Regulators Take Action to Stem Striped Bass Decline

Responding to the precipitous drop in the Atlantic striped bass population, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has mandated an 18 per cent cut in commercial and recreational harvest quotas for 2020.

The ASMFC Atlantic striped bass management board — which covers coastal waters from North Carolina to Maine — voted to approve the addendum to the interstate fishery management plan for Atlantic striped bass on Oct. 30, at the 78th annual meeting of the ASMFC in New Castle, N.H.

The decision was informed by a 2018 benchmark study that estimated the Atlantic striped bass female spawning stock biomass in 2017 was 68,576 metric tons, well below the SSB threshold of 91,436 metric tons. According to ASMFC data, the spawning stock biomass has been below the threshold level since 2013, and has been in steady decline since 2003.

The new addendum limits recreational fishermen to one striped bass per day, with a slot limit that requires any fish measuring less than 28 inches and more than 35 inches to be released.

Slot limits are designed to protect the larger bass — cows in piscatorial parlance — because most stripers over 30 pounds are breeding females. According to the Massachusetts Disivion of Marine Fisheries (DMF), a 12-pound female can produce about 850,000 eggs, and a 55-pound female can produce more than 4,000,000 eggs.

ASMFC-regulated states will not have to institute slot limits if they show they can achieve the 18 per cent reduction levels using alternative measures.

“It would be easier to measure the effectiveness if all states were uniform, but there are inherent differences between the bay and the coast, and there are differences in things like migratory patterns,” Tina Berger, ASMFC director of communications, told the Gazette. “The technical committee will be extremely thorough in evaluating the technical merit of alternative proposals.”

The technical committee includes biologists from 12 states, the District of Columbia and from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The committee will evaluate each state’s implementation plan, which must be submitted by Nov. 30. The committee will make its recommendations to the full commission in February.

Currently in Massachusetts, recreational fishermen can take one striped bass per day, with a minimum length of 28 inches. In recent years, Massachusetts regulators have increased the minimum size and reduced the daily limit in an effort to bolster the bass.

It hasn’t worked.

According to the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) the estimate of total catch, including fish released alive, in 2018 was 5.76 million striped bass, a 56 per cent decrease from the 2017 estimate.

Speaking to the Gazette by phone this week, Dan McKiernan, DMF deputy director, said he expects that Massachusetts will adopt the slot limits as recommended. “There seemed to be a fair amount of support for slot limits at the table with the New England states,” he said. “It obviously works better if you have uniform rules for neighboring states.”

Mr. McKiernan said he doesn’t believe that pressure from commercial fishermen, who are limited to 15 fish per day, a 34-inch minimum and two fishing days a week, plays a major role in the plummeting population. “They haven’t reached the state allocated catch for the last two years,” he said. “This year only 70 per cent of the quota was taken.”

AMSFC data show that the well-intentioned fishermen who practice catch and release are a surprisingly big part of the problem. “Catch and release fishing has been perceived to have a minimal impact on the population, however a large component of annual striped bass mortality is attributed to release mortality — accounting for roughly 48 per cent of total removals in 2017 (49 per cent in 2018),” the addendum says.

A recent DMF report estimates that nine per cent of striped bass die after being released. While the percentage appears relatively low, the actual death toll is much higher — according to this metric, over one million of the 13 million striped bass released by Massachusetts recreational anglers in 2017 died, compared to roughly 300,000 that were taken home and eaten.

To reduce the release mortality rate, the addendum also stipulated that all states must make circle hooks mandatory for bait fishing anglers by Jan. 1, 2021. Circle hooks are less likely to gut hook bass than traditional J-hooks, and thereby reduce catch and release mortality.

A study by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported a 90 per cent reduction in mortality rate with fish caught on circle hooks.

“It’s going to take a huge education effort to get more fishermen to use circle hooks,” Ms. Berger said. “But the evidence is there that they work really well.”

“I think circle hooks can help, but that only covers bait fishing, not plugs or flyfishing,” Mr. McKiernan said. “I think treble hooks will also be addressed at some point in the near future.”

Fishermen all along the East Coast are vexing over vanishing stripers. Jersey Coast Anglers Association president Mark Taylor wrote on the group’s Facebook page that while opinions vary about the severity of the situation, concern is unanimous. “Though there have been isolated areas such as Raritan Bay and the Cape Cod Canal where the striper fishing has been fabulous at times, most of the East Coast has had very poor fishing,” he wrote.

On Martha’s Vineyard, the decline of the striped bass has been evident for some time, and not just in the grumblings of bleary-eyed fishermen. According to records kept by the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, from 1994 until 2002, every shore bass winner weighed over 40 pounds (the 2002 winner was a few silversides short, at 39.96 pounds). But since 2009, no shore bass winner has weighed over 40 pounds. In 2017, the winner didn’t crack the 30-pound mark.

Big bass have become so sparse, some locals have even been whispering about a possible moratorium.

Cooper Gilkes 3rd, owner of Coop’s Bait & Tackle and elder statesman of the Vineyard fishing community, is not whispering.

“I think they ought to shut it down completely, like they did last time,” he told the Gazette, referring to the striped bass moratorium that lasted on the Vineyard from 1985 to 1993. Throughout most of the 1980s the spawning stock biomass for stripers was less than 20,000 metric tons. The ASMFC declared the striped bass fully recovered in 1995.

“Let’s bring the bass back first and then worry about what you’re going to do with them,” Mr. Gilkes said. “I’m no biologist but when they shut it down last time, they came back big. There was more fish than ever. If we go with slot limits, in a few years, we’ll be right back in the same ball game. There’s a lot of healthy, young breeders in that size range. We should shut it down and then make [striped bass] a game fish.”

Game fish designation means the fish can’t be caught commercially.

“I know some people don’t want to hear it, but it’s time to close it down again, before it’s too late,” Mr. Gilkes said.

The ASMFC is a federally mandated commission made up of three members from each East Coast state — the director for the state’s marine fisheries management agency, a member of the state legislature, and an individual appointed by the governor. The commission was formed in 1940 with the motto “fish do not adhere to political boundaries.”