Keeping Stripers Strong
Striper numbers are tailing off. Is it time to worry? From Guy Harvey Magazine.
Anyone who lived through the 1980s knows just how bad it got for the striped bass population. As a kid in 1986, I remember surfcasting with my dad at Island Beach State Park in New Jersey, and in a stroke of luck, we caught and released two stripers on clams. I was written up in the local newspapers for catching not one, but two 26-in. bass, because it was an unusual accomplishment during that time.
Now, fast forward to the late ‘90s into the mid-2000s. Every angler, whether a first-timer or a seasoned striper hound, was bailing dozens upon dozens of stripers per man each day, with plenty of fish in the 30- to 45-lb. class. It was unreal. From Maine to North Carolina, recreational anglers were stacking trophy-caliber bass up like cordwood along the docks.
Then photos surfaced that spread like wildfire on the internet. They showed tens of thousands of trophy bass being illegally gillnetted in Chesapeake Bay, and that sent off an alarm in the fishing community. From 2009 until now, something has changed. Today, striper catches, though still a quality affair, have been diminishing. The schools are thinner and the catches of trophy-caliber fish are harder to come by again. Some areas in the Northeast see only a handful of younger bass of 20 to 28 inches. So now what?
Is it an alarmist point of view to worry about the stocks right now? Maybe, maybe not. Brad Burns, president of Stripers Forever, offers his take on what caused the major decline of striper stocks in the ‘80s and what could possibly be happening now. “In the 1970s, overfishing from legal commercial angling and a recreational angling minimum 16-in. size limit with no bag limit reduced the biomass quickly, where plenty of bass over 16 in. were being plucked from the waters at an alarming rate. Swift actions came to institute a moratorium in Maryland and Chesapeake Bay from 1984 to 1989, and the population rebounded to allow the stocks to recover. That gave way to a mid to late 1990’s explosion where recruitment classes allowed young-of-the-year bass to live their life cycle and replenish the stocks.”
Many states such as New York, Virginia and Maryland still have a commercial fishery for bass. Without a doubt, the commercial fishery for stripers knocks off tens to hundreds of thousands of fish each season, and the black market for bass may be twofold of what commercial angling legally nets. So an obvious answer to protect the stocks is to eliminate the commercial fishery completely on the East Coast and delineate the striper to gamefish status, as states such as Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and South Carolina have already done.
These striped bass dead in a gill net are the ones we know about. Another few million disappeared without being seen.
But it’s not all about curbing commercial interests. Next is the recreational side of management. There is no reason to stack big breeder bass up on the docks each and every day.
“It’s a matter of education as I see it,” says Jim Hutchinson, managing director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA). “Guaranteed, there are some individuals, or a bunch of friends, or a charter boat that will catch a limit of bass, and will eat all that fish—there’s no shame in that. But other anglers who are first-timers or tourists looking for a trophy, keep a mess of big breeder fish, but then when they are at the dock, have no clue what to do with the catch, saying they can’t possibly eat all this fish. It’s about education of the angler, teaching them about the species, its growth and history to instill respect for what they are fishing for.”
It’s not just about protecting big breeders either. Every stage of development is important. “Coast-wide, we have to protect young-of-the-year bass, as well as the big breeders,” says Hutchinson.
Environmental factors also play a huge part. “I believe the Clean Water Act combined with the moratorium of the ‘80s had a lot to do with the rebound of the population,” says Hutchinson. “In the ‘80s, the inshore waters of New York and New Jersey were a dead zone. But thanks to the Clean Ocean Act in the early ‘70s, ocean dumping was curbed considerably, so the PCBs being dumped into the Hudson River that destroyed generations of stripers was a diminishing factor.”
But the recent decline in bass may not be due to just regulatory or environmental issues. Stocks could also be showing the effects of a reduced food supply, namely fewer menhaden. Although laws have prevented seiners from coming from out of state, the fleets are still allowed to fish in federal waters past the three-mile limit. I can say unequivocally, that when you see a spotter plane calling to the seiners to push inside the three-mile limit to net up all the bunker, the bass are gone within a week, nowhere to be seen.
Of course, the recent dip in bass numbers could also just be part of a natural cycle for fishery. For instance, the 2011 spawning recruitment stocks point to another solid run for 2016, but we have yet to wait that out. “It’s a cycle. We shouldn’t be too scared of what we see at the present moment, but should be aware of it,” says Hutchinson.
But the real question is, can we afford to wait? We should have a proactive approach instead of a reactive philosophy. On the recreational side, I think a compromise can be reached to enact regulations that protect the breeders (generally, a fish over 20 lbs., at roughly 38 in. long, is a female fish), while also protecting the young stripers who mature to spawn at ages five to eight years old. We can take proactive measures to manage the stocks within reason, without shutting down the fishing economy that brings a lot of business to coastal towns catering to anglers. I think we should:
- End commercial fishing for striped bass and designate them as a gamefish all along the coast.
- Institute a sensible two-fish limit per day, with a slot of one fish between 23 to 28 in., and one fish between 30 and 42 inches. There should also be a one fish, once a year option to keep a fish over 42 in. long for keeping a true “trophy” fish.
- Continue to enact legislation to stop pollution of the waterways.
- Strengthen protection for menhaden (bunker) schools.
There is no panacea for managing fish stocks at any level, but sensible measures along with real education will bring positive results. Let us not forget the lessons of the past. We must learn from them and build upon past successes to protect one of our greatest natural resources.
This story came to us from a recent issue of Guy Harvey Magazine.
We strongly suggest you Join the Recreational Fishing Alliance if you fish coastal waters. Jim and his people have been working on fishing rights for as long as many of our readers have been fishing. Or breathing for that matter.