Decline In Female Stripers

George Scocca
Striped bass

It’s that time of year again when local fishermen grind it out in the New England surf to catch the fall migration south of the Atlantic striped bass, or Morone saxatilis. This Long Island staple gracing our waters heads north in the spring after spawning and meander back down to warmer waters in the fall. The first spring arrivals are the schoolies, or smaller, immature striped bass. Their hasty travel is due to their bypassing of the spawning grounds on their way north.

The areas where these mass spawns occur are freshwater tributaries along the western Atlantic coast. The spawning process is triggered by an increase in water temperature and generally occurs in the spring when water temperatures reach 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. For their first few years, stripers stay around their freshwater birthplace until they return to the ocean as adults, making them an anadromous species. Some major spawning grounds include the Chesapeake Bay, the upper Delaware Bay and Delaware River, and our very own Hudson River. Its unique life history characteristics and socioeconomic importance have caused this fish to make quite the splash.

Atlantic coast striped bass populations suffered a major collapse in 1973 after a peak in commercial landings, but was declared rebuilt by 1995. The decline was attributed to overfishing, habitat loss, and dams blocking access to spawning habitats. Conservation efforts were not futile, though, as this fish stock rebounded so astoundingly it was referred to by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as the poster child for successful interjurisdictional fishery management of a coastal migratory species.

In light of recent data, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has approved and released the Atlantic striped bass draft addendum to Amendment 6 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic striped bass to the public. Last month, two public hearings were held in New York to announce the details of the addendum and opened the floor to local input. A multitude of East End fishermen spoke out against the proposed cuts that could reduce the harvest of striped bass by up to 18 percent compared to 2017 catch limits. The 2018 benchmark stock assessment indicates the stock is overfished and experiencing overfishing.

Female spawning stock biomass was estimated to be 51 million pounds below the SSB threshold. In layman’s terms, there’s not enough female fish to restore the population if we keep fishing at the same rate. It’s estimated that 90 percent of annual Atlantic striped bass recreational catch is released alive and nine percent of those result in release mortality. In a predominantly recreational fishery, this is a significant figure. The current management program uses bag and size limits to reduce the number of stripers harvested, but this does not reduce fishing effort and consequently does not reduce release mortality rates.

Three options have been proposed for public input on preferred management measures of the striped bass stock. The first option is a status quo continuing regulations set in place by Addendum IV. This option does not meet projected reductions needed to achieve target mortality rates in 2020. The second option proposes an equal percent reduction in which both recreational and commercial sectors would take an 18 percent reduction from 2017 harvest levels. The third option also proposes an overall reduction of total fish mortality by 18 percent relative to 2017 levels but the commercial sector takes a smaller reduction rate than the recreational sector.

Options two and three meet the 2020 goal with intrastate flexibility allowing for variations in size limits, season length, and tackle modifications.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recognizes that the “Atlantic striped bass is arguably the most iconic finfish on the Atlantic coast and has supported valuable fisheries for centuries.” The goal of the proposed addendum is to recover and maintain the stock in the long term, outweighing the recognized short-term negative impact. These new limitations are likely to translate into negative impacts on the regional economy and jobs associated with the fishing industry for striped bass. It’s projected that stock recovery and subsequent catch increases in successive years will be more impactful.

The economic significance of the striped bass to local economies is not taken lightly. The big picture in the deep blue is that we want this fish to remain a part of our maritime culture here and now on Long Island and for future generations. How we get there depends on fishermen and politicians alike. The commission will meet late October to review public comments submitted and deliberate final action on the new regulations. So, sit tight and enjoy the fall run until the snowflakes start to fly as we await the news for the 2020 season.

Jackie Avignone is an environmental educator at the South Fork Natural History Museum & Nature Center. She graduated from Stony Brook University with a BS in Marine Sciences.

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