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.