What to Expect with Striped Bass

A strong Magnuson-Stevens Act allowed striped bass to grow to sustainable levels, like this one caught September, 2016 off Block Island by Steve Brustein of Maine on No Fluke Charters.

Photo: a striped bass caught Block Island by Steve Brustein of Maine on No Fluke Charters. Photo via Dave Monti

Striped bass are the most iconic fish on the East Coast. Countless books have been written about them. Small coastal communities from Maine to North Carolina have depended on striped bass for centuries. We’ve loved stripers since before we were a country. That may seem overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The first fishery law was passed to protect striped bass in Massachusetts when it was a colony.

1634 William Wood, in his New England’s Prospect, called the striped bass,

“one of the best fishes in the Country . . . a delicate, fine, fat, faste fish…. The English at the top of an high water do crosse the creek with long seanes or bass nets which stop the fish; and the water ebbing from them, they are left on the dry grounds, sometimes two or three thousand at a set, which are salted up against winter, or distributed to such as have present occasion either to spend them in their homes or use them for their grounds.”

In 1639, something happened that would change everything for stripers. The people of Massachusetts saw that striped bass were becoming depleted. They responded by forbidding the use of striped bass as fertilizer. This first step in protecting our resources was the precursor to the first environmental impact statement, the eventual passage of the National Environmental Policy Act and the passage of Magnuson-Stevens and countless regional fisheries legislation. Heck, in 1670, Plymouth, Massachusetts (at the time just a colony) built a school and ran it funded on striped bass sales. The Plymouth Colony school then became the standard for our public-school system. Like I said before, striped bass are the most iconic fish on the East Coast.

Striped bass management has taken many twists and turns since the 1600’s. Currently, we are at a crossroads. Striped bass are managed at ASMFC by biological reference points (targets and thresholds) to assess the stock status of striped bass. The current fishing mortality target of 0.180 and threshold of 0.219 were established from the 2013 benchmark stock assessment.

Striped Bass Female Spawning Stock Biomass & Recruitment

Charts help when trying to understand how this translates into the fishing experience. Do you recall fishing for stripers from 2000 to 2006? Spectacular doesn’t begin to describe it. This was the only time in recent history that the spawning stock biomass (SSB) was above the target. From 1995 to 2006, recreational anglers doubled our trips from 5 million to 10 million. If anyone is truly worried about the economy of striped bass, make sure the SSB is around the target. Adding five million recreational fishing trips is quite a boost to all those coastal communities, boat builders, hotels, and restaurants.

If we slip below the threshold, management action (lower fishing mortality with stricter regulations) is not an option but rather a requirement. Right now, we are extremely close to the threshold. In fact, there’s a decent chance we have dipped below it. The numbers aren’t in, but I’m willing to bet that the final waves of stripers for 2017 will show stripers taken at a much higher frequency that expected. If you saw the pictures from the last hurrah of the 2011 fish in the Chesapeake, you already understand. Those fish aren’t going to recruit to the SSB because we were harvesting at unsustainable rates, but the numbers will tell us that shortly.

Striped Bass Landings

If our fisheries management history indicates how we’ll respond, we should be extremely concerned. As the stock declines, the natural reaction hasn’t been to set stricter limits and conserve the species. The reaction has been to lower the bar.

Let’s be more specific. Since striped bass aren’t managed on a strict poundage quota, they are open to exploitation. The target and threshold are biological reference points. If those reference points are lowered, harvest can increase. Look at it this way, if a fish stock is approaching a threshold where mandatory reductions will be triggered, why not just lower the threshold? It’s the same tactic used with water quality standards, state testing and public schools, and just about any benchmark we try to standardize. If you can’t reach the goal, then lower it.

The next steps for conservation-minded anglers are blurred. Normally, I would suggest sending ASMFC commissioners an email stating that you don’t want to harvest more stripers while the stock is declining. However, 158,000 emails did nothing to help menhaden last month. Is it time for another tactic? Maybe readers can help me get creative?

About Tony Friedrich

Tony Friedrich has worked in the field of conservation for over a decade. He was the founder of Lefty Kreh’s TieFest, the largest independent fly fishing show in the Mid-Atlantic, and the Executive Director for CCA Maryland for almost 8 years.  He lives on the Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

9 comments on “What to Expect with Striped Bass

  1. It wouldn’t hurt to enforce current regulations. I have seen people with a daily limit of legal size in the cooler but they keep fishing till they catch a larger keeper, then they throw a smaller one back ” Dead ” so on and so on. I would not be exaggerating to say I’ve seen a dozen legat size stripers float by my boat when fishing near a pack of boats.

