of the Striper
By Brad Burns 2/1/00
managers have heralded the striper's recovery as the model for how a decimated
fishery can be turned around. And the striped bass did come back to today's
relative abundance from the lowest point imaginable. In 1977 John Cole's book
Striper awakened many outside the fishing world to the terrible decline of the
Northeast's favorite saltwater gamefish. Among them was John's college classmate,
the late Senator John Chafee. What ensued was a desperate effort to save the
striper, financed in large part by federally provided "Chafee funds".
I remember an unbelievably depressing phone call, twenty-odd years ago, from
the state chairman of Maine's striped bass, citizen's advisory group. He had
just returned from a meeting in Washington D.C. One of the officials at the
meeting had said, in effect, that it might be unrealistic to think that striped
bass could survive in the world man had created, and that perhaps inevitably
the striper was "trending towards extinction". Extinction! I was young,
and with a lot of fishing trips to look forward to. The idea was terrifying.
For those few years in the late 70s and early 80s, with the striper's future
uncertain, we heard every theory imaginable to explain the fish's decline. Sun
spots, acid rain releasing aluminum derivatives into Chesapeake Bay, chlorine,
loss of habitat, no-till farming, pesticides, lack of forage, death by bluefish,
evolution, pH imbalances, and just plain natural cycles were blamed by a host
of would-be experts and grant receivers. In final desperation Maryland stopped
all fishing for striped bass. New York stopped commercial fishing too. Thanks
to PCBs the Hudson's fish were declared unfit for human consumption. Congressman
Gerry Studd's Inter-jurisdictional Bill gave the actions of the Atlantic State's
Marine Fisheries Commission "ASMFC" some teeth, and very restrictive
- at least by historical standards - measures went into effect everywhere. The
striper started back. Slowly at first, tiny year classes trickled out of the
Chesapeake and the Hudson. They were the smallest on record, but, incredibly,
they almost instantly produced a great improvement in the fishing. Every year
throughout the mid and late 1980s found a few more fish along the coast as high
survivorship from each year-class filled out the striper's ranks. And only one
thing had really changed; we just weren't killing as many. Saltwater fly fishing
in the Northeast grew in lock step with the striper's recovery.
Then in 1990, an abundance of small stripers found the previous summer at one site inside Chesapeake Bay, allowed them to reopen the Bay's commercial fishery. For a few years the quotas were small, but throughout the nineties they grew relentlessly despite the constant cries by recreational conservationists to go more slowly. The recreational catch was also increased. This was done in the coastal fishery by lowering size limits from the 36-inch minimum size that had rebuilt the population to 28 inches, and by increasing the daily bag limit from one fish to two. Also, in a very controversial move by the ASMFC, the striper's range was divided into two jurisdictions, producer areas, and coastal areas. By allowing a harvest directed at smaller stripers in the producer areas - predominately Chesapeake Bay - far fewer stripers survived to become legal-sized fish on the coast. Meanwhile, on the coast, anglers that wanted to keep a fish were, and are, forced by regulation to take only large, breeding age females. With 80% of the recreational angling fraternity, and plenty of commercial activity also located on the coast, and forced to concentrate on the larger fish, big striped bass have become far less common than they were five years ago.
My circle of hard-bitten fishing friends includes several well-seasoned guides like Martha's Vineyard, Orvis outfitter, Coop Gilkes, and Watch Hill Reef veteran Captain Steve Bellefleur. Their experiences have been
the same as mine. Each year, since the bloated quotas and larger bag limits took hold in the mid-1990s, the average size and the overall number of the fish have been shrinking. In 1999 the downtrend in the population became all too evident. Some guides had to cancel trips. And in Massachusetts - which has the dubious distinction of killing more
breeding size bass than anyone else - some commercial fishermen couldn't make gas money. Only recently have the fishery scientists started to see it that way, but there is now a body of statistics that corroborate the anecdotal observations. According to the ASMFC, the total recreational catch - both kept and released - of stripers reached a high of 16.3 million fish in 1996, and has dropped each year since to 14.5 million, then to 7.3 million, and finally to 6.7 million in 1999. This is a 60% drop in just four years!
