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2007 Fishing Report

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© Copyright 2007, John McMurray, All Rights Reserved

Last updated 3/07

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Originally published in Fly Fishing in Saltwaters Magazine



A 2007 benchmark stock assessment concluded that the striped bass resource is in great shape, but is it?

By Capt. John McMurray


Most folks will agree that Atlantic striped bass represent a fisheries management success story.  Their recovery from near collapse in the mid 80’s stands out in a fishery management system that has historically failed to put the long-term health of stocks ahead of those who wish to profit from them. 


The large and growing flyfishing community in the Northeast was basically built around the abundance of stripers since 1995, when the species was declared fully recovered.   Painful yet necessary restrictions on harvest, including moratoriums in some states, have undoubtedly paid off in spades. 


The benchmark stock assessment released earlier this year seems to confirm the stock’s health.  According to data compiled in 2006, the striped bass resource is at a healthy level with a female spawning stock biomass (SSB) at 55 million pounds, up from a historic low of roughly 3-million pounds in 1984 and well above the target and threshold levels managers use to trigger corrective action.  In short, the striped bass appear to be abundant, capable of producing strong incoming year classes, and are being fished at levels within the bounds of the current fishery management plan.


Despite that glowing report, there are a growing number of folks who believe that there is cause for concern.  Anglers in some regions  are reporting a definite lack of larger, older fish.  “Stripers Forever has conducted an annual survey of its own membership each year since 2003” wrote the organization’s President Brad Burns,  “and the notion that the recreational catch in 2006 was even close to being such a banner year was certainly not the conclusion we reached.”  The majority of respondents indicated that fishing was “worse” or “much worse” than five years earlier.  According to Burns, 2006 was the third consecutive year that Stripers Forever members felt the fishery was declining in quality.


At the February meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Advisory Panel, comprised of recreational and commercial fishers residing in states between Maine and North Carolina, the new stock assessment was presented.  During the meeting, a number of panel members expressed concern about the perceived lack of large fish. 


Maine panel member and flyfishing guide Dave Pecci said that the general consensus is that there is a very noticeable reduction in the number of larger older stripers in Maine.  Panel member Bill Donovan, Publisher of the New Jersey Angler, echoed the concern, noting that he expected the stock assessment to show a marked decrease based on what he is experiencing on the water.  He added that the Delaware River spring run in 2007 was the worst he’d seen in a long time.  New Jersey panel member Al Ristori noted that the Hudson River recreational harvest was low in 2007, and questioned whether recruitment could stay high with what he says are low numbers of mature striped bass in the Hudson.  My own 2007 striped bass season in Lower New York harbor was terrible, with very few fish larger than 15-pounds. 


Pecci further opined that the lack of large fish couldn’t be attributed to a lack of bait, as the abundance of river herring in Maine is high.  Forage was also abundant in other areas that seemed to lack large bass.  For example, Jamaica Bay, NY was filled with menhaden, but saw very few fish over 20 pounds. 


Yet, despite what appears to be growing unrest regarding the lack of big striped bass, it is very hard to prove that such a dearth of large fish actually exists, as there is insufficient data to either support or disprove such an assertion.  Undoubtedly there are still localized pods of big fish around.  In June, 2007, northern New Jersey saw some enormous fish taken by anglers fishing live menhaden.  There were also many quality fish taken around a body of menhaden that took up residence off Rhode Island.   And no one can claim that there weren’t any big fish in Virginia last winter, as numerous 50-plus pound fish were boated.  


Still, despite those localized bodies of large fish, one would think that a healthy stock composed of a natural age and size structure would show an even distribution of large fish throughout their range.  With regard to Maine’s poor bass fishing, Pecci believes that it’s very likely that the state’s fishery functions as a bellwether for problems with the stock, because it is at the northern edge of the species’ range, making Maine fishermen the anglers most likely to see the first changes in the stock.  The same case could be made for the saltwater flyfishing/light tackle crowd who, because of the difficulty imposed by their chosen gear, may detect a declining trend sooner than those employing more efficient methods. 


