Although the overall abundance of striped bass has declined, striped bass stocks along the Atlantic coast are healthy and overfishing is not occurring, the federal agency responsible for monitoring Atlantic coast fish species said in an annual report.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a 15-member body responsible for managing species and implementing management plans along the East Coast, provided that rosy assessment at its annual meeting in Boston on November 8. It is nearly identical to one provided at the same meeting in 2008.
It is an assessment many recreational fishermen, including those on Martha’s Vineyard, say is incorrect. In tackle shops and on the beach fishermen complain that striped bass fishing is declining both in the quantity and quality of fish.
The closest statistical evidence of that decline is reflected in landings of striped bass during the annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.
In 2010, the Derby weighed in 147 boat bass and 237 shore bass for a total catch of 384 fish. That was the lowest number since bass were reintroduced to the Derby in 1997 and eight fish less than the previous low set in 2008. According to a review of Derby records, the 2010 boat (37.60 pounds) and shore (31.87 pounds) grand leader bass were the smallest fish ever weighed in the Derby’s 65 years.
In the most recent Derby, fishermen landed a total of 461 striped bass. The boat bass winner was a respectable 46.15 pounds and the shore bass was 34.92. But anecdotal reports reflected tough fishing in a contest where fifty pounders were once expected.
The argument over which assessment is correct has significant implications. The striped bass is New England’s most prized gamefish and underpins a recreational and charterboat fishing industry that generates millions of dollars in sales.
The ASMFC striped bass management board put off action on proposed changes to the overall management plan to reduce fishing mortality and options to protect the spawning stock when it is concentrated and vulnerable until completion of a “benchmark stock assessment” in June 2013.
It is a decision Brad Burns, president of Stripers Forever, a Maine-based gamefish advocacy group, called shameful and motivated by commercial interests.
According to a press release dated February 8, ASMFC fishery scientists said the 2011 Atlantic striped bass stock assessment update “indicates that the resource remains in good condition with the female spawning stock biomass (SSB) estimate at 109 percent of the SSB target and 137 percent of the SSB threshold.”
In a nutshell the scientists who monitor the three distinct stocks of fish found in the Hudson River, Delaware River, and Chesapeake Bay and tributaries that contribute to the overall coastal migratory group concluded that the number of fish available to spawn remains above target levels. “The striped bass stock complex is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring,” the ASMFC report said.
The report noted that overall stock abundance has declined since 2004, which is reflected by a decline in coastwide landings in 2009 and 2010. “The decline is more prevalent in areas largely dependent on contributions from the Chesapeake stocks (such as Maine) than areas that are dominated by the Hudson stock (such as New York),” the report said.
“Despite the decline in abundance, the spawning stock in 2010 remained relatively high due to the growth and maturation of the 2003-year class and the accumulation of spawning biomass from year classes prior to 1996.”
The report said the 2003-year class, fish spawned that year, remains the largest since 1982 at 20.8 million fish.
According to the ASMFC, recreational landings have ranged from a low of under 750,000 pounds in 1989 to a high of 30.5 million pounds in 2006, along the Atlantic coast. In 2010, recreational anglers landed over 22.9 million pounds (1.99 million fish).
This represents a 24 percent decline by weight and a 26 percent decline by number from the high in 2006, the report said.
Changes in landings have varied by state, with Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey showing an increase in number of fish landed and the remaining states showing a 45 percent decrease on average.
Landings from the commercial striped bass fishery have been consistently lower than the recreational catch. Commercial landings increased from 139,000 pounds in 1987 to just under 5.9 million pounds in 1997 and have remained steady due to quota restrictions.
Landings in 2010 were 7.06 million pounds, according to the report. Gill nets are the dominant commercial gear used to target striped bass. Other commercial fishing gears include hook and line, pound nets, seines, and trawls.
Closer to home, Massachusetts commercial fishermen are limited to hook and line only. The commercial season is based on a quota that is closely monitored through daily catch reports.
In the 2011 season Massachusetts commercial fishermen reported catching 1,163,729 pounds of striped bass. That was 109.6 percent of the quota of 1,061,898 pounds and is the expected result in a lower quota in 2012.
In an email to fishermen on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Burns said those states with significant commercial interests turned down a request for public hearings to be held to discuss a reduction in the allowable striped bass harvest.
“This proposal was prompted by those who felt the downturn in the fishery was significant and should be addressed proactively,” Mr. Burns said. “Unfortunately, the proposal was defeated by a vote of 9 to 6, as the states with commercial fisheries led the effort to continue harvesting at current high levels. The ASMFC commissioners disregarded a great amount of public testimony as well as government statistics that show that the fishery is rapidly deteriorating, due at least in part from the poor recruitment of young fish and the over harvesting of large ones.”
Mr. Burns accused the ASMFC of tilting towards the commercial side of the ledger. “The greater economic and social worth generated by the recreational striped bass fishing industry when stocks are abundant simply does not resonate with the ASMFC as a whole,” he said. “With the exception of NJ whose reasons for voting with the commercial states were poorly explained, the vote found commercial states on one side of the vote and game fish states on the other.”
Mr. Burns said it is the view of Stripers Forever that fisheries managers should have erred on the side of conservation. He said the notion that the overfishing threshold has not been reached, and that overfishing is not occurring does “not reflect reality.”
“This cavalier and destructive behavior by those entrusted with our marine resources is proof positive that the only way wild striped bass will be saved is by legislatively making them a game fish,” he said.
According to the ASMFC, overfishing and poor environmental conditions lead to the collapse of the striped bass fishery in the 1980s. “Through the hardship and dedication of both commercial and recreational fishermen, the stock was rebuilt and today’s watermen again harvest striped bass in great number,” the ASMFC said.
Since 1982, the striped bass population has increased from less than 9 million fish to over 70 million fish in 2004. While abundance has declined some since then, spawning stock biomass (the metric for determining if the stock is overfished) remains well above the threshold and target levels.
The Commission has managed striped bass since 1981. Amendment 6 to the Fishery Management Plan provides the current guidance to the states from Maine through North Carolina. The management program includes target and threshold biological reference points (spawning stock biomass and fishing mortality), and sets regulations aimed at achieving the targets. Required regulatory measures include recreational and commercial minimum size limits, recreational creel limits, and commercial quotas. States can implement alternative management measures that are deemed to be conservationally equivalent to the preferred measures in Amendment 6.