Read Part I of this series. Top photo: striped bass with a catch-and-release scar
On and Off the Water Observations of 2023’s Fishing Season
Last go around, we detailed some relevant on-the-water/real-world observations regarding last season’s striped bass fishery. Primarily how the new 3″ slot limit likely increased dead discards, ahem, a LOT.
This go-around we’re going to discuss possible takeaways.
Dead discards unquestionably go up with more constraining regulations. That is NOT anything new. Managers have always known this. Of course, discard mortality is always lower than the 100% mortality associated with getting thrown in the cooler. And every analysis I’ve seen shows a net decrease in fishing mortality with more constraining regulations, least if we’re talking just about striped bass. So, absolutely the existing constraining slot-limit is a good thing in the context of rebuilding.
However, current recreational discard mortality assumes a 9% mortality rate across the board. In other words, one in eleven fish that get thrown back don’t make it. Extrapolate that across estimated fishing effort, and you have a figure right around 50% of all fishing mortality. To be extra clear here, recreational dead discards constitute around half of all striped bass fishing deaths. That’s kinda five times more than what commercial folks harvest.
I do know that there are folks who question that 9% figure, and especially the 50% one…but based on my 30 years of striped bass fishing, I’d say that’s a conservative estimate, and one that I might even restrict to artificials (plugs, flies, jigs, etc.). Once you get into bait, 9% seems WAY low to me. Off the cuff, I’d guess something closer to 20%. I mean, it’s really hard for me to believe that it’s less than that when you figure in all the snag-and-drop stuff and the large inexperienced section of striped bass anglers that are gonna let that fish run with the bait before they set up on it. And circle hooks, assuming we could actually get folks to use them? Let’s be honest here. Sure, they work better than trebles, but they do, I’d venture to say often, gut-hook fish. And once that happens, ain’t no way you’re getting that hook out.
So, while some may strongly disagree with me here, this year in particular, I began to understand that real world numbers on dead discards are likely quite a bit higher than 9%. Especially during, but certainly not limited to, menhaden aggregations where large fish are likely to swallow big baits and big plugs, or spoons, or even flies.
Yes, the science is the science, and we’re supposed to take the 9% estimate as Gospel, but what I see on the water just doesn’t mesh.
Trust me when I tell ya, man…there were a LOT of floaters out there this year. And while I hesitate to admit this, even when we’re talking about an operation that focus on plugs, spoons and flies (i.e., NOT bait), we inadvertently killed more than our fair share too.
I don’t know that we can count on “fishing effort” (i.e., people going out and getting after it) going down with more constraining regulations. It has long been a claim by some folks, managers included, that it will. The harvest moratorium advocates in particular, opine that discards wouldn’t be a real issue if we instituted a no-harvest moratorium, because those fishing simply to harvest fish wouldn’t bother, or shift effort to other fisheries that did allow harvest, thus reducing effort overall.
Again, this is anecdotal, and limited to my region. But that sure didn’t seem to be the case this season. Like I said. More-or-less zero chance of harvesting a “legal” fish for most of October here. Yet crowds, presumably driven by an abundance of trophy-sized stripers, were the largest I’ve seen them in my 25 years of fishing here.
I’ve been in the charter business long enough to understand well that abundance drives participation, in just about any fishery, EVEN a catch-and-release one. It sure as heck seems to me that when you get aggregations of fish like this, sure maybe people want to keep one, but just because they can’t, doesn’t and won’t keep them tied to the dock.
It seemed to take Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commissioners by surprise when effort skyrocketed in 2022. It shouldn’t have. As the stock rebuilds and becomes more abundant and more accessible, anglers will get after it. Can’t imagine we won’t see another increase in 2023, which would presumably come with a large increase in discard mortality (based on that 9%, which IMO is a real underestimation).
What I haven’t mentioned yet is the fact that once we got into November, well, that was when we actually did begin to see lots of fish that fell within that 28″ to 31″ slot, thus harvesting a keeper wasn’t terribly difficult. That size class of fish was abundant all the way through December. So, again, if the survey picks this up, I’m guessing we will maybe see a large harvest increase also.
These are all assumptions of course. And really, recreational fishing surveys sometimes don’t seem to reflect reality. But, whether or not we’ll still be on track to rebuild by 2029? I do have doubts.
The point here, while I’m not doing a great job of making it, is that fishing effort seems to be on the rise, and I can’t imagine it won’t continue to do so as the stock rebuilds and large aggregations of fish like the ones we witnessed this fall continue to flourish. Maybe we’ll stay on track to rebuild, but again from an “on-the-water” viewpoint, sure doesn’t seem like it.
How would managers deal with that? We’ll have to see.
Hypothetically, if the board decides on effort controls, and it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t, we’d likely see constraining seasons (e.g., no-harvest closures in New York in, say, April and November) which would NOT be ideal in New York.
Even with such closures, this year’s observations would seem to indicate that it would do very little to control effort, thus we could expect discard mortality to rise. Would such closures be enough to prevent enough fishing mortality and allow rebuilding by 2029, assuming a continued increase in effort? Probably, but maybe not.
