Thoughts on a 28 To 31″ Slot Limit for Stripers

Striped Bass

In a Move that Caught Many in the Fishing Business Off-Guard, ASMFC Takes Emergency Action

I run a light-tackle charter-fishing operation in New York, so let me start by saying that the striped bass fishing right now is good… I mean, really good!

As is generally the case with recreational fisheries, abundance drives participation… and the truth is that, like a lot of guides, I’m not having a problem staying booked. And on those days I’m not? All it takes is a couple of Instagram photos to change that.

This is absolutely because there are an extraordinary number of striped bass around, particularly those in the 28-to-35″ range.

An increase in angler participation would under normal circumstances be a good thing – for me, for fishing related business, for everyone. But the irony here is that such abundance is precisely why the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) felt it necessarily to take emergency action to rapidly put in place a 3″ slot limit on striped bass.

Some folks are furious, some are ecstatic, and some are patting themselves on the back…but for those of us who have followed all of this from the beginning, there’s some concern on what comes next.

How We Got Here

Atlantic Striped Bass Female Spawning Stock Biomass and Recruitment (click for larger version)

Atlantic Striped Bass Female Spawning Stock Biomass and Recruitment (click for larger version)

Back in 2019, striped bass were determined to be “overfished” (the “spawning stock biomass” had fallen below a pre-determined threshold) and “overfishing” had apparently been occurring for quite some time. According to ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management plan, if the stock is determined to be overfished, then the board is required to rebuild the stock within 10 years of the overfishing determination.

With the intent of addressing overfishing, instead of implementing more traditional methods to curb recreational fishing mortality, like a simple increase to the size limit, the Commission went with an untested/unproven slot size-limit along the coast – between 28 and 35″.

Striped bass are anadromous – they spawn in freshwater, but spend most of their adult lives in saltwater. While there are other significant producer areas (e.g., the Hudson and Delaware watersheds) and plenty of less significant ones spanning all the way up to Maine, it’s the Chesapeake that produces an estimated 60 to 80 percent of the coastal striped bass stock. Or at least it used to…

Maryland's Juvenile Striped Bass Index (click for larger version)

Maryland’s Juvenile Striped Bass Index (click for larger version)

An annual Maryland Juvenile Abundance Survey has been occurring in the Chesapeake Bay since the mid-1950s (see chart) . It’s nothing more intricate than a few guys dragging a sein-net in a few predetermined areas. Yet, it is a surprisingly-good way of forecasting what the fishery is going to look like 7 or 8 years down the road when those fish recruit into the exploitable coastal stock.

While the Chesapeake certainly hasn’t had the production that it had from the 90s though the mid-2000s, we did have some relatively good years, 2011 and 2015 in particular. For one reason or another, 2011, which was an extraordinary year class, didn’t recruit into the coastal stock in the levels many were expecting it too. But… it appears the 2015s did.

Maybe the Slot Limit Wasn’t Such a Great Idea?

Back in 2019 when the Striped Bass Board was debating what sort of measures to put in place to address overfishing, many of us were opposed to a slot limit, favoring a 35″ limit instead…because, well, that worked to rebuild striped bass in the 80s.

Since then, I might have changed my tune once or twice, because the 28 to 35″ slot limit undoubtedly resulted a lot of big-old-females going back into the water, instead of someone’s cooler. Whether it was directly related or not, we saw way more 30, 40 and 50-pounders, even a few 60s since that slot limit went into place in 2020. Most of those fish had clear scarring on their jaws, indicating they had been caught and released. Furthermore, the complaints over the radio were that it was hard to find a “keeper,” at least up until last fall. Everything was either too big, or two small. And, the end result was a pretty significant reduction in fishing mortality. It appeared after 2021 that we were well on our way to rebuilding by 2029 (10 years from the “overfished” determination).

The rationale for my initial opposition was that if the intent was to protect the few good year classes we had, sooner or later, those fish would grow into the slot size and get hammered, and I might be on record once or twice saying that fishing mortality was likely to go through the roof once the 2015s got into that 28″ range. But, well, up until last year, that concern appeared to be unfounded… until it wasn’t. While I’m not one to say I told ya so, that’s exactly what happened.

Last year, particularly in the fall, slot-sized fish showed up in great numbers. There were some truly epic blitzes along the coast, reminiscent of 2012. It was no longer very hard to find a keeper. So, naturally, fishing mortality went up. And I mean WAY up… to the extent that (if we assume effort remained constant) it would be more-or-less impossible to rebuild by 2029 under current regulations.