Is the problem as simple as overfishing. I think so, and so do a lot of others. A while back I spoke with Mark Gibson, a Rhode Island fisheries scientist, and past chairman of the ASMFC scientific committee on striped bass. Mark is of the strong opinion that since stripers are a long-lived predator, that we're simply catching too many, including too many small ones. The F factor is the term by which managers describe the rate at which stripers are caught on an annual basis. One of the most startling sets of statistics regarding striped bass management is the change in the F factor from the late 1980s, when it was .07, to 1998 when it hit .38. The F factor is always a slightly larger number than the percentage of fish being removed by anglers. And the removal rate is not the same for stripers of all ages. The estimated mortality - and it's just an estimate - of small stripers (between 4 and 7 years old) suggests that we're removing about 25% of these fish from a year class annually. The multiplying effect of this removal rate is staggering. If 100 three year old stripers become legal-sized in their fourth year, by the time they're eight years old, and legal-sized in the coastal fishery, there are only 20 left! The removal of older stripers was 33% in 1998. Given the fact that coastal anglers, which make up 80% of all striped bass anglers, are forced to take their harvest from stripers older than eight years (28 inches and longer) which only represent about 12% of all stripers, the elevated removal rate is unavoidable. Mark went on to add that recent scientific information was suggesting that the F factors historically assumed to be sustainable in many fisheries, would instead lead these resources down the tubes.
And it's clear to all who spend a lot of time fishing for stripers that Mark is correct. The 1993-year class produced zillions of tiny bass along the coast in 95, 96, and 97, and it should now be showing us big numbers of mid 20-inch fish. Seven years later, according to Gary Shepard of the National Marine Fisheries Service, it has been reduced to just an average year class. Wow! That took some doing; the 1993-year class was the biggest year class ever recorded. But most of those fish never lived to reach the 28-inch legal size on the coast. What's worse is that most of these larger stripers are females just coming into their prime reproductive years. The population is now deprived of their breeding potential. Clearly the 1993-year class was harvested far too heavily in Chesapeake Bay. Since they weren't of legal size anywhere else, there can be no other plausible conclusion. And to make matters worse, the 1996-year class, which looked good when its "young of the year" index was first measured in the autumn of 1996, has fizzled. For unknown reasons those fish never lived long enough to become the anticipated population of three-year-old stripers that were to flood the coastal fishery on their first migration as 14 to 16-inch, sub-legal, schoolies.
There hasn't been a really big year class since 1996. This means that without the 93 and 96 fish to look forward to it will likely take years of far more restrictive measures than we've seen recently to regain the quality of fishing that we enjoyed just a few years back. In the mid 1990s, when coastal fishermen first noticed that larger stripers were
becoming less plentiful, a group of clubs and organizations held a meeting on the New Jersey shore. The ASMFC striped bass management plan coordinator showed us graphs that confidently predicted we would see a steady upward trend in the number of large stripers. The solid year classes just hadn't had time to grow large, we were told. One ASMFC biologist was heard to have remarked that we "couldn't possibly catch
enough stripers to harm this population". I really think these men believed what they were saying, but man, were they wrong. And why have our managers allowed the striped bass to be over harvested? Why have we risked the recovery of the greatest boon to the recreational fishing industry in modern times? Check out the graph prepared by the American Sportfishing Association. Striped bass fishing trips have gone from a 150,000 a year in 1980- where they had languished since the striper fishery collapsed in the mid-70s - to an estimated seven million plus in 1997. That's a lot of flies, rods, lures, boats, gas, trucks, guides, hotel reservations, magazine subscriptions, etc. etc. ad infinitum. I could go on and on about the financial value of the striper to every aspect of the East Coast recreational fishing industry. It's not just valuable it's vital! Recreational striper fishing, all things considered, is approaching a billion-dollar plus industry that employs many thousands of people. It compares to the commercial striper fishery like computers to pencils. And the whole thing depends on good quality fishing. At a recent meeting here in Maine, the National Marine Fisheries Service recreational angler survey showed that the number of trips taken a year by the average striped angler started as 8.5 in 1997, went to 6.76 in 1998, and then to 6.29 in 1999. That's a 25% drop in fishing trips in just three years. In Maine, recreational striper fishing was thought to be worth around $80,000,0000. each year. And Maine is not a very populous state. Think of what the decrease in fishing trips is already costing the economies of the larger coastal states.
