Striped Bass Addendum II Will Promote Rebuilding

Striped bass

Top photo by John McMurray

At its May 2023 meeting, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC’s) Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board) learned that recreational striped bass landings had nearly doubled in 2022 and that, unless fishing mortality was reduced, there was little chance that the striped bass stock would be rebuilt by the 2029 deadline established in the striped bass management plan.

In response, the Management Board took emergency action, establishing a 31-inch maximum size limit for the recreational fishery (Emergency Action). It also unanimously adopted a motion which read

Move to initiate an Addendum to implement commercial and recreational measures for the ocean and Chesapeake Bay fisheries in 2024 that in aggregate are projected to achieve F-target from the 2022 stock assessment update (F=0.17). Potential measures for the ocean recreational fishery should include modifications to the Addendum VI standard slot limit of 28-35″ with harvest season closures as a secondary non-preferred option. Potential measures for Chesapeake Bay recreational fisheries, as well as ocean and bay commercial fisheries should include maximum size limits. The addendum will include an option for a provision enabling the Board to respond via Board action to the results of the upcoming stock assessment updates (e.g. currently scheduled for 2024 and 2026) if the stock is not projected to rebuild by 2029 with a probability greater than or equal to 50%.

Since then, the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee (TC) and Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team (PDT) have been collaborating on a draft Addendum II to Amendment 7 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan (Addendum II), which the Management Board will consider when it meets on the afternoon of August 1, 2023.

The draft Addendum II generally reflects the Management Board’s motion. It contains options that, if ultimately adopted by the Management Board, will increase the likelihood that the striped bass stock will rebuild by the 2029 deadline. The final shape of Amendment II will depend, in large part, on whether a majority of the Management Board remains committed to stock rebuilding in the face of the inevitable stakeholder opposition, and whether the public turns out to the hearings in large enough numbers to support rebuilding measures.

Recreational Options

When the TC and PDT began to consider recreational management measures, it quickly became clear that a slot limit alone would not be enough to reduce fishing mortality to the target level; closed seasons, when no striped bass harvest would be permitted, will also be required. Draft Addendum II thus includes what is probably an overly-complicated matrix of possible size and bag limits for recreational fisheries in the ocean and in the Chesapeake Bay.

In the ocean, stakeholders are presented with three possible slot size limits, including the 28- to 31-inch limit set by the Emergency Action, a slightly wider 28- to 32-inch slot, or a 30- to 33-inch slot that would satisfy some anglers’ preference to take home larger fish.

While that preference is understandable, the primary goal of the Emergency Action was to reduce the harvest of bass belonging to the large 2015 year class, which are needed to rebuild the spawning stock. Draft Addendum II states that “the age-9 2015 year-class in 2024 has an estimated average length of about 34″,” so a 30- to 33-inch slot limit would extend less protection to the 2015s than the other two options, and would seemingly contradict the Emergency Action’s intent.

Although an average-sized, 9-year-old striped bass might be 34 inches long, individual fish can vary significantly from such average length; that’s why, although the average member of the 2015 year class is 31.6 inches long in 2023, the Emergency Action’s 31-inch maximum size is only expected to protect “over 50%,” and not all, of that year class from recreational harvest. In 2024, a 30- to 33-inch slot limit would expose a significant minority of the 2015 year class to recreational harvest. Maintaining the Emergency Action’s 28- to 31-inch slot would minimize such exposure.

Whatever slot limit is ultimately chosen (and the Management Board will probably leave more than one option, and perhaps all three, in the draft addendum that is sent out for public comment), it will have to be matched with an appropriate closed season, although such seasons present their own problems. Fishing doesn’t peak in every state at the same time, and a closure that has a real impact in Maine might be ineffective in Maryland; while a coastwide season is included among the options for the 28- to 31-inch slot, it would be a poor choice for the Management Board.

Draft Addendum II’s solution is to break the coast into two or three regions, setting a different season for each. Some of those seasons would require states in southern New England and the upper mid-Atlantic to close their seasons at some point during November and December, when the bass’ southbound migration is already well underway, and so might not be as effective as earlier closures. Otherwise, picking the right season will be more a matter of stakeholder preference than of efficacy.

Options for the Chesapeake Bay’s recreational fisheries face somewhat different issues. Although the bay is a relatively small area, none of its four jurisdictions maintain the same striped bass regulations; each has its own combination of bag limits, size limits, and seasons.

To address that situation, draft Addendum II includes two options which leave the current minimum size and bag limits intact, add additional season closures to the closures already in place, and lower the maximum size to either 23 or 24 inches; four which would establish a 20-inch minimum size, set a maximum size somewhere between 24 and 28 inches, and adopt additional season closures, while leaving current bag limits intact; and two others which would set a 1-fish bag limit, a 19- or 20-inch minimum size, and a 23- or 26-inch maximum size bay-wide, but would leave each jurisdiction’s current season intact.

While all of the bay options would probably achieve the target reductions, adopting more consistent regulations across all bay jurisdictions would certainly help the TC when it came time to evaluate the new regulations’ impacts on the spawning stock, help keep anglers from becoming confused when they cross jurisdictional boundaries, and make it more likely that recreational fishermen would comply with the new rules.