Emergency Action

So, there we were, at last week’s ASMFC Striped Bass Board meeting. Clearly something needed to be done if the Board was indeed serious about rebuilding by the 2029 deadline. And as expected, a motion to initiate an Addendum to address overfishing was offered.

But what happened next was unexpected. There was a motion to address overfishing immediately, through “emergency action” in the form of a 3-inch slot limit – in other words going from a 28 to 35″ slot limit to a 28 to 31″ slot. And I understand why – we’d likely have to face truly draconian measures should we overfish like that this year.

After some discussion/debate the motion passed with only one state dissenting (New Jersey).

A couple of notes here. One, states are not required to implement the 28 to 31″ limit until July 2nd. Second, such emergency action only lasts 180-days which brings us into October. Yes, it can be renewed, but the motion to initiate an addendum passed unanimously, the intent of which is to address overfishing in a more technical and process-oriented way, while allowing for public input, and ultimately creating well-thought-out, vetted measures for the 2024 fishing season.

General Reactions

Yes… There are lots of folks who are pissed about this, for more than one reason. For one, the fishing public was totally unaware such a regulation was coming to pass. There was no opportunity for public comment, and no real way for managers to understand completely what the impact on businesses might be. Furthermore, it’s kind of a shot in the dark. There was no analysis of what sort of effect this might have on rebuilding.

The charter party fleet overall seems to be furious. And I understand why. To them this was out of the blue, and a lot of them had booked the year out with the understanding that one fish per person at 28 to 35″ was the limit. And, while taking a fish home may not be important to some folks, it is to most of the 6-pack and party-boat operations.

And there are plenty of folks questioning whether or not this is an “emergency” at all. Anecdotally, there do appear to be more fish around… in some regions a LOT more. And, just speaking personally, the fishing is better than I’ve seen it in well over a decade. Yes, extraordinary levels of abundance seem to be regional in nature, but if you’re truly tied in to the fleet up and down the coast, you’ll understand that the folks who spend real time on the water concede that while patterns may be changing, there’s been a real increase in fish up and down the coast, with maybe the Chesapeake being the one exemption. And, to some extent the data shows such an uptick as well.

We should also acknowledge that there are more than a few biologists who believe that the target spawning stock biomass reference point (what we’re tasked with rebuilding to) isn’t going to be easy to reach no matter what constraining measures are put in place. And they have legitimate reasons to believe that this may be the case.

Back in 2018, recreational survey data was recalibrated, and it was determined that recreational effort was underestimated. When those estimates were plugged into the model, the end result was that we had a higher spawning stock biomass target (again, what we have to reach by 2029) than we had before the recalibration. There are some folks who claim that it’s artificially high, and I get why.

For the entire time series, going back to 1982, it looks like the only time we reached the target was from 2002 to 2006. Yes, theoretically, if we kept fishing mortality at or below the fishing-mortality-target, we could have and should have been at that target quite a bit more frequently. But still, it does seem to be unusual level of abundance when you consider we’ve only hit it 4 years in a 41-year time series, during a time when the Chesapeake Bay was definitely more productive than it has been in the last decade.

Regardless, given the current abundance of fish, particularly those 2015s that fall into the slot size, and the effort increase that almost always results from such abundance, it’s really NOT going to be easy to keep fishing mortality at such a level, and there are real tradeoffs that some don’t seem to want to talk about, or even acknowledge.

Without going too far down a rabbit-hole, we also have to understand that the biomass target we’re trying to hit is empirical and NOT biological. Thus, some are questioning whether it’s based on good science at all.

Where This May Go Wrong…

To be truthful, the 28 to 31″ inch slot limit won’t affect me much, if at all. While sure we kill a fish or two every now and then, folks don’t fish with me, or any of the light-tackle folks really, to fill coolers. It’s undoubtedly a business model that focuses more on the experience rather than harvest.

But let’s be VERY clear about something here. That does NOT mean that light-tackle folks, or the catch-and-release constituency in general, is without blame.

Understand that recreational discard mortality (those fish that die after release) is more than half of all recreationally related fishing mortality. For some, that’s kind of hard to believe, but when you consider the scale of the striped bass angling community it does come into focus.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, from a manager’s perspective, while the entire burden of addressing overfishing and rebuilding the stock has been placed on the stakeholders who find it important to take home a fish, the catch-and-release folks haven’t shouldered any of the burden, even though we are responsible right now for 50% of the mortality. At least not yet…

And speaking personally now, THAT is what really worries me about all of this.

