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Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine, Jan/Feb 2003
BRINGING BACK THE BIG BASS
Will the proposed Amendment 6 help return big stripers to the fishery?
By John McMurray
It starts with the quick glimpse of those long dark stripes across a silvery flank as the fish turns on the fly. The heavy thump as the line comes tight against your hand follows as the broad, torquey tail powers a heavy and solid run. These mark the unmistakable traits of Morone saxatilis – the striped bass – and it has created addicts across the country. These fish typify what every hardcore northeast saltwater fly-angler dreams about while sitting behind the fly-tying bench. They are truly magical creatures and the anglers who chase them dedicate large parts of their lives to these fish, spending their evenings sleeping restless hours in their trucks and waking up at odd hours looking for that elusive 50- or 60-pounder.
The problem is that many anglers question the likelihood of catching a 50-pound striper these days. While the possibilities right now run slim, recent reports suggest it’s becoming increasingly unlikely. Late in 2001, Gary Shepherd of the National Marine Fisheries Service prepared a report to Congress entitled A Population Study of Atlantic Striped Bass 2001 Report to Congress that made it clear that mortality must be reduced if meaningful numbers of larger fish are to be restored.
Those anglers that have fished for striped bass regularly over the past 40 years agree that today’s population consists primarily of small fish. Before the collapse of the late ’70s and early ’80s, anglers considered a 30-pounder a “nice” fish and 50- and 60-pounders were considered trophies. The 30-pound bass we catch today seem on par with 50-pound fish of times past. We rarely see 50-pound fish anymore and never with the frequency of years past. Shepherd’s report backs up these observations and demonstrated (demonstrates) that while numbers of smaller bass have indeed increased significantly, numbers of larger, older bass have not.
Where’d They Go?
At least one major reason for the lack of large bass stems from the harvest levels currently allowed by Amendment 5 to the Striped Bass Management Plan. Many agree they remain too high. Today, the target mortality level for striped bass stands at F=0.31, a statistic that roughly corresponds to a 26 percent removal rate. Actual mortality for 2000 (the last year for which final numbers are available) hovered around a statistically similar F=0.28, or about 25 percent. However, the numbers do not tell the whole story. Amendment 5 bases the 0.31 target level on a coastal minimum size of 28 inches. Even so, ASMFC allows a number of states, most notably New Jersey, to effect regulations that permit the taking of bass as small as 24 inches. Consequently, much of the commercial harvest has shifted to smaller and therefore younger fish. Since the process of harvesting younger fish requires a significantly reduced mortality rate to sustain the population over the long term, fishing at or even a bit below the current target rate sets the population up for devastation.
The current limits under Amendment 5 allow culling of 20-inch fish from “producer areas” (spawning bays and rivers) and 28-inch fish from coastal populations. Biologists acknowledge that under these limits, the point at which so many fish get removed that the population doesn’t live long enough to grow large (called “growth overfishing”) begins at around a rate of F=0.25 (around 22 percent) -- well under today’s target of 0.31.
No Where to Hide
All these complicated statistics mean that while striped bass were declared recovered seven years ago (scientists agree there currently exists a high enough biomass and sufficient spawning population to maintain the stock) today’s stock primarily consists of small fish. If allowed, striped bass can live as long as 30 years and grow to weights more than 100 pounds. However, because 28-inch fish become the primary target under Amendment 5, the population practically disappears before the fish can reach middle age. Based on size, striped bass get targeted as early as 2 years old (approximately a 20-inch fish) in the producer areas. Those that survive are further hammered by age 8, when they reach approximately 28-inches, in coastal areas. Because of a human population boom and the success of Amendment 5 in increasing overall biomass, the number of recreational fisherman who chase stripers every year increases exponentially. Therefore, the mortality in the fishery increases exponentially as well. Under the current mortality target, stripers literally have nowhere to hide during the bulk of their life cycle.
Big Fish Are Necessary
Obviously big fish are desirable from an angling perspective, but they have an unmistakable biological significance as well. In his report, Shepherd points out that a normal distribution of age classes within the population has important implications for long-term stock productivity and stability. Larger fish produce more and larger eggs and therefore larger fish -- not to mention survival rates for larger fish run significantly higher. The average female bass has evolved to spawn 20 or more times over the course of her lifetime, yet the current fishing mortality levels push that number way down.
