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Published in Fly Fishing in Salt Waters: July/Aug 2011 Issue

THE FUTURE OF STRIPED BASS

Where we go from here will profoundly affect the flyfishing industry in the Mid Atlantic and Northeast

 

As I write this itís Mid June and Iím returning from yet another substandard day.  For over a decade my guide business has thrived on a robust striped bass population.  Yet since a definitive peak in 2006, itís been getting a little harder each season to put clients on fish.  Certainly Iíve had some good, even epic days this spring, but what I donít have is the consistent every-day fishing Iíve built my business around.

   

Itís not just me, itís not just my state, and itís not just my region.  A definitive slow-down seems to be happening all along the striper coast.  Because flyfishers employ the least efficient gear in targeting striped bass, we are not only the first to see the signs weíre the most acutely effected.  Yet these days itís not just flyfishers who are complaining about a lack of fish.  The bait and trolling folks are beginning to raise their voices as well.

 

Anglers are simply not encountering striped bass in the same numbers as they did previously and the facts are beginning to bear this observation out.   According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) anglers caught 71 percent fewer striped bass in 2010 than they did in 2006 and thereís been a well documented decline in estimated striped bass abundance.  There have been several consecutive years of low young-of-the-year numbers and a definitive increase in natural mortality, likely caused by Mycobacteriosis - a disease that by some estimates is infecting 65% of those fish spawning in the Chesapeake and has nearly a 100% mortality rate. 

 

Not overfished

 

Yet given all this information, technically striped bass are not overfished, nor is overfishing occurring.  The Atlantic State Marine Fishery Commission (ASMFC) relies on set fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass thresholds for management action.   If we reach a pre-determined level of fishing pressure on the stock, corrective management action must be taken.  Additionally, if the size of the stock decreases to a pre-determined level a course correction is required.  Thus far, fishing mortality has remained below the threshold and spawning stock biomass well above it.  And so, despite the growing chorus of complaints and pleas from the angling community for precautionary action, managers have not acted and in many cases sought to increase striper catch.  

 

This shouldnít be surprising given that the Commission manages some fisheries that have virtually collapsed, yet has failed to implement measures such as moratoria to insure their survival (weakfish and winter flounder come to mind).  Given the dire straits such fisheries are in, itís hard to imagine any action on a fishery which appears on paper to be relatively okay. 

 

Itís difficult for some Commissioners to comprehend thereís a problem with striped bass when we have localized populations of large fish providing extraordinary catches.   As I mentioned, Iíve had epic days this spring with sustained big-fish blitzes, but thereís very little consistency here, and this seems to be happening all along the coast.  Such intense, but short-lived runs of large fish, and a noted lack of schoolies, is reminiscent of the late 70ís and early 80ís when 40-pound fish were relatively common and the 78-pound record was caught.   The reality is that striped bass could very well be headed down the same road that lead them to near collapse in the early 80ís.  Things are beginning to look awfully similar. 

 

Whoís at fault?

 

Whoís responsible?  Itís easy to point the finger at commercial fishermen, and certainly there seems to be plenty of folks out there that do just that.  But assuming the problem is fishing mortality (it may not be) anglers are definitely the largest perpetrators.    The commercial fishery is controlled through quotas, so theoretically commercial fishermen cannot go over the ďharvest capĒ set by the state (at least not legally).  The recreational fishery, on the other hand, is managed through bag and size limits. The growing popularity of fishing for stripers and the lack of any sort of recreational harvest cap has allowed a large increase in recreational mortality over the years while commercial mortality has remained virtually static.  In 2006, the year the recreational striper fishery peaked, recreational dead discards alone (those fish that didnít survive the release) were around double the total commercial catch.

 

Iím not saying commercial fishermen are not part of the problem.  They certainly are.  It was hard to miss all the photos and videos of acres of dead discards from North Carolina trawlers.  Equally disturbing were the tens of thousands of pounds of dead stripers caught in illegal gill-nets found in Chesapeake tributaries.  Trust me when I tell you that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discards and poaching.  But letís be honest.  Such dead fish, while an inexcusable waste of the resource, still pale in comparison to recreational mortality. 

 

Natural Factors?

 

But is fishing mortality the cause of the striped bass decline?  A recent study claims that it may not be.   Scientists at NOAA researching weather patterns are pointing to the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) as a likely factor in striper ups and downs.   The AMO, a combination of wind and ocean currents in the North Atlantic, seems to flip-flop every 35 years or so.  When such a shift happens, it affects local weather along the Atlantic Coast, providing deliberate temperature and precipitation shifts, and subsequently river flow and salinity changes.  When it's in a warm phase, springtime along the East Coast tends to be wet and cool ó more rain, more water, more food.  In the years following that phase, striper numbers go up.  Then the AMO flips ó drier springs, less rain, less food.  After a lag striper numbers start to decline. 

 

The past 100 years of data show this very trend.  As previously mentioned, striped bass numbers have been declining since 2006. And such a decline correlates to when the AMO seems to be switching phase.  Scientists speculate that it was just such an AMO flip that caused the striper crash in the 1980s.  When that cycle ended, stripers recovered, not just because of the moratorium and strict regulations, but because conditions for their success became more favorable.

 

Personally, Iím not so sure I buy thisÖ  To me itís intuitive as to why striper stocks are declining.  Weíre killing too many fish.  I see it every day on the water and at every marina I visit.  And I know the poaching is way out of the realm of what most people believe it to be.  Yet whether stripers are declining due to environmental conditions or fishing pressure, the future course of action should be the same.    The only thing we can do to control the situation is to reduce fishing mortality. 

 

Of course there will be folks who use the AMO study to suggesting that since fishing may not be the largest part of the problem, then fishermen should not have to make sacrifices. Yet, it only makes sense to fish less when natural mortality is high.   Doing nothing and allowing the situation to deteriorate further, so that any recovery effort ultimately undertaken will only be more difficult is just stupid. Whatever the cause, ASMFC should be taking immediate action to reduce fishing mortality.

 

Good News?

 

With cautious optimism, I can report that ASMFC recently took a substantial step to do just that.  At their March meeting Commissioners voted to initiate development of ďDraft Addendum IIIĒ, with the goal of ďreducing striped bass fishing mortality by up to 40% and further protecting spawning stock when it is concentrated and vulnerable.Ē 

 

An updated interim stock assessment which will be completed at the end of the summer was the big driver.  The addendum would allow managers to promptly respond to the results in the fall.  Commissioners likely voted for it because they donít want to be caught in a position where the science shows a real problem, but they failed to admit to the possibility when we all began to provide warnings. 

 

The action is of course a long way from actually reducing mortality, but it is a definitive acknowledgement that that there may, at least, be a problem.  Remember that, just a year ago, ASMFC was considering increasing commercial quota. 

 

Provisions of the addendum, if passed, could be implemented prior to the start of the 2012 fishing year.  But, unless the interim stock assessment shows a real problem, Commissioners will likely vote against the Addendum. 

 

What happens next is criticalÖ  Not just to the fishery but to every small business across the striper coast that depends on it.  While striped bass has become vitally important to the entire recreational fishing community, itís absolutely crucial to an already struggling flyfishing industry.  Without a robust striper stock flyfishers in the Mid Atlantic and New England simply wonít buy 9 and 10wts, book guided trips etc. 

 

Letís see what the stock assessment shows this fall and where the Commission decides to go with it.  The flyfishing public needs to be very involved on this one.  Stay tunedÖ