Absolutely, this narrow slot limit is going to make it quite a bit harder for folks to find a keeper. It’s possible that we’ll see harvest-oriented folks reducing effort on striped bass because it’s just too hard to “limit out.” But it seems more likely that those folks are just going to hit striped bass harder and harder, looking for that elusive keeper. And that may end up meaning that discards go up, maybe WAY up. Of course, I’m trying to hold my breath here while the technical folks do their analysis, but it’s entirely possible that we go from discards being 50% of overall fishing mortality to somewhere around 75%.

And looking ahead, if the tech folks tell us that we’re still not going to get to the spawning stock biomass target by 2029, well, then I can’t see them not seriously trying to address discard mortality. And to be clear I’m not talking about education on proper release techniques, or prohibiting treble hooks or whatever feel-good measures the Board might come up with. I’m talking about “no-target closures” – in other words, you can’t even be out there fishing for them. There’s been plenty of discussion by the Striped Bass Board to that effect. They just haven’t gotten to the point where they’ve felt the need to pull the trigger… yet.

Yes, I think that sort of thing will be VERY difficult to enforce, and compliance won’t be great with the average angler, but guides like me? Well, we’ll have to comply.

And, if they decided they needed to put in place a no-target closure in, say, April and May, and/or October and November in New York? Well, that would be the end of it for me, and the rest of the full-time fleet. It seems kinda weird to me to have the same sort of massive blitzes we saw last fall, and to be prohibited from even catch-and-release fishing for them.

Frankly, this all scares the crap out of me, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t keep me up at night.

Because the truth is that there are plenty of people who wouldn’t care one bit if the most conservation-minded sector of the for-hire sector gets shut out.

The “take care of the fish and the fish will take care of us” cliché is something I’ve believed in and lived-by for the last three decades. But with where we might be headed, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I believe there should be reasonable, albeit sustainable access, and I think the great majority of anglers would agree. But I’m honestly not sure the road we’re going down is going to include that.

Yes, maybe I’m overthinking all of this, and there’s some paranoia involved (it wouldn’t be the first time). But really, it seems like the pro-conservation-at-any-cost stance some folks are taking is, well, it’s playing with fire… and I’m not sure they really understand that.

Stay tuned… and we’ll see how all this plays out.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is a full-time charter boat captain and president of ONE MORE CAST CHARTERS in Oceanside, NY. McMurray spent nine years on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and six years as a legislative proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and is a founder and past president of the American Saltwater Guides Association.

18 comments on “Thoughts on a 28 To 31″ Slot Limit for Stripers

  1. Great insight here No matter what side you are on this article really gets to the core and addresses the real issues; and more importantly questions about past decisions and the future of striped bass. Kuddos John !

  2. Thanks as always for the insight. Everyone has a voice in this but it helps hearing one with exponentially more time on the water and in the ring with regulatory decision makers. I was pretty fired up when I heard about 28-31. A knee jerk reaction that we’d save gazillions of fish and that conservation voices were finally heard …. We won you lost! I think discard mortality is going to skyrocket with participation continuing to increase, and the party boat/6 pack sector not being impacted with bookings or a full lineup at the rails on bass trips. I want our sons to have striper fishing have as big an impact on their lives as it’s had on ours. Hopefully both side of figuring this all out know there’s going to be tough calls as it gets figured out.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts and experience, a lot of questions raised in this article. One hypothetical question for you John- if you had to come up with what you think would be the “most likely to succeed” management plan to rebuild the stock by 2029, what do you think the best approach would be? For example, size or slot limits, season/harvest dates, etc… (I know answering that may not be possible- but I’d really like to hear your thoughts on what you would propose as the best path forward, in other words, what would you implement to enact “reasonable, sustainable access”)?
    Personally, I’m skeptical a no target closure will be enacted (but I am not privy to the discussions of the SB management board) as I suspect there are a number of other management options to be tried before shutting the whole thing down (which I don’t think is necessary).

  4. Don’t make much sense to whine about the crab population when you are protecting the main thing that eating them i caught a fat 26″er last year when i cut it open it had 8 soft crabs in it.

  5. Thank you for your opinions. I agree that the mortality rate will increase. However, if they increased the commercial rod and reel limits, that would be a great start. 300 lb of 14-in fish equates to way more fish than 300 lb of 20 or 24-in fish. I agree that they go to the same place every year to take their numbers. I also believe that they should also take a salinity count , a survey of the food and water temperatures. They’re also many, many other factors that are not being examined. States also handed out a survey to recreational fishermen to see how many stripers they caught. In my opinion, it was a double-edged sword. If the count wasn’t high enough, then they could say there wasn’t enough fish. If the count came in as it supposedly did too high, then they enter new slot regulations. It’s a lose lose all the way around.
    I caught over 150 stripers last year in a very wide variety of sizes. I also know that the ones I released were alive when they left me. Saturday night in a near monsoon, I landed eight schoolies up to 24 in and three slot keepers.
    Fisherman all up and down the east coast have reported fantastic striped bass fishing. I just don’t understand the metrics better being used to institute new slot limits.

