.
A reasonable person would understand that if the stock isn’t at the level it once was, you probably shouldn’t keep fishing on it at the same level as when it was abundant. But unfortunately, managers sometimes have a hard time understanding simple things.
The latest assessment on striped bass was released in 2013. It said in no uncertain terms that the population was trending downward. Too many striped bass were being killed, overfishing had occurred repeatedly over the past decade, and it would be considered “overfished” by this year. The agency that manages striped bass – a consortium of states called the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) – were presented with those findings in October of 2013.
One would think they would have accepted the new assessment and taken immediate action to reduce harvest, but ASMFC doesn’t really work that way. The politics of killing lots of fish – despite warnings – so that a few special interests can continue to make money, have traction there. Surprisingly enough, there is no law preventing the Commission from allowing overfishing indefinitely.
To their credit, a few Commissioners (notably those from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts) advocated for an immediate reduction, but there was plenty of push-back. Over the next 8 months, the ASMFC striped bass board met twice and had ridiculous debates on whether or not conservation action was necessary. Short-sighted Commissioners argued that the striper population was fine and that the science was bad, all while the great majority of the fishing public
pleaded for action.
Finally, a year after it was released, ASMFC voted to act on the assessment. The Technical Committee put together a set of measures that would theoretically reduce the number of fish being killed by 25%, recommending a coastal bag limit of one fish at 28” or greater. This was a significant change from the two fish at 28” coastal limit we had been fishing under during the years that lead up to the decline.
While it wasn’t the reduction some of us were hoping for – a big part of the angling community was advocating 1 at 32” – this still sounded pretty good for a management body with a history of doing to little, too late…until it was made clear that even under the best scenario the proposed management measures had only a 50% chance of actually working. However, even this proved to be too much for Commissioners who hemmed and hawed, complaining that such measures would cause economic hardship for the charter and party boats and of course commercial fishermen in their states. So… they worked at weakening the already deficient proposed harvest cuts which may have actually increased commercial landings. Instead of requiring a 25% reduction from what commercial fishermen actually caught, they based the reduction on the 2013 quota. Since commercial fishermen generally land considerably less than their quota each year, there isn’t much if any reduction here. If all of the quota is landed this year, the number of fish they kill will actually exceed 2013. Chances of success dropped even further when Commissioners made a deal with the Chesapeake states and allowed them to cut harvest by just 20.5%.
Then, they allowed for what’s called “Conservation Equivalency” – the notion that states can create their own regulations as long as they, at least on paper, achieve the same 25% reduction. The charter/party boat fleet began lobbying their states to come up with arguments proving that killing two stripers per trip, of some alternate size, won’t do more damage than taking just one. Of course, intuitively, killing two wouldn’t seem to achieve the same reduction as killing one. But on paper, if you
increase the size, it can. On the water… not so much.
Fortunately, the conservation-minded recreational community came out in droves to state public hearings and most states, save New Jersey (generally the least conservation-minded state on the East Coast) and Delaware, went with the one fish bag limit.
Too little, too late?
Even after it became so blatantly obvious that conservation action was necessary, it took an entire year for the ASMFC to move. More importantly of course, will the action they finally took really prevent the stock from becoming overfished? Unlikely. And there are still no real measures that will actually rebuild
it. Not to mention, the measures to reduce fishing mortality are actually more likely to fail than succeed.
That said, it’s not all doom and gloom. 2011 surveys showed good numbers of young-of the-year in the Chesapeake. We should start seeing some of those fish along the coast soon, as they supposedly start to leave the Bay around 24”. And if we get a few good year classes in the coming years, things could turn around (rumor is that the 2015 class is a good one). But in my opinion, ASMFC could have, and should have done more. This is an extremely important fishery for me, for us, for the entire recreational fishing community. While the commercial and party/charter boat industry can probably survive on a leaner striped bass
resource, the majority of resource users can’t.
A healthy and abundant striped bass resource creates a lot more opportunity. Not just for us, but for everyone! Because it spreads out…and we find fish up on the flats, in the salt-marshes, up along the beach. So flyrodders, surfcasters etc. can actually catch fish every now and then. The bottom line is abundance equals more opportunity for more people. And there is a much greater economic loss that comes from a depleted striped bass resource than from tightening regulations when
the stock dips.
It’s pretty simple. If there are less fish in the water, less folks will book trips, buy tackle, travel, stay in hotels and eat at restaurants at popular striped bass destinations such as Montauk or Cape Cod. Managers need to understand this. We need to tell them.
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