Managing a fishery for good quality fishing is an understood philosophy in freshwater management - as well as in some southern saltwaters. But, the whole concept of managing the striped bass for quality fishing, recreational value, and personal use consumption, has yet to be embraced by the state fishery managers that make up the ASMFC. Almost to a man these individuals have spent their careers in support of their state's commercial fisheries. Despite the spin put on things by some who are squarely in the commercial camp, the Bay area commercial catches are equal to the highest ever recorded, and far above the long term average of that fishery. And that says nothing of the under-the-table catch, and unrecorded commercial by-catch that is known to be substantial. Yet the ASMFC management plan contains no estimate to account for these illegal landings. One recent sting by New Jersey environmental police found 25 restaurants serving wild, small, stripers - not aquaculture fish as required by law in that state. And according to CCA New York's executive director John McMurray, violations are rampant within that state, including the recent confiscation of an entire truckload of illegal striped bass from the East End of Long Island. And New York and New Jersey are not alone.
Recreational catches are a big number too, but not on an individual basis. In fact with daily bag limits of two fish per day in some states, and one in others, the 2,000,000 plus striper anglers keep less than a fish per season on average. Commercially oriented fishery managers like to compare the commercial catch to the recreational catch in the aggregate, but that's unfair. While recreational anglers take home over half of the stripers that are killed each year, the rights of individual citizens to a personal harvest are just that, individual. And there are about two million individual participants in the recreational striper fishery. Meanwhile the commercial fishery directly benefits only a comparative handful of people - less than one half of one percent of all striper fishermen are commercial fishermen! So where are we going now? Good question, and nobody knows for sure. Recreational groups like the CCA and the Jersey Coast Angler's Association have now directed a lot of attention to the ASMFC process. Both organizations have advocacy coordinators who attend the meetings, and keep their members apprised of the management plans. This kind of coordinated effort may help change the underlying values by which this fishery is managed. And right now we're at a crossroads. The ASMFC is considering a new amendment to its striped bass management plan. Unless a miracle swims out of Chesapeake Bay this spring, some big cuts are going to have to be made to turn around a deteriorating situation. By the ASMFC's own calculations the striped bass spawning stock biomass - the combined weight of all sexually mature stripers - decreased by nearly 10% from 1997 to 1998. And while the numbers aren't in yet, it undoubtedly dropped significantly from 1998 to 1999. This trend is alarming even the most incorrigible of the old school managers. The new amendment to the current striped bass plan - Amendment 6 - contains a lengthy laundry list of possible management options, and it's going out to public hearings in every state from Maine to North Carolina this March and April. Everything is said to be on the table.
So now is the time to do a couple of things that could really help brighten your striper fishing future. Call your state's office of saltwater fisheries management. Let them know how important striper fishing is to you personally - and especially financially if you're in the business. I've always felt that the recreational industry has been far too complacent on management issues. Tell them you'd like to be personally notified of public hearings, and on developments regarding striped bass issues. Write, call, or e-mail in your comments. They listen; they've just never heard enough from us to take us as seriously as they should. And last, join the conservation group in your area that has a profile and message that you agree with. Of the national groups the CCA has the strongest ASMFC program, and the CCA is strong in many of the East Coast states. But there are others like the Recreational Fishing Alliance and the Jersey Coast Anglers that are especially strong in populous New Jersey.
Personally I think it's time to jump-start the striped bass gamefish movement. It's been lying fallow during the recent salad days of the striper. Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New Jersey already have made the striped bass a gamefish. It would sure make a lot of sense to manage this species coast wide for the recreation of its vast public following.
**Note: While I agree in principal that we need to do more to protect this valuable resource, I do not necessarily agree with what is said in the text above as I may or may not have read it and certainly have not edited it in any way. The above views are not mine. Please do not assume that I had, in any way, anything to do with the text above other than in presenting here for others to see as I feel that it is important for fishermen to see how the processes involving fisheries management work. It is also important that we all are up to date as to what the current perceptions are as to the health of what I consider the greatest of all inshore game fish, the striped bass. It would be sad to lose such an awesome creature for the benefit of a tiny but vocal and well funded portion of our population. I am not responsible for the content.