Whither the Striped Bass

Striped Bass

I was still in school the last time the striped bass stock collapsed.

The crash began slowly, while I was still in college and had a summer job in a local tackle shop that let me be on the water just about every day. There were a lot of big fish around at the time; in July 1974, I put a 51-pound bass on the scales, and got to strut around the shop for maybe three days, before my fish was eclipsed by someone else’s 63.

But down in the Maryland section of Chesapeake Bay, the single most important spawning ground for striped bass, biologists were noting a decline in the number of juvenile fish.

Each year since the mid-1950s, Maryland biologists have been conducting a juvenile abundance survey, in which they sample designated areas in the spawning rivers during July, August, and September, collecting 132 samples in all, and then calculate a juvenile abundance index (JAI) that reflects the survey’s results. In 1970, the Maryland JAI was 30.52, the highest recorded up to that time, and nearly twice the 10.55 average for the 13 preceding years.

The decline in juvenile abundance began slowly, but 1975’s JAI of 6.69 initiated a 14-year series of single-digit values that averaged a mere 4.35, with individual years’ JAIs falling as low as 1.27. By the time I was graduated from law school in 1979, anglers rarely caught a striped bass weighing less than four or five pounds.

The average angler didn’t care, because larger bass were still being caught, particularly during the coastal migrations that took place each spring and fall.

But some people were paying attention.

I had noticed a decline in the number of smaller bass but didn’t think much about it until a stocky white-haired man, about my father’s age, walked into the shop where I worked. He introduced himself as Bob Pond. I immediately recognized the name, as he was famous all along the striper coast for creating the “Atom” line of fishing lures, which just about all of us used.

But he didn’t come to the shop just to sell Atom plugs.

Instead, he walked in with a cardboard box filled with jars under his arm. We spent some time talking about the poor Maryland spawns, and what they meant for the striped bass. Then he got down to the purpose of his visit, asking us to convince our customers to provide milt and roe sacs from the striped bass that they caught. He hoped to obtain samples from male and female bass ranging, in five-pound intervals, from 5 to 50 pounds, so he could have them tested for contaminants which might be causing the stripers’ problems.

That was one of the theories back then, that PCBs, or the insecticide kepone, or some other, unidentified chemical was causing the spawning failure. Other people blamed sunspots, as sunspot activity was at one of its periodic highs at the time. Overfishing was a less popular theory. What no one considered, but what may have been the primary cause, was that conditions in the spawning rivers weren’t conducive to spawning success.

Today, biologists know that cold winters and cool, wet springs tend to lead to good spawns, while warm winters and low water flows lead to low juvenile abundance. The size of the spawning stock has relatively little impact on spawning success; a small spawning stock can, and has, produced large juvenile year classes, while a big spawning stock can, and has, produced some very small ones.

But back then, fishery managers were largely in the dark about what was going on. Many didn’t even believe that there was a problem; they expected that, after a few bad years, good spawns would resume on their own. And back then, all striped bass management was done on the state level; the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) still lacked the authority to craft and enforce coastwide management measures. That made even those fishery managers who believed that the bass was in trouble reluctant to take any action. They were afraid of the political fallout that might occur if they placed restrictions on fishermen in their own state, of the criticism that such measures hurt local fishermen, but did nothing to help the bass, which would only be killed as soon as they swam into the waters of a neighboring jurisdiction, where more relaxed regulations still prevailed.

It was not easy being a striped bass fisherman during the early 1980s. I still remember a morning when my father and I were fishing for bass on the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound. The water was glass-calm. Only one other boat was fishing anywhere near us. Neither my father nor I had caught a bass in close to a week, but that morning, as I worked my lure around current-swept rockpiles, I finally got one to strike. I fought the fish quickly, slipped it back into the water, and just as I stood, I heard the haunting sound of applause carrying across the water from the other boat. Whether the angler clapped because I released the bass, or merely because I managed to find one, I’ll never know. Still, that memory describes, better than anything else I could write, how scarce the bass had become.

The stock remained in decline. Finally, Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act (Act) in 1984. The Act gave the ASMFC the power to not only craft a coastwide management plan, but to compel every state to adopt it; those that refused would have their striped bass fisheries completely shut down. After that grant of authority, the ASMFC adopted Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass in 1985, which finally turned things around and began rebuilding the spawning stock.

