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Striped Bass are in trouble and it’s déjà vu all over again

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a peer-reviewed assessment of Striped Bass in early 2019. They concluded the entire striped bass population from Maine to the Outer Banks is overfished, and overfishing is accelerating the decline. (When a fish species is overfished, there are less fish in the water than that population needs to replace itself. And when overfishing occurs, we are taking too many fish, too fast.)

The NOAA report is 700+ pages of hard facts about striped bass; a collaborative product of a 29-member team of scientists, fisheries experts, statisticians and management specialists from Maine to North Carolina.

Data show striped bass fishery has declined for almost a decade – and recreational anglers are largely responsible. The charts below are compiled from data taken directly from the NOAA Assessment and the Maryland DNR Fisheries pages.

Coastwide, people fishing for sport kill almost eight times more striped bass than commercial fishermen.

While catch numbers have collapsed from Maine to the Outer Banks, Maryland anglers have continued to harvest fish. The average harvest from 2008 to 2017 for Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, and North Carolina – combined – is about 6.5% of Maryland’s 10-year average.

In this next chart, below, compare the crashing harvests in the coastal states with the climbing arc of Maryland removals. In particular, Maryland’s harvests in 2014/15 focused on the strong 2011 year class that many managers had relied on to sustain the fishery through years of poor recruitment. Maryland’s regulations in the Chesapeake Bay allow for two fish between 19 and 28 inches throughout the summer months, while coastal regulations limit anglers to one fish larger than 28 inches.

There is only one stock of Atlantic striped bass and as it happens, 70-90% are spawned in the Chesapeake Bay - much of which falls under Maryland regulations. The bass spawn and grow in our estuary until they mature to migrate the coast – between ages 3 to 5, or 19-25+ inches.

As the largest nursery, Maryland is obligated to protect new generations. And the ocean states are in turn responsible for conserving mature breeding fish so they can return to spawn. The science is clear this highly migratory species should be managed as a whole and cannot be separated into politically-labeled schools of “my fish” and “your fish”. We cannot manage for abundance in a fishery by removing unsustainable numbers of young fish before they fully mature.

As it happens, judging by the data from the NOAA report, Maryland anglers may well be overfishing the young bass in the Chesapeake before they can reach full maturity. Clearly, overfishing young fish in the Chesapeake will have a significant negative effect on the stock as a whole. These charts show how Maryland’s limit of 2 fish between 19 and 28 inches directly impacts the young bass – before they can fully mature and begin coastal migration.

Maryland recreational anglers are fishing in the nursery

Striped bass are spawned and grow until they reach breeding age and begin migrating – usually around ages 3 to 5, or 19-25+ inches. According to NOAA, in 2017 about 110 million striped bass reached year one – but incredibly by year eleven only 0.5% of the initial population will remain – 95% of which are large breeding females. We must conserve these ‘trophy’ females for the species to survive.

In years of good recruitment in the Chesapeake Bay such as in 2011 and 2015, abundant new fish are spawned to make up for bad years, ‘natural’ mortality, and manmade removals. But Maryland’s own recruitment surveys (see chart, below) show that peaks of the good years are trending lower, and the lows in bad years are getting worse.

Sadly, it appears the data show Maryland anglers killed much of the strong 2011 year-class before they could mature. The red line in this chart – a 2-year running average beginning just after end of the 1980s moratorium when striped bass fishing was closed throughout their east coast range – shows how Maryland recreational anglers have increased the removal rate, and particularly in the years following the 2011 year class. The peak of removals in 2014/2015 coincides with the 2011 year class fish reaching Maryland’s minimum regulation size.

To be sure, multiple factors contribute to the striped bass decline here in Maryland. The Chesapeake Bay as a whole is in trouble [ ]. Runoff from farms and manmade surfaces leads to hypoxic dead zones and sediments that smother habitat. Forage fish are decimated by localized depletion from purse-seining, and invasive blue catfish hoover-up newly-spawned young bass. The parlous state of the Bay has also severely diminished alternative sportfish such Weakfish, Flounder, and Croaker – which drives Maryland anglers to focus almost exclusively on striped bass.

These external factors are real, but they do not absolve us from the responsibility to act. Maryland sport anglers must reduce their catch. Since 2008, Maryland anglers have killed over fifteen times more striped bass than the average harvests of Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, and North Carolina…combined.

Striped bass are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a group of states from Maine to Florida. By charter, the ASMFC should act when a fishery falls below certain thresholds. They meet again on April 30 to consider “reductions needed to achieve fishing mortality reference points” for striped bass – fisheries-management-speak for “how do we turn this around?”. A 50% reduction in mortality across the fishery would be a good start – and in Maryland that probably means ending the spring and fall trophy seasons altogether and setting a 1-fish limit for the general Bay season.

Although the ASMFC should act, the when and how is usually driven more by politicking than a clear path described by science. Somewill undoubtedly lobby to change reference points to make bad numbers look better, or claim ‘Bay fish aren’t Ocean fish’ in an attempt to gain local control by dividing the fishery. These are political and statistical gymnastics and should be voted down. Neither will help rebuild the fishery, and neither will sustain the multi-million-dollar recreational economy built around striped bass. And no change at all is a vote for continued decline.

As it happens, just before the ASMFC meeting, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission will “…consider an emergency staff proposal to eliminate…Spring trophy-size striped bass recreational fisheries…” Maryland would do well to follow Virginia’s example and eliminate our trophy seasons. Permanently.

NOAA’s peer-reviewed science is proof striped bass are in trouble. Many on the ASMFC deny this reality, and they will undoubtedly work to postpone the inevitable and advocate for more studies before acting. This is unacceptable. The ASMFC must act to now cut harvests and start rebuilding immediately – or striped bass will be fated to slide downward into another moratorium. Like déjà vu all over again.

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