Beyond that, the only other concern, which applies to all of the recreational options, both for the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, is that they put the onus of striped bass rebuilding squarely on anglers’ shoulders, while asking little of the commercial sector. As draft Addendum II notes, “The proposed commercial fishery options consider maximum size limits. Depending on the option selected by the Board, quota reductions may or may not be implemented with these size limit changes…a reduction in commercial removals could not be assumed, and so is assumed to be 0%. Consequently, to achieve the required overall reduction, the recreational sector must take a 16.1% reduction.”

There is little question that, if the striped bass stock is rebuilt, the commercial sector will benefit. That being the case, that sector should also bear some of the responsibility for stock rebuilding. Requiring one sector to take a substantial harvest reduction while the other sector takes no reduction at all not only reeks of inequity, but risks alienating anglers from the fishery management process.

Commercial Options

As draft Addendum II points out, the commercial options would place a maximum size on striped bass landed by commercial fishermen, “to protect the largest, mature female striped bass contributing to the spawning stock biomass.” Currently, of all the ocean states with commercial fisheries, only New York has such a maximum size; in the Chesapeake Bay, the use of such maximum sizes is more widely accepted.

Draft Addendum II proposes maximum sizes of 38, 40, or 42 inches for the ocean, and a 36-inch maximum in the Chesapeake Bay, although for the bay fishery, there is also an option which would reduce the maximum size to 28 inches between January 1 and May 31 to protect female bass that enter the bay to spawn.

Yet, as beneficial as a maximum size may appear, it generates additional complications. If a maximum size is adopted, the bass harvested by commercial fishermen will, in most states, average smaller than those currently landed. Because the states’ commercial quotas are denoted in pounds, and not in numbers of fish, that would result in more striped bass being harvested each year, an outcome seemingly contrary to Addendum II’s conservation goals.

To prevent that from occurring, draft Addendum II includes an option which would adjust current quotas, based on spawning potential analysis, to account for the new size limit. Such analysis would probably result in most states receiving smaller quotas although, in some cases, small state quota increases could occur.

Should the Management Board decide to adjust the state quotas, it would also have to decide how to do so. It could either calculate the new quotas based on those that were in place in 2022, which reflected the various size limits adopted, over time, by the states, or it could base its calculations on the original quotas established twenty years ago, which all assumed a 28-inch minimum size. The latter approach would place all states on an equal footing, but many states might well prefer whichever calculation gave them the largest quota in 2024.

A final issue, which has not been resolved in draft Addendum II, is how to deal with the higher levels of dead discards that will probably result if a maximum size is imposed on the commercial fishery. Many states allow commercial fishermen to employ gear that is not size-selective; at one joint meeting of the TC and PDT, a representative from Delaware admitted that because the fixed gill nets used by his state’s fishermen were particularly “dirty,” a maximum size limit would likely lead to substantial discard mortality. It is a topic that states, and perhaps the Management Board, will eventually need to address.

Future Management Actions

Draft Addendum II is not expected to survive much past the end of 2024, since a new stock assessment is scheduled for October 2024, and there is a very good chance that such update will reveal that additional management actions will be needed to rebuild the striped bass stock by the 2029 deadline.

That could present a problem for, as draft Addendum II recognizes, “Based on assessment timing and the typical addendum development and implementation process, new measures would likely not be implemented until two years following the assessment…If the Board initiates an addendum in October 2024, approves it for public comment in February 2025, and then selects final measures in May 2025, the earliest implementation would likely be late 2025 or early 2026.”

Thus, draft Addendum II contains a final option which would allow the Management Board to fast-track any additional rebuilding measures, without going through the formal addendum process. Instead, such measures could be adopted through a simple Management Board vote. Public comment would be provided through oral comments at the Management Board meeting and/or through written comments addressed to the Management Board prior to the meeting date, without the need for a public hearing process.

Next Steps

When the Management Board holds its August 2023 meeting, it will not adopt new management measures. Instead, it will refine the language of the draft addendum, perhaps removing some options, perhaps adding options that were not there before. Then, it will release the revised Draft Addendum II for public comment, and hold public hearings on the draft during August and early September, in most or all of the states between Maine and North Carolina.

The comments received from stakeholders at the hearings, as well as written comments sent in during the public comment period, may well decide the fate of Addendum II. Many members of the for-hire fleet were dismayed by the Emergency Action, believing that it will harm their businesses, and they will probably take a firm stand against further restrictions on landings.

Yet, as draft Addendum II observed, “Assuming the narrow slot limit implemented through the 2023 emergency action and the narrow slot options considered for 2024 will support the rebuilding of the striped bass population, it will likely ensure the quality of the recreational fishing experience for the sector in the long term.” Despite some short-term economic discomfort, it would be in everyone’s interest to put the needed management measures in place.

The Management Board is expected to approve the final version of Addendum II at its October 2023 meeting, so that all management measures included in such addendum may be adopted by the states in time for the 2024 season.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and award-winning blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

1 comments on “Striped Bass Addendum II Will Promote Rebuilding

  1. I agree that drastic measures need to happen in order to rebuild stripers. The closed seasons I think is best measure holding accountability to the best times in the best areas need to have closed seasons. Commercially, they need to also stand down. Modern technology has put a target on the striped bass and they can’t get a break. I’m for whatever is best for the species. Let’s eat another kind for a while!

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