It took ten years, but the striped bass stock recovered, and the population continued to grow until 2003. After that, spawning began to decline, and spawning stock biomass began to decline as well. Maryland produced strong year classes in 2011 and 2015, although an unusually large number of the 2011s failed to survive their first year. But Maryland also produced the two worst years ever recorded in the history of the state’s juvenile abundance survey, a JAI of just 0.89 in 2012, and a just slightly higher JAI of 1.02 in 2023.

The Maryland JAIs for the years 2019-2023 averaged a mere 2.74, the worst five-year average ever recorded. Even during the last stock collapse, no five-year average never fell below 3.45.

Having lived through the last stock collapse, what’s happening now is giving me a bad case of déjà vu.

In 2023, anglers fishing off New York and New Jersey have enjoyed some of the best striped bass fishing of their lives. Good numbers of big bass, almost certainly spawned in Maryland during 2001 or 2003 and in the Hudson River during 2007, have joined swarms of smaller fish from Maryland’s big 2011 and 2015 year classes to provide what have often been days of non-stop action. Many of those anglers find it hard to believe that the striped bass stock is facing a troubled future.

But they’re not paying attention to the spawning problems in the Chesapeake Bay, just as fishermen paid no attention to the poor spawns in the late ‘70s, as the stock began to collapse.

If striped bass reproduction doesn’t improve, we could see the stock collapse again.

At the same time, striped bass management is a lot better than it was 45 years ago.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, there were few regulations protecting the bass. Most coastal states maintained a 16-inch size limit for both commercial and recreational fishermen, while in the Chesapeake Bay, fishermen could retain “pan rock” that were just a foot long. Few states imposed bag limits on anglers, and commercial quotas did not yet exist. In fact, there was a very hazy gray line dividing the commercial and recreational sectors, for successful anglers often sold their excess striped bass, and few, if any, jurisdictions required commercial fishermen to be licensed.

A few states had outlawed commercial striped bass fishing, but the ban was largely ignored. Connecticut, where I lived at the time, was probably the first so-called “gamefish state,” but most of the successful anglers nonetheless sold their fish through the back doors of restaurants, markets, and country clubs, while a marina in a neighboring town went so far as to box its customers’ illegally marketed bass and ship them to the Fulton Fish Market, where illegal activities were hardly unknown.

Striped bass management was still the domain of individual states; while the ASMFC existed, it served as little more than a toothless debating society, with no ability to adopt and impose management measures. The science was still rudimentary. There was little real understanding of what a sustainable striped bass stock might look like.

Today, bass enjoy a far better management environment. Thanks to the Act, the ASMFC coordinates striped bass management between Maine and North Carolina. There are uniform recreational size and bag limits in every coastal state, while the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions’ regulations, although varied, must adhere to set conservation standards. Hard quotas limit commercial fishermen’s landings; if exceeded, the overage must be paid back, in the form of reduced quota, in the following year. Striped bass stock assessments, reviewed by a panel of internationally recognized experts, are produced on a regular basis, with less detailed assessment updates performed every two or three years. The information provided allows managers to adapt to changes in the health of the stock.

While fishery managers still can’t control environmental conditions in spawning rivers, they can reduce fishing mortality in response to a less productive striped bass stock. Thus, on October 16, 2023 the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board) approved Draft Addendum II to Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (Addendum II), and released it for public comment.

Comments will be accepted through December 22.

Addendum II will not solve all of the striped bass’ problems, but by maintaining the current size and bag limits in the recreational ocean fishery, placing additional restrictions on the recreational fishery in the Chesapeake Bay, and reducing the commercial quota, it will reduce the likelihood that the stock will collapse, and could even help the Management Board rebuild that stock by 2029, the deadline set in the ASMFC’s management plan. It will also allow the Management Board to react more quickly to updated stock assessments that call for additional management measures.

Even with additional protections in place, the striped bass stock might still collapse if conditions in the spawning rivers fail to improve sometime in the next few years. But Addendum II, by reducing the number of bass removed from the stock, will nonetheless leave the stock in better condition to take advantage of good conditions, should they eventually recur.

