Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)

Striped bass fishery in distress

- Tom Tatum is the outdoors columnist for the MediaNews Group. You can reach him at tatumt2@yahoo.com

Maryland’s trophy season on striped bass kicked off back on May 1 at a time when the region’s depressed fishery is under intense scrutiny.

Recent surveys indicating a severely depleted striper population in the Chesapeake Bay illustrate what a delicate balancing act fisheries management can be.

In fact, I had high hopes of hooking up with a trophy rockfish (that’s Marylander for striped bass) on Saturday with a foray out of Chesapeake Beach, Md., courtesy of the MasonDixon Outdoor Writers Associatio­n (M-DOWA). That plan was literally blown out of the water by the ferocious storm that roared through the region this weekend spawning small craft warnings all over the Bay as relentless winds raked the waters into an avalanche of whitecaps.

But although our fishing trip

was canceled, M-DOWA’s seminar program soldiered on, highlighte­d by Allison Colden, a Maryland Senior Fisheries Scientist who presented a detailed account of the challenges facing Maryland’s striped bass fishery.

Colden explained that a 2018 stock assessment along with more recent survey data revealed a depleted striper population with significan­t problems caused by overfishin­g. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) countered by adjusting the size and catch limits in an attempt to reduce striped bass mortality by 18 percent.

To that end the Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced the 2022 recreation­al striped bass fishery (private and charter) regulation­s in the Chesapeake Bay which remain unchanged from 2021.

Prior to the spring trophy season, anglers were prohibited from targeting striped bass at all (including catch and release) from April 1 through April 30. Then, during the trophy season from May 1 through May 15, anglers may catch and keep one striped bass per day with a minimum size of 35 inches in the Chesapeake Bay.

The summer-fall season then runs from May 16 through July 15 and resumes August 1 through Dec. 10 when anglers are permitted to keep one striped bass per person, per day, with a minimum size of 19 inches.

During a chartered fishing trip, the captain or mate would not be allowed to land or possess striped bass for personal consumptio­n. During the closure period from July 16 through July 31, anglers are prohibited from targeting striped bass, which includes catch-and-release and charter boats.

Colden pointed out that just last week the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission approved Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Atlantic Striped Bass.

The Amendment establishe­s new requiremen­ts for the following components of the FMP: management triggers, conservati­on equivalenc­y, measures to address recreation­al release mortality, and the stock rebuilding plan. The last striped bass stock assessment found the stock was overfished and that overfishin­g was still occurring.

This finding required the Board to end overfishin­g within one year and rebuild the stock by 2029.

Amendment 7 strengthen­s the Commission’s ability to reach the rebuilding goal by implementi­ng a more conservati­ve recruitmen­t trigger, providing more formal guidance around uncertaint­y in the management process, and implementi­ng measures designed to reduce recreation­al release mortality.

Colden added that catch and release mortality is one of the greatest threats to the fishery since studies have shown that 9 percent of all released fish will die. Among other things, Amendment 7 encourages angler education for proper catch and release techniques and also allows for seasonal closures. However, Catch-22 here is that Amendment 7 won’t take effect until March of 2023.

Meanwhile, a jumble of other elements also factors into the health of the striper fishery including problemati­c habitat and water quality. Striped bass prefer cooler water and the bay has been warming. Warmer water doesn’t hold as much oxygen, a prime reason that stripers avoid the bay’s so-called “dead zones” while seeking out deeper, cooler, more oxygen rich water.

Since the upper reaches of the bay represent this specie’s main spawning area, timing of the annual algae bloom coupled with the arrival of spawning rockfish is critical for striped bass larvae to survive.

Unfortunat­ely, thanks to the gradually warming waters, the timing of this important correlatio­n is getting out of kilter. Another factor is the availabili­ty of the forage fish that stripers rely on. These include shad, river herring, and menhaden among others. Colden noted that shad and river herring are at historical­ly low numbers and menhaden population­s are also stressed.

Another problem is created by invasive species like northern snakeheads and blue catfish that compete with native species like rockfish. One staple for young striped bass is baby crabs which is also a favorite food of blue catfish, a species that devours millions of baby crabs every year, depriving schools of vulnerable little rockfish of critical crustacean cuisine.

Colden noted that a number of states classify striped bass as a game fish which means that there is no commercial fishery competing for them.

But in both Maryland and Virginia commercial fisherman are permitted to harvest their share of striped bass, mostly via gill nets and pound nets. Despite the fact that a commercial­ly harvested striped bass must be at least 28 inches long to be legal (as opposed to 19 inches for recreation­al fishermen) gill nets do not discrimina­te and discarded undersized fish also impair the fishery.

While the Chesapeake Bay’s striped bass fishery management challenges might seem overwhelmi­ng, Colden advised us that all was not “gloom and doom” and that the situation is nowhere near as bleak as 1985 when Maryland and Delaware both imposed a total fishing moratorium on striped bass from 1985 through 1989, and Virginia imposed a one-year moratorium in 1989.

After three-year average recruitmen­t levels exceeded an establishe­d threshold value indicating the stripers had bounced back, the Chesapeake Bay fishery reopened in 1990.

But the fragile, presentday condition of the fishery has prompted a New England-based nonprofit group called Stripers Forever to recommend a 10year moratorium on the harvest of stripers from Maine to North Carolina, including in the Chesapeake, the largest striped bass nursery area on the East Coast. Such a move would likely put commercial fishermen and the recreation­al charter fleet permanentl­y out of business.

Despite the alarmist plea of the Stripers Forever group, Colden believes, there’s no need for such drastic measures to save the Chesapeake’s striped bass fishery, at least for now, but we’ll see what Amendment 7 does when it kicks in next year. “We have a plan for cleaning up the Bay,” she assured us, “and the dead zones have been shrinking.”

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