When the Striped Bass Management Board meets next week, please support the drafting of an addendum to the striped bass management plan which revises the fishing mortality reference points in such plan from the current Ftarget=0.30/Fthreshold=0.34 to those recommended in the recent benchmark stock assessment, Ftarget=0.180/Fthreshold=0.219.
Since reducing striped bass mortality is the most critical issue presented by the addendum, I make no other suggestions. If Ftarget and Fthreshold are reduced to the sustainable levels proposed by the benchmark assessment, all other issues will work themselves out over time.
I am a recreational fisherman who has actively and continually participated in the striped bass fishery for about 45 years. Having fished for the species on a regular basis before, during and after the collapse of the late 1970s and 1980s, throughout the rebuilding period and through the current population decline, I have a good historical perspective on the fishery and on striped bass abundance. That perspective leads me to believe that meaningful and timely action to conserve the species needs to be taken now.
I am not going to exaggerate the current problems and predict a collapse such as the one that began about four decades ago; even under the worst assumptions, we still have sufficient time to avoid such an outcome. However, there are disturbing similarities between the current situation and what occurred then, not the least of which is the relatively poor recruitment that has occurred over most of the last decade. The dominant 2011 year class remains a cause for optimism; we had no such strong cohort when the stock collapsed the last time; at the same time never, even during the depths of the collapse, did we see a Maryland young-of-the-year index as low as we did in 2012. Thus, any optimism engendered by 2011’s successful spawn must be tempered by what followed immediately upon its heels. That is particularly true given data that suggests that warm winters lead to poor spawning success, for if climatologists’ predictions prove true, the future will see more warm winters than cold ones, and striped bass recruitment will likely suffer as a result. The current abundance of large fish left over from successful spawns in 1993, 1996, 2000 and 2003 may foster an illusion that all is well, but as was true in the mid-1970s, the lack of small fish coming up behind them tells a very different story.
The ultimate question is whether ASMFC is willing to manage striped bass in accordance with the best available scientific advice. The peer-reviewed striped bass stock assessment represents the closest thing to a gold standard that one will find in fisheries management, particularly since bass could be deemed a ‘data-rich” species; it is doubtful whether a more complete data set exists for any ASMFC-managed stock. At a time when some members of the fisheries advocacy community are arguing that federal managers should manage other species “like striped bass,” ASMFC must demonstrate that it is capable of managing striped bass in a sustainable manner and in accord with the best available science. Its failure to do so will not only have an adverse impact on striped bass abundance; it is likely to resound throughout the broader national fisheries debate as evidence that, absent strict legal guidelines, fisheries managers are incapable of preventing narrow parochial interests from trumping science-based management measures. It would be unfortunate if ASMFC allowed that to occur.