In the end, that’s the most that the Management Board can do: Leave the striped bass in the best possible condition to produce a successful spawn when environmental conditions allow it. The rest is in nature’s hands.

We can only hope that if the Management Board fulfills its responsibilities, nature will come through as well.

About Charles Witek

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

17 comments on “Whither the Striped Bass

  1. Great article Charles. I live in the upper Chesapeake and managed to catch only three fish here since September. The water echoed from the sound of emptiness. People need to wake up.

  2. I fish the Delaware bay in the fall. Fishing was great in 90s. Everyone was catching good size fish. Fleets of boats everywhere. Marinas were pack with boats. Now we can’t find a fish,you have the bay to yourself. Gone are the Fleets of boats. So bad most marinas are closed, and the one’s left are struggling to stay open. Fishing was fun,now its a boat ride. Miss those days. I will never keep another striper.

  3. One needs to look at catfish (invasive) in the Chesapeake system. A little known law to protect locals (catfish farms) from foreign imports has “ham strung” small commercial fishermen due to stricter food inspection rules. Small commercial fishermen have left the business allowing catfish populations to explode. Guess what they eat? The picture is larger than just pollution.

    • It was a lesson learned .Unfortunately the hard way .A lot less was known .Many cows were brought in just to weigh them . Similarly were Tarpon in the Florida Keys ,They would hang for show only 4 5 ,7 tarpon with no food value just to get a charter .
      Even as a youth , like 12 years old , in the early 60s ITs wasn’t completely documented that all these large 35 to 60 lbers were the females ( cows ) .My dad would take me to Cuttyhunk ma for the fall migration .The 35 to 55 lbers were more the RULE than exception .My dad preached Take only what you need , and said let the ” big ones ” go .The ” big ones ” if they weren’t just for show would end up taking valuable freezer space and would either get freezer burnt or thrown out once the deer season began . Once old enough where I could bike to the shore I became so very interested about Bass ,the tides ,moon phase ,etc . I’d see Schoolies just left on the ground.Bass hanging on a scale at the Bait shop just covered with flies , until the stench was so bad they dumped it Taking that cow and the potential off thousands of juvenile Bass with her .I once hooked up with a large bass prior to day break as a fished from a bridge over an inlet to Long Island The fish had me chase it until I finally landed it and as I unhooked it ,the angler there came to admire it Offering me 5 to 10 bucks for her .However ,I never expected to catch a fish if that size And 2 days previous I had caught like a 20 inch schoolie that way still awaiting to be cooked and still in the fridge .Remembering what my dad said , Take only what’s needed , I truly intended to put the fish back .As I did just that ,I got heckled by those that wanted to give me 10 bucks .
      One reason why the old timers have come around .No one wants to see the terrific fishery collapse again .

  4. No, they should allow all means to curtail the big ass catfish. The state should make a market for them. Schools, prisons, food stamps and so on.
    Instead of making new harder regulations for any one trying to process them.
    A Watermen

  5. Isn’t it worth just having fun catching stripers and then releasing them?
    How about thinking about the future for a change?

  6. In South Carolina this past September, I caught 20-30 fish by lunch time averaging 6lbs. In a major river for spawning fish. We released every fish. One fish 30lbs. I would think was loaded with roe if she was a she fish. The only management that I know of is catch and release.

  7. How about convincing Virginia to stop allowing the Omega ships to net in the Bay and lower Rappahannock ? They remove 4 to 6 ship loads of menhaden daily, depleting the stripers’ preferred diet, and certainly do not return small stripers to the water.

  8. I’ve fished cape cod canal all my life …I’m 65yrs old …clearly remember seeing a deal a rare event…. government get involved in how many bass a deal kills in a day and how many are off our and on our shores nothing in fish stock is safe with 3 million seals swim feed and now life..get with it…open a season on the seal and see fish stocks rise duh…..release a breeder she’s so tired .seal don’t need to try there hand fed..go to mathas vineyard Nantucket the beautiful beaches look like covered in walls of seals high in miles of beach. And That’s Fact……