A stock comprised of fish that spawn only once or twice, if we had back-to-back spawning failures, even due to natural causes, could likely cause the population to collapse just like it did 25 years ago. Historically, it appears that these fish do indeed naturally experience several low-recruitment years in a row periodically. As near (far) as scientists can tell, the consecutive good spawning years we’ve seen since 1993 are anomalous. In fact, the recently released 2002 Maryland young numbers show a substantially sub-par year-class already. In addition to potential spawning failure, the real threat of diseases, such as Mycobacteriosis (see March/April 2002 Resource column) looms as well and can prove particularly devastating to younger fish. The more age classes in the water, the more stable the spawning stock, and the better able it can withstand unforeseen and unavoidable occurrences.
So the current data provide a basis for a very compelling argument that the present mortality target remains too high and does not allow a significant number of fish to reach their natural age and size limits. Even so, some groups who would like to see continued status quo, or even increase take, argue that the larger or older fish will begin to show up in greater numbers under the current mortality rates -- it will just take some time for the fish to grow. While the number of large bass will increase as the 1993 year-class grows out, the number of fish aged 15 years or more will never reach much higher than right now if the current mortality target levels remain. According to Shepherd, the best data indicates that “even modest levels of fishing mortality reduce the proportion of older fish in the stock … at fishing mortalities higher than F=0.20 [about 18 percent] the proportion of large fish in the population would decline well below the 2000 level.”
A few recreational groups reference “historic use” of the resource, claiming that striped bass were fished at levels higher than the current mortality target in the past and suffered no long-term damage. However, Shepherd addressed that point in an April 2000 report to the ASMFC, in which he states “As far back as 1865, fishermen were commenting on a noticeable decline in striped bass abundance. This was the situation into the 1930s, when a large year-class was produced. Since that time, the fishery has exhibited a pattern of fishing down incoming recruitment until the next large year-class appeared. This was the case in the ’70s and early ’80s, except during that time there was a continued period of poor recruitment. It would appear that the up-and-down nature of striped bass populations could be a result of fishing beyond sustainable levels.”
The groups advocating status quo also argue that the process of decreasing mortality would hinder those that wish to keep stripers for food. While it’s true that (delete) Decreasing the mortality target would reduce the number of fish killed by all fishermen, it should (delete) but would also create a more efficient use of the resource. However, (delete) Recreational fishermen taking fewer and bigger fish would still garner the same gross weight of filets because of the increased size of the fish in general. Along those same lines, some argue that the so-called subsistence fisherman would suffer further restrictions because larger legal fish don’t venture close to accessible shore areas. According to Charles Witek of the Coastal Conservation Association, the success in rebuilding populations of other ‘subsistence’ species, like croaker, summer flounder, weakfish and bluefish makes subsistence fishermen’s dependence on striped bass negligible.
Regardless, just about all conservation-minded anglers agree that stripers should not be managed like porgy, flounder or blackfish -- some of which have been severely over fished. Stripers have become a celebrated game fish that has captured the hearts and minds of a great number of anglers. They pump a lot more money into the economy via recreation then they do as food. I would venture to say that the overwhelming majority of bass fishermen would accept whatever restrictions and harvest reductions are deemed necessary to bring back bigger fish.
Enter Amendment 6
In September and October of 2002, hearings on Amendment 6 to the Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass were held throughout the Mid Atlantic and New England states. Anglers had the opportunity to voice their opinions on the need for larger and older fish in the population. With the exception of New Jersey, an overwhelming number attendees at the hearings in other states made statements endorsing a lower mortality target with a goal of bringing back the bigger bass.
Amendment 6 is currently being formulated. It provides the first opportunity to address bass management from the standpoint of a quality rather than a quantity fishery. The best available data indicates that reducing target mortality well below F=0.25 would benefit both striped bass and the anglers that target them. However, the ASMFC incorporates not only scientific recommendations but what they interpret the public wants as well.
It will be interesting to see what effect the hearings will have on the manager’s decision. As this issue went to press, the Striped Bass Management Board held a special meeting to make a decision on these issues. This late date makes a January 1, 2003 implementation date impossible, so implementation will probably take place either in mid-2003 or on January 1, 2004. The outcome will affect the striped bass for many years to come. FFSW will continue to cover the situation and report on the board’s resolution in an upcoming issue.
Capt. John McMurray is currently the Program Officer at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation, in New York. He’s also a part time saltwater flyfishing guide in Rockaway New York and owner of “One More Cast” Guiding Service. You can contact him at 718 791-2094. – Ed.