According to a recent press release from The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Atlantic Striped Bass population has experienced massive overfishing in the past several years. The announcement has led to some Atlantic states declaring a closure on this year’s trophy Striper recreational fishing season. Today, you’re going to learn what the 2019 Striped Bass fishing season closures mean for the species, as well as the local recreational fishing industries.
We’ll cover a few basics about Stripers to start things off. We’ll then cover the ASMFC report, and show you what the Striper population looked like in the past and what it looks like today. Lastly, we’ll take a look at how some of the Atlantic Coast states are dealing with Striper Bass’ dwindling numbers.
A Word About Stripers
Striped Bass are one of the most popular game fish on the East Coast. Their spectacular game qualities are only matched by their exquisite taste. Surprisingly, though, they are not massively exploited by the commercial fishing industry.
In fact, this fish is one of the rare good-tasting species predominantly fished by recreational anglers. A whopping 90% of the total catch goes to the recreational fishery. This is actually one of the key reasons why US Atlantic states have closed their recreational Striper fishing seasons. But more on that in a minute.
In the US, Striped Bass inhabit waters ranging from Maine all the way down to North Carolina. Such a vast fishery can’t reasonably be managed by a single state. This is where the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) comes in. The Commission is the chief management authority for Striped Bass stocks, managing coastal and estuarine areas from Maine through Virginia, and the coastal areas of North Carolina.
Stripers are anadromous fish, which means that they spend most of their lives in ocean waters, but return to their natal rivers to spawn. Why is this important? First, because trophy-sized Stripers are often the spawning females. Secondly, the Striper spawn happens in spring, precisely when most Atlantic states’ fishing seasons for this species occur.
The major spawning grounds are the rivers that feed into Chesapeake Bay, Massachusetts Bay, and the Delaware and Hudson Rivers.
On the East Coast, Stripers often go by the name of Rockfish.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s take a look at the Striped Bass population. We’ll cover a bit of history for context first, and then see what the current state of the Striper stock looks like.
The recent ASMFC report unraveled an unsettling truth about the state of the Atlantic Striped Bass population. The Striper stock was declining, and had fallen dangerously below its sustainability threshold. The findings came as a surprise for many fishing enthusiasts, because for the last 20 years, Stripers were the picture of successful stock management.
There are three main metrics scientists follow when assessing Striped Bass populations. These are:
- Female spawning stock biomass (SSB)
- Recruitment (age-one fish entering the population)
- Number of harvested Stripers.
The Female Spawners
Back in the early 1980s, Striper overfishing led to a near collapse of the stock. Thanks to a five year moratorium and stricter subsequent regulation, the population soon made a complete recovery. By the mid-90s, the female spawning stock biomass (SSB) had risen from 44 million to 240 million pounds. A decade of stability followed, and things were looking good for the Striped Bass fishery.
The period of stability allowed scientists to establish a clear threshold for Striped Bass female spawning stock biomass. This threshold is essentially the minimal required amount of spawning female Stripers need for the species to survive. Its current value is 202 million pounds.
One of the most unsettling facts the new report pointed to was that the SSB had fallen to 151 million pounds, which is well below the threshold.
Striped Bass recruitment has been a varying factor over the years. This is because recruitment numbers are heavily dependent on water temperatures. Striped Bass had a period of strong recruitment from 1994 to 2004. A period of lower recruitment followed from 2005 to 2011 (not as low as the early 1980s, when the stock had nearly collapsed).
This period of low recruitment caused a decline in SSB, which still hasn’t ended. There were years of good and bad recruitment after that, but on average, the last decade has been far below recruitment levels from the ’90s.
Since the recreational fishery is responsible for 90% of the total Striped Bass harvest, we’ll focus primarily on its impact on the stock.
Back in 1984, recreational angers harvested 2.4 million pounds of Striper (264,000 fish) per year. Thanks to the Striper SSB rebound of the mid-90s however, anglers were allowed to harvest more fish than ever before. Fast-forward to 2010, and the harvest number jumped to 54.9 million pounds (4.7 million fish).
This led to stricter bag and size limit regulations, which, in turn, dropped the total annual recreational harvest to 40.5 million pounds (3.2 million fish) for the 2015–2017 period. Considering that the number of released Striped Bass jumped from 73% in 2003 to 91% in 2017, you’d think that the species was doing great. But you’d be wrong.
Despite the fact that anglers released over 90% of the Stripers they caught, a lot of them still ended up dying. In fact, recent studies have shown that as many as 9% of the fish released don’t survive the stress they endure.
Let’s translate that into numbers.
In 2017, recreational anglers caught a total of 41.2 million Striped Bass. They kept 2.9 million and released 38.2 million. Out of those 38 million fish, 3.4 million ended up dying. The fact that more fish ended up dying from catch and release than from regular harvest is a clear indicator that a better catch-and-release policy is necessary.