Disturbing trends


Despite, the rosy picture painted by the 2007 benchmark assessment, the SSB is decreasing.  While it grew steadily through 2003, it has been on a steady downward trend since, while fishing mortality has been trending upward.  There are a lot of folks out there killing a lot of bass.  Still, according to the science, we are far above the SSB threshold and seem to be fishing well below the fishing mortality threshold (if SSB fell below the threshold, or fishing mortality exceeded it, managers would have to take action to reduce harvest).  That being the case, mangers are unlikely to take any action to address the concerns about the lack of big fish, the decreasing SSB or the increasing fishing mortality.


When I asked Technical Committee Chair, Doug Grout, if the declining SSB trend was something to be concerned about, his response was that it was not, and that he  expected to see SSB start to rise again with the maturation of the 2003 year class, which was quite robust.    It will be interesting to see whether or not that happens. 


A New Model and Stock Assessment Accuracy:

Several new models were developed for use in this assessment, including the Forward Projecting Statistical Catch at Age model (SCA).  The SCA is a significant departure from the virtual population analysis that had been used to assess striped bass stock status since 1997. It is an aged-based model that projects the population numbers-at-age forward through time, rather than backwards. 


Yet, as mentioned, the stock assessment obtained from the SCA doesn’t reflect what many folks are seeing on the water.   Couple that with the fact that, back to October 2004, the virtual population analysis covering the 2003 fishing year showed that the SSB had dropped 30% in just two years.  The fishing mortality rate which had hovered right at the target fishing rate of .30 for several years shot up to an disturbing .40 overall and it was much higher on the larger, older fish.   “All indications in that October 2004 assessment were that we had greatly surpassed the target mortality rate and were now overfishing adult striped bass” writes Burns. Our concerns with the stock assessment center on the fluctuations that these statistics have had over the last five or six years, and what we perceive to be the determination by fishery managers to put a positive spin on striped bass stocks in spite of some serious negative indications.” 


Furthermore, there isn’t much confidence in the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey (MRFSS), which is done via cold-call and a very small dockside interview sample.   There is also concern about the lack of reliable MRFSS estimates from Wave 1 (December and January) in Virginia and North Carolina where a relatively new striped bass fishery may be causing a tremendous amount of mortality.  The lack of MRFSS coverage in upstream, freshwater areas of estuaries where bass are often found adds to the uncertainty in the estimates of recreational harvest.  So does the fact that commercial harvest figures reflect neither the  large illegal fishery nor the mortality associated with high-grading practices on commercial boats in states such as North Carolina. 


Lastly, there is concern about the striped bass assessment model itself.  The “catch at age" models are dependent on accurate fish age determination.  Almost all striped bass ageing is done by counting the rings on a fish’s scale, but it is only valid to about age 11 or 12.  There is virtually no good age data for striped bass older than 12.  The only way to get accurate ages for the older fish is through sectioning otoliths (a bony structure in a fish’s ear).  ASMFC is just starting a program to do this, so good data will not be available for several years.  Until such data is developed, no one can accurately estimate the true condition of fish older than 12. 

Bycatch prone fisheries and release mortality


The recent stock assessment shows that recreational harvest accounts for 45% of the striped bass killed each year.  But, due to large size limits and conservation ethics, 85–90% of the fish caught by anglers are being released, and scientists estimate that about 8% of those fish don’t survive capture  Thus, recreational discards account for 35% of fishing mortality!  Recreational release mortality alone is double the total commercial catch.


Without a doubt, circle-hooks would dramatically reduce release mortality in those situations where it tends to be highest (e.g. using clams and other dead baits).  Unfortunately the Advisory Panel fell short of recommending that they be required by law in those fisheries, and merely recommended that states continue to “educate and encourage the use of circle hooks by anglers.”  



 “Even through the fog created by wildly vacillating stock assessment numbers, we can see the negative trend taking shape” writes Burns.    Fishing mortality is rising and SSB is shrinking.  The reports of fewer big fish are not encouraging.  Yet, for now, the science says that stripers are in good shape.  Certainly, compared to the many other species that anglers target, they are doing quite well.  Yet, given the immense recreational value of the species, one would hope more emphasis would be put on managing the stock as a “quality” fishery.   If the perceived lack of large fish continues, then anglers will need to speak up for a more precautionary approach to managing striped bass.