  9. I have fished the Chesapeake my entire life I am 73 I have seen the change fishing and habits from filling a cooler to only taking what you eat
    Vergina put in non-indigenous (catfish) that eat all of the fish food as well as eggs also other types of small fish
    if the entire Coast from Maine to the Carolinas have to put the same type of restrictions on the fish

    Or whatever you do will not make much difference this is just my opinion it may not be a correct one but it’s just what I feel I’ve seen the catfish in the Chester River disappear at one time I’ve seen hard head 14 inches go to 6 inches over years large Blues in upper bay at one time have dissaperd
    When the grass died in the upper /middle bay that used to be so thick it was a pain to deal with
    Just saying
    after 3 mile Island when the water was used. To cool down the reactor and pumped back into the bay grass died
    Dumping trash near Hart and Miller Island
    we have to think of long term repercussions of our actions
    Nice Drum. Even Pike when I was a kid in the. Magothy

    But back to Rock the size of the new reg. Will have more throw backs die the taking them home seen more then enough floating to make a point Circle Hooks help but
    I hope it makes a difference
    and thank you for letting me Vent a little

  10. I believe this is an issue involving far more than just striped bass and the conditions of their spawning rivers. Although that is one of the main issues, and I believe climate change and development of waterfront areas along these rivers are some of the largest factors impacting the quality of the spawning rivers.

    I see it here too in the northeast with our river herring runs, shad, and rainbow smelt, among other anadromous species. As climate change continues to cause higher than average temperatures in the estuaries used to spawn, development takes away what little protection the rivers have. Shade from mature shoreline forests, reservoirs of cool groundwater and a buffer against erosion that exist in the form of tree root systems, low ground cover plant species, and carpets of moss in damp areas are all being lost in incredible numbers. Runoff from lawn fertilizers and pestricides is rampant, as well as sand, salt, and chemical products used in winter road treatment.

    Furthermore, corporate commercial factory ships harvest nearshore baitfish by the hundreds of tons, scooping up countless non target species in the process. I can’t imagine the number of smelt, river herring, and other nearshore anadromous species get scooped up alongside the schools of menhaden which are completely wiped out by these near shore purse seiners.

    Bycatch by bottom dragging commercial ground fish operations is extremely destructive as well. Very few fish survive a quick ride up from 300 ft down, and many are simply killed as they’re pressed against the netting and unable to breathe while they’re dragged along in the net until the tow iis finished and hauled up.

    Our fisheries management is lacking in so many areas, and completely ignorant of major factors decimating our fisheries, or simply turning a blind eye to them. We simply do not have regulations that promote sustainable commercial fisheries for the most part, and we fail to look beyond the immediate problems for the countless factors that contribute to them. I could go on and on, but I’ve already said more than enough about this, while barely scraping the surface of the underlying issues that are destroying our oceans.

    Note: this is coming from an avid recreational fisherman, clam/oyster harvester, and former commercial fisherman (including Massachusetts striped bass commercial fishery). I’m not a bleeding heart animal rights activist or anti-fishing conservationist looking to abolish the harvest of marine species. But I am someone who has ample experience with my local waters and the species reliant on them, and I hate to see it all slowly break down and disappear in front of my eyes. I want to conserve and restore healthy watersheds and see changes to both fisheries regulations as well as land use/development which directly impacts coastal estuaries and their tributaries.

    Unfortunately, I have very little hope that I will ever see the necessary changes implemented to save these resources.

  11. We have strict regulations on the size allowed to be kept. 1 fish per day 28-31 inches. Who is enforcing this I have seen party boats allow their paying customers keep as many fish as they want and any size. As long as the boat doesn’t clean the fish the boat is not responsible. Also on private charter boats They clean the fish out on the water. They keep them all. How about some enforcement

  12. CARELESS TO THE CAUSE …
    NO REPESCT .

    AND
    IMMIGRANTS 12 MILLION WHO’VE COME TO USA
    ARE EVEN POACHING LIKE THEM IDIOT HEAD BOATS ..

    THANKS GUYS …YOU MESS UP THE FUTURE REALLY WELL

  13. One huge problem is these idiots without fishing rods yanking huge females out of the Potomac River in Washington DC. They use string wrapped around a bottle and live herring for bait. I’ve seen it personally. We need lots more DNR agents patrolling the river just below Key Bridge. These idiots are raping the river.

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