  2. That’s absolutely discouraging Dave. In Maryland, we have a catch a poacher hotline. Not sure where you fish, but we have to stand up for the resource. Thanks for your comment. It is great to hear about what folks are seeing. Even if it isn’t always great news.

  3. Fight for STRONGER SENTENCING !!!
    Perhapse mandatory sentenses for BLATANT poaching.
    Look into the Md DNR police blotter…
    Month after month, people are caught DELIBERATELY POACHING, but slapped on the wrist or let off easy by the court !!!
    I.E: “Officers found 80 (eighty) undersized striped bass in a duffelbag”. Or, “Fish were being thrown from the vehicle while fleeing from officers”.

    Then, the darn court gives these clowns community service, or a fine smaller than a paycheck!

    I do my part to reduce mortality.
    “illegal” or not, if I gut hook/gill hook an undersized striper, I cut the leader 6″ from the mouth and count it toward my limit. I will not waste a 18″ fish for fear of the law. Id rather be at the mercy of the officer.
    I think allowing or encouraging folks to keep short fish if proven to be fatally hooked, would prevent more than half of all floating throwbacks.
    You get maybe one, or a maximum of 2 same as “legal size”, instead of trowing back 5-10 dead fish avoiding a ticket.

    • Donavin – I completely agree with you, undersized fish which are gut/gill hooked should absolutely be allowed to be kept and counted toward your limit. In fact it should be mandated that they be kept and counted toward your limit. Live-lining and chunking are very popular methods especially during the summer months when the greatest concentration of rec boats can be seen at the hot spots. Unfortunatley, it’s all but guaranteed you are going to gut/gill hook an undersized striper doing so.

      Tony- This was a great write up! I learned the underlying issues which I wasn’t aware of before (increasing of thresholds when the previous year’s thresholds are surpassed – as opposed to reducing harvest allotments). It’s disheartening that 158,000 emails didn’t translate to smart menahaden management regulations. It’s tough to enact smart policy change with “bought” politicians in office and a corporation that provides an economic impact much greater than all of the 158,000.

      Keep up the fight and keep educating those of us who don’t know the whole backstory!

  4. SELF REGULATION!!! People think the stocks are GREAT. If more people opened their eyes and started throwing fish back and made this a trend we would not have to depend on more regulations…but we all know how that goes. Stack um’ on party boats, “boxes filled”, “limit by 10”, scales at tackle shops with hero shots daily, tournaments. The industry that survives on fishing PROMOTES more harvest and they will be the group to suffer most.

  5. This sounds really basic and unrealistic, but there’s power in numbers. The destructive mentality, I’m not done until I catch up to my limit, I need to take fish everday, I need show-off trophy pictures at my favorite bait shop scale and look at all my fish lined up on the dock has to end. Instead, fishers have to strike a balance between ego and conservation. Practice self-control. When I look at sailfish and tarpon fishing, I’m amazed how great care is taken in handling of both species. We can do the same with Striped Bass. But, there has to be a “movement.” Facebook pages are a great start. Tackle shops and charters should actively promote catch & release pictures. Recreational fishers that want “responsible” fishing can promote those specific businesses. Public service announcements also help. If government is catering to big money, then Recs. have to use their voices. We know social media pressure is valuable and effective…in numbers.

  6. I believe the best way to grow the striped bass population would be a slot limit. Letting the larger breeder fish go would up the amount of fish as well as keep large fish genes in the gene pool and off the dinner table. Essentially making Stripers an even better game fish. Take a picture and set those 40# bass free to lay thousands more eggs than the 28” fish that make better table fare.

  7. Tony, with the solid Chesapeake year classes in 2011 and 2015 and Hudson 2014 and 2015, is the expectation that if harvest levels are maintained that the SSB is going to trend up? We are so far from the levels that produced the moratorium in the ’80s that I expect the calls for a moratorium now will be given absolutely no consideration and may actually get in the way of what we should be fighting for. From my standpoint – keep the current regulations in place for as long as possible. Change the conservation equivalency system so that any states not meeting the harvest goals are penalized in subsequent years. Press the ASMFC and state fisheries agencies to allocate more funding for enforcement (would the rec community get behind a stamp if all funds were allocated to enforcement and conservation?) to reduce the commercial and recreational poaching that takes place.

    I see tough times ahead with the current administration already indicating a lack of regard for fisheries science and a strong bias towards business. Ultimately it may be changes in Washington that are most effective in protecting our fisheries.

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