Even so, some managers seem intent on addressing dead discards. And I understand why. Like I said, catch-and-release mortality accounts for 50% of all fishing mortality. Why wouldn’t catch and release anglers be expected to shoulder some of the burden. Managers could and certainly have considered husing “no-target closures” specifically to address discard mortality – in other words prohibiting even catch and release fishing during certain months. MD has indeed implemented such closures.
A lot of folks believe this is unlikely, and I do hope they are right; yet, having been there for more than one no-target discussion, I’m not sure how unlikely it really is. It’s not out of the realm of possibility by any means.
Enforcement and compliance? This is a really big consideration in the context of how the Commission decides to proceed, assuming the very real possibility we see an effort and subsequent fishing mortality increase, and projections are that we don’t meet the spawning stock biomass deadline by 2029, because we’re still killing too many fish.
This year and last year’s on-the-water observations proved to me, beyond a doubt, that with regulations that are difficult, or perhaps impossible to enforce, you simply won’t have compliance. This idea that most anglers will be compliant, especially when they might feel the regulation is unjust and/or does little good, is naive.
Which, makes any sort gear restriction, and/or no-target effort controls worthless, IMO.
What a no-target closure would do, however, is punish those charter operators who have always largely practiced catch and release, ahem, like me. Because for sure, you can’t market and book trips for “bluefish” when there’s clearly no bluefish around.
Is this incredibly constraining slot limit working? Absolutely there are more dead discards. Likely WAY more if we’re all being honest here. But it’s hard to argue that we don’t have more access in recent years to more and larger fish. And that sorta thing does seem to coincide with the initial slot limit being put in place in 2020. Of course, this could simply be a few robust year classes moving though the fishery, but I dunno…we sure didn’t see ’em like this before that slot went into place. And it just makes sense. Don’t kill all those big fish and, well, they’re accessible to anglers. That’s indeed a good thing. Just not sure it’s good enough to get us to a historically high target by 2029. Mostly because I just don’t know if stock increases can withstand what will almost undoubtedly be an increase in fishing effort as the stock rebuilds.
I understand that the fishing isn’t extraordinary EVERYWHERE. I don’t wanna beat a dead horse. But wow man, it was just unbelievable here! Biblical was the only word to describe it sometimes. So, while yes, we’re still rebuilding, what exactly is a “rebuilt” stock going to look like? I don’t remember those years (2000 to 2005?), when we were at or above target, being anything near what we’ve seen in the last three years. I suppose the goal is see the sort of abundance we had in the New York Bite everywhere. Absolutely, that would be a good thing, and let’s hope that’s where we’re heading.
Yet it would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are a few managers/biologists out there who argue that the biomass target we’re striving for might be too high. It’s empirical (not biological) based on a single year (1995), and it’s really the result of a data recalibration back in, I think, 2018. And, we’ve only reached it five times in the 40-year time series (see chart). Yeah, I dunno that lowering the goalposts is a great idea, like ever, but I also understand why some managers have suggested the science folks take another good look at the biomass target we’re trying to reach. But in the end, the “best” available science is just that. Under no circumstance should we let anyone’s limited perspective dictate management action in its place.
The long-term existence and proliferation of the striped bass resource is of course critical to my business, to me, to my existence. It’s not really hyperbole to acknowledge that, without it, really, I don’t exist, least not in the way I want to. And that is, of course, of the upmost importance, not just right now, but beyond my expiration date (it would be nice if my kid had an opportunity to take over a business that took decades to build).
While for sure some folks don’t seem to want to acknowledge it, striped bass are extraordinarily prolific in some places right now. The stock is indeed increasing in size, and that is supported by the science. The truth is that what managers are trying to do is get them to a historically high level in a short amount of time. And while it may seem counterintuitive to those that witnessed the epic fall run, that is NOT only a requirement, it’s a good idea given what will most certainly be weak year-classes recruiting into the stock.
I should be clear though that once we do get to that biomass target by 2029, we’re likely facing even more belt tightening in the future, as those well-below-average Chesapeake Bay young-of-the-year begin to affect coastal abundance. For sure we’ll need to cross that bridge when we get to it.
Lastly, I’ve begun to realize that maybe, I’m NOT one of the “good guys” anymore. Whether inadvertently or not, I likely kill a LOT of striped bass. I mean, none of us are innocent. To think that you are just because you use a certain type of gear and release fish is 100% false. The only innocents are those who have given up fishing for good.
I’ve ALWAYS been a “conservation” advocate. To be really clear though, it’s simply because I want, I need consistent access to fish in the water. Abundance drives opportunity, and that sort of opportunity not only books trips but has come to sustain my mental health and wellbeing.
The uncomfortable truth is that being a conservation-focused angler does not make me (or you) one of the “good guys” anymore. We’ve kinda gotten to the point where it seems like there are no “good guys” in the fishing community. Only different stakeholders with different goals. And that hurts a little bit once you begin to fully understand that it’s true.
But hey, man…right now, I’m trying my best to just enjoy the good fishing, and the bump in business it’s created, to be content watching my kids grow up, and most importantly, to stay out of social media discourses perpetuated by armchair QBs.
I’m not gonna lie though. It’s increasingly hard to sleep well at night.
Because one thing seems pretty clear. We’re not gonna be out of the woods anytime soon with striped bass. And, unless something changes, we might be facing some REALLY difficult decisions in the not-so-distant future.