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Flyfishing in Saltwaters, March/April 2010

 

THE STRIPED BASS QUANDARY

On paper, the stock is healthy, but anglers know something is wrong

By Capt. John McMurray

 

Itís hard not to associate the great state of Maine with ďstripasĒ.  Its rocky coastline is ideal habitat for what has become the most sought after fish by flyfishers in both New England and the Mid Atlantic.  But in the last few years Maineís extraordinary striped bass fishery has ceased to exist.  

 

Itís not just Maine.  Coast wide the complaints about the quality of the striped bass fishery are becoming hard to ignore.  The overwhelming majority of anglers who participated in the 2009 Stripers Forever annual fishing survey reported that the fishery has been declining significantly.   Itís evident that striped bass are becoming less available.

 

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Yet to fishery managers, this is all anecdotal.  According to the latest stock assessment, striped bass are not overfished and over fishing is not occurring.  In fact, the assessment shows that the resource is in very good condition.  The estimated size of the spawning stock currently exceeds the management goals by a large margin, and the estimated fishing mortality continues to be under what scientists believe is a safe level.    

 

Itís frustrating to see managers paint such a rosy picture of the striped bass fishery.  From where I sit, it appears that itís slipping away from us.  Flyfishing guides have a unique perspective because of the inherent difficulty in the method.  Two years ago, I wrote in this column that we are perhaps the first to see what may be the beginning of a very serious problem.  But now even the bait fishers and trollers are beginning to show unrest as their catches are down in size and numbers. 

 

Although striper numbers are well within the parameters of what managers consider a healthy fishery, there was a documented decline from 2004 to 2007 with a small increase in 2008.  As a Striped Bass Advisory Panel member I asked if the ASMFC Technical Committee was concerned about such a decline.  The explanation was that this trend was likely the result of those good year-classes such as the 1996 cohort leaving the fishery, and that the more recent good year-classes (e.g. 2003) have yet to be recruited into the fishery.   In other words striped bass numbers should go up soon. 

 

 I hope they are right, but I donít believe they are.  Itís hard to believe that weíre not killing too many fish when you can take a walk to any given marina in Montauk, or Cape Cod or any of the well known striped bass ports and see dumpsters full of big bass carcasses any given day during the season.   And this is not something we can point the proverbial finger at the commercial fishing folks for.  Recreational mortality accounts for almost 80% of the total.  To put it in perspective, just the recreational discard mortality (the number of fish that die after we release them) is double the total commercial catch.

 

Assessment scientists may be missing something.  Fishing mortality may be quite a bit higher than the estimates indicate. 

 

Such mortality could be coming from the relatively new winter fisheries in Virginia and North Carolina.  The recreational fishing survey doesnít sample during those first months of the year (what they consider to be ďWave 1Ē) when a lot of large fish are harvested.  We need MRFSS sampling for the Wave I fishery because undoubtedly it is resulting in a lot of big dead bass.  Unfortunately, it doesnít appear to be forthcoming.  

 

Black-market commercial fisheries are likely a significant unaccounted-for source of mortality as well.   Last February, state and federal officials busted several Chesapeake Bay fishermen and processers which illegally took an estimated 600,000 pounds of striped bass. Itís just the tip of the iceberg.   In my neck of the woods alone (Lower New York Harbor) you can witness a fleet of boats poaching striped bass on any day during the season.  There is little enforcement, and even when there is an enforcement action, the fine is rarely substantial enough to act as a deterrent.   Such enforcement issues exist in other regions as well. 

 

Without a doubt the illegal catch is sizeable, yet even though the poaching problem seems to be well known and repeatedly documented by arrests and convictions, the Technical Committee claims there is no way to can get an accurate estimate of such fisheries.  Thus, theyíve chosen to just not acknowledge it. 

 

Then thereís Mycobacteriosis, a disease affecting striped bass heavily in the Chesapeake Bay.  It is a likely a serious source of mortality.  One can only assume that such non-fishing related mortality is quite a bit higher than the current estimates.

 

Still, if there is indeed such an underestimation of mortality, it should be reflected in the spawning stock biomass numbers.  In other words there should be less fish then the stock assessment is showing.   There has to be something amiss there as well as there simply arenít as many big fish around to catch.  

 

The winter striped bass tagging cruise that takes place off Virginia and North Carolina in January caught the fewest striped bass in its 22-year history.  Striped bass recruitment in 2006 and 2007 was some of the worst in recent years.  The 2008 Maryland young of the year index, traditionally a reliable measure of future striped bass abundance, was merely 3.7% of the long term average.

 

Any one of these factors, taken on its own, is probably not significant.  Stripers typically experience irregular spawning success.  Weather can affect fishing, by anglers or by research vessels and changes in water temperature and/or forage abundance may affect the distribution of striped bass.  However, when viewed as a whole, there is ample reason for precaution. 

 

Yet such precaution is in short supply with striped bass.  In a single session, ASMFC created fisheries in Delaware and Pennsylvania for striped bass smaller than the 28-inch coastal minimum, eliminated the quota on the Chesapeake Bay spring ďtrophyĒ fishery and permitted Maryland to extend its December season by more than two weeks. 

 

Such a lack or precaution is irritating, but not at all surprising.  ASMFC manages a number of recreational and commercially important stocks that are in great peril (e.g. winter flounder, weakfish and river-herring).  There are plenty of federally managed fisheries as well where there is clear data that such stocks are in bad shape or are rebuilding and thus managers are required to set firm catch limits.  Faced with these realities, and the fact that a growing number of fishermen are running out of species to catch, managers are unlikely to exercise precaution with a species that seems to be doing awfully good on paper, particularly when their constituents are clamoring to kill more fish.    

 

Furthermore, itís hard to argue the fishery is in decline when there are still localized bodies of fish that are providing good action (Northern New Jersey, Cape Code, Rhode Island, Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in the winter etc.) although even catches in those hot spots seem to be declining now.   Regardless, itís not where the fish are, itís where they arenít, and clearly weíre seeing the stock contact. 

 

There is hope though.  Back in November the ASMFC Striped Bass Board met to consider an Addendum that would have allowed a rollover of unused commercial quota, which was ridiculous considering the reality is that the commercial quota is fully utilized in black market fisheries anyway.   In effect, it would have been another de-facto mortality increase.  Anglers packed the room in Newport and expressed their concern over the status of striped bass. 

 

Given the latest stock assessment I would have said that such efforts were in vain and that the Board was poised to make another bad decision with striped bass.   But they didnítÖ  The rollover proposal was defeated by an 8 to 6 vote.  Thus, indeed there does appear to be some growing concern by managers.  That concern I believe is directly proportional to the number of anglers that make or submit comments. 

 

The ASMFC will discuss commercial quotas in February.   There will probably be a serious push for an increase.  We need to keep the heat on, and let our Commissioners know we are concerned over the state of our striped bass fishery and would like to see more precaution over how itís managed.  You can find a list of your state commissioners and their contact info on the ASMFC website:  www.asmfc.org/commissioners.htm