To minimize these post-release fatalities, officials are now encouraging non-offset circle hooks and limited handling of released fish.
To sum things up, there were two key takeaways from ASMFC’s report. One, Striped Bass spawning females are well below the necessary threshold. And two, given the current SSB numbers, the recreational fishery has significantly contributed to the dwindling Striper population.
As we’ve mentioned, the ASMFC results have led to Striped Bass fishing season closures in a few Atlantic states. Not all states decided to close their Striper fisheries, though. Let’s take a look at the current Striped Bass fishing regulations.
Around 70–90% of the Stripers’ spawning grounds are in Chesapeake Bay.
Out of all the Striper fishing states, Maryland is responsible for 52% of the total catch for 2017. Trailing the Old Line State are Massachusetts (16%), New York (10%), New Jersey (8%), and Virginia (5%).
Looking at these numbers, you’d think that Maryland would be leading the effort to minimize recreational Striped Bass fishing. But you’d be wrong. Completely wrong. The state spearheading the conservation effort is actually Virginia, the state with the lowest piece of the Striper pie.
On April 23, The Virginia Marine Resources Commission decided to cancel its trophy Striped Bass fishing season for 2019. The closure will affect fishing for Stripers over 36 inches in Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac River, and Virginia coastal waters.
The decision didn’t come as much of a surprise to local anglers, though. Local fishermen harvested only 52,000 Stripers in 2018 compared to 368,000 in 2010. This, coupled with the report from ASMFC, was all the incentive officials needed to close the season down.
The decision will impact the trophy season only. Anglers will still be able to keep two Striped Bass between 20 and 28 inches per person. The Spring season will last from May 16 to June 15.
On the flip side, Maryland has decided to keep their 2019 Striper season open. The decision is a controversial one at best.
Striper is Maryland’s state fish, and with good reason. With 70–90% of the species spawning in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland has 8,000 people employed in the recreational fishing industry. Add to that millions of dollars coming in during each Striped Bass season, and you can see why the officials were reluctant to close the fishery for this year.
Time will tell what the long term implications of such a decision will be. It’s possible that Maryland will close its 2020 Striper season depending on how this year’s season goes. Still, there are many who consider this decision narrow-minded.
In Chesapeake Bay, Striped Bass is a catch-and-release-only fishery from January 1 to April 19. April 20 marks the start of Spring Trophy Season, when anglers are allowed to keep one fish per person per day with a minimum size requirement of 35 inches.
For the May 16–May 31 period, anglers will be able to keep two fish between 19 and 28 inches per person per day. Alternatively, they can keep one fish between 19 and 28 inches and one fish over 28 inches.
For detailed Striped Bass fishing regulations in Maryland, click here.
This is what some of the other Atlantic states’ Striped Bass fishing regulations look like for 2019:
- In Massachusetts, the season is open year round, with a one fish per person limit and a minimum size requirement of 29 inches.
- The Delaware Striper season is open year round, except during spawning season from April 1 to May 31 in the Nanticoke River and its tributaries.
- In Maine, the season is open, except from May 1 through June 30 on the Kennebec watershed. The bag limit is one fish per person, and the minimum size 28 inches.
- The North Carolina Division of Marine fisheries decided to close the Striper fishing season in the Central Southern Management Area. In the Atlantic, the season is still open year round. The bag limit is one fish per person, and the minimum size 28 inches. The Roanoke River Management Area, and the Albemarle Sound Management Area have their own seasonal regulations.
This year’s ASMFC report on Striped Bass was a benchmark stock assessment and the result of five years of extensive research. The assessment showed us that the Striper population is decreasing at a very dangerous pace.
Now, you might be thinking things were far worse in the ’80s and Stripers still survived. Only, things are moving a lot quicker these days. A lot can change in a year or two. With people catching 10 times as many Stripers as in the ’80s, regulators must realize that they are walking a very thin line.
As much as they pain the local fishing industries, the Striped Bass fishing season closures are a step in the right direction. They can allow us to enjoy the resource for many years to come.
We are lucky that the Striper population is a resilient one. It will mean nothing, however, if we don’t make an effort to reduce their exploitation.
The next Striper benchmark stock assessment probably won’t happen before 2024. Let’s hope that it will bring much better news than this one.
Update, November 2019.: The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has approved an addendum to the Striped Bass fishery management plan for 2020. The addendum requires all East Coast states to reduce their commercial catch quotas by 18%. For recreational fishing, there will be a 1 fish bag limit and a 28”-35” size requirement. For recreational fishing in Chesapeake Bay, the limit is 1 fish per day, and an 18” minimum size limit.
And now, we turn it over to you. What do you think about the recent Striped Bass fishing season closures? What do you think the best course of action would be? Let us know in the comments below.