  6. They should go back to the 1 fish 36″ mark.That ruling brought back a devastating fishery,and will surely rejuvenate it again!

  7. I think it’s a good thing we should only get 36 one size no bigger or smaller than we can all be happy to may people take more than what you need let our kids be able to fish

  8. Once again more restrictions on us while Commercial guys continue to get increased quotas and continue to rape our oceans fluke/summer flounder are a perfect example they are heading in the same direction as did weakfish, whiting and cod just to name a few

  9. Once again more restrictions on us while Commercial guys continue to get increased quotas and continue to rape our oceans fluke/summer flounder are a perfect example they are heading in the same direction as did weakfish, whiting and cod just to name a few, I’m not a fan of eating Stripers and probably release 95% of the bass I catch but I still believe it’s politics once again

  10. Once again more restrictions on us while Commercial guys continue to get increased quotas and continue to rape our oceans fluke/summer flounder are a perfect example they are heading in the same direction as did weakfish, whiting and cod just to name a few, I’m not a fan of eating Stripers and probably release 95% of the bass I catch but I still believe it’s about politics $ and once again

    • Because commercial folks only account for 10% of overall mortality and are NOT responsible for “overfishing”

  11. Why not just rip the bandaid off and make striped bass a catch and release fish. Also get rid of treble hooks and allow just two single hooks on artificial baits. I’m not sure what else can be done short of closing the fishery completely.

  12. So let’s say my kid pulls in a bass and it has debends and the guts are coming out .. . and it’s 40 inches. Of course it will die .. do you throw it back or is it sushi right on the boat.

  13. Like the idea of protecting the fish for everybody. I’m a catch and release freshwater guy who likes to fish stripers off the party boats in the fall. Keeping is not a biggie for me, artificial only with single hooks. But striper does taste good and I don’t have a problem with an angler putting them on the table. Often wonder why they don’t try a regulation that protects the fish when spawning. I know a guy who goes in the Hudson with blood worms and will tell me they boat 60 in a day. Mortality has to be a big issue there, catch and release or not. Just my 2 cents on the whole thing. Liked your article.

  14. I personally think the slot should go & this is why. I fish the Inlet at Indian River Delaware on the rocks & there is nothing better then fighting a 30″ -50″ striper in that current. But here is the problem & I am fairly sure it happens up & down the coast. When fighting a striper he fights until he is played out & when you get him to the rocks & manage to get him to a point to measure him he is that exhausted he is 3/4 dead & a lot of those released fish end up dying. If you would make people keep the first fish they caught every day no matter what size it is you would kill a lot less fish overall. If they get cought targeting stripers after that first fish they should receive a huge fine . Another thing that makes me wonder is why can you keep smaller fish in the Chesapeake 19″ – 31″??? The slot really does not effect me I release most fish unless they look like they will not make it, I will be fishing Montauk light the next 5 days & hope to catch a lot of fish & not kill a one

  15. I grow up fishing the Chesapeake Bay for stripers & the Delaware bay for Sea Trout back then they were both abundant in their & own bays & there were no limits. At Indian River Inlet & the Delaware Bay you would catch Blues & Trout in the Chesapeake & the flates you would catch Stripers now we catch Stripers in the inlet that are full of small trout & there are VERY FEW larger Trout. The Stripers kill a lot of other fish, They are hogs, a school of Stripers kill a lot of other fish

  16. I don’t think there’s been a fish that has gotten more press than striped bass. From colonial times on our forefathers recognized their value both economically and from a fisherman’s viewpoint. As a columnist published weekly and an owner of charter boats, I think with over 50 years on the water I have a good pulse on the fishery. Seldom in nature when a species is in decline is their one cause. That being said the management who are imposing regulations I feel are applying a band aid to this problem.
    Being on Jamaica bay as I am every day, I’ve seen a habit degradation throughout. Which has a direct impact on not only our livelihoods but the future of this as well as other fisheries. The onus is put on fisherman when those who assault our environment go unscathed. Developers who lead to habitat destruction and practices by industries that for decades also go on.
    They need to be held accountable and start paying. Funding for stocking, research done by both fisherman and local scientist. I’m enclosing my email and am willing to form an intelligent coalition to help remedy this. I will do this gratis. Captain Vinnie Calabro

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