Sharp reductions in striped bass catch coming in 2015
Responding to growing concerns about declining striped bass populations, fishery managers this week voted to slash Bay striped bass harvests next year by 20.5 percent and the East Coast catch by 25 percent.
The cuts, approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission during a nine-hour meeting on Wednesday, are aimed at stemming a decade-long decline in the striped bass population, which is close to slipping below its “overfished” threshold.
The population has declined primarily because of a series of below-average years of reproduction since the mid-2000s. The goal of the action is to increase, over time, the number of adult females — or spawning stock — with the hope that they will produce more young fish.
Fishery managers from Bay jurisdictions had sought to have the cuts spread over more years, but ran into opposition from many East Coast states.
Managers from those states wanted the cuts to come in a single year to help speed the recovery. Some New England officials said their recreational anglers had seen catches fall as much as 80 percent in recent years.
Comments received by the ASMFC, which represents all of the East Coast states and is responsible for managing migratory fish, were overwhelmingly from recreational fishermen who supported implementing the full reduction in a single year.
But the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board agreed to the smaller cut for the Chesapeake. Fishery managers from the Bay region noted that most of the striped bass caught in the in the Chesapeake are males — females typically leave the Bay before reaching legal size — and therefore do not contribute to the spawning stock. Bay fishery managers also expressed concern that an abrupt reduction in striped bass catches could increase predation on other species, including blue crabs.
The impact on the Bay will be further buffered as it will be reduced from the 2012 catch, whereas the East Coast reduction from their 2013 quotas. That’s in recognition of the fact that the Bay jurisdictions had, in the face of declining numbers, already reduced harvests in 2013, and those reductions will count toward meeting next year’s target.
Agencies will have to figure out how to implement those cuts, though it will almost certainly mean raising the minimum legal size, which is now 18 inches.
Striped bass are an anadromous species that spends most of their lives along the East Coast but return to their native rivers to spawn. The vast majority of striped bass along the coast are spawned in the Chesapeake.
Although the population has trended down, there is some good news on the horizon. Striped bass reproduction in the Bay was the fourth highest on record in 2011, and those fish will soon become adults. Reproduction this year was near the long-term average — which was an improvement over the last two years.
In a statement, Kim Coble, vice-president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said “the action to protect females will help reverse the spawning stock decline, and, as rockfish numbers increase, it will improve the quality of the recreational fishery, in the Chesapeake Bay and especially in New England where anglers have seen severe drops in catch in recent years.
“It will be essential for the ASMFC in the coming year to match this aggressive step with equally strong action to boost numbers of menhaden and other prey species upon which rockfish depend,” she said.
Richen Brame, Regional Fisheries Director for Coastal Conservation Association, one of several recreational groups that had pressed for sharp cuts, praised the action to end what he called “serial overfishing.”
“The states acted decisively to end overfishing and reduce mortality to begin restoring abundance,” he said. “This should set this critically important Atlantic coast gamefish on the path to recover to former levels.”