Few ocean-going migrations elicit more excitement and devotion than the epic inshore journey of the Atlantic striped bass.
Twice a year, stripers take to the surf by the millions. It happens first in the spring just after the spawn, then again in fall when water temperatures begin to drop along the Eastern Seaboard. A barreling stream of biomass, these anadromous behemoths hug the Atlantic coastline in constant pursuit of the baitfish that sustain them: anchovies, sand eels, silversides, herring, and bunker, to name a few.
As they move up and down the coast, stripers attract unwavering attention from legions of dedicated anglers, and their concern for the species doesn’t end when the run dries up. A recent dropoff in the overall striper population has caused alarm amongst many of these devotees. Management changes that seek to bring the population back in line with the desired threshold are on the horizon, but members of the striper fishing community don’t always see eye-to-eye with fishery managers and the tactics they’ve proposed to rebuild the stocks.
Collapse, Resurgence, Decline Striped bass boast a lifespan up to 30 years, and fully grown females, known as cows, can reach lengths of 5 feet while tipping the scales past 70 pounds. Throughout the course of one migratory stretch, an individual fish might travel 2,000 miles or more. A large majority of all stripers spawn and grow up in Chesapeake Bay before dispersing across the Western Atlantic, making management a difficult task to say the least.
In the late 1970s, Atlantic Coast striped bass populations were in deep trouble. Overfished nearly to the point of collapse, striper numbers had dwindled to startling lows. This prompted a series of state-led fishing moratoriums throughout the 1980s, most notably a complete closure on striper fishing in the all-important nursery of Chesapeake Bay.
Eventually, the moratoriums and other ensuing management tweaks bore fruit, and by the late 1990s and early 2000s, striper populations had not only rebounded but soared to historic highs.
“In the ‘90s you could reach out and touch a striped bass,” said New Jersey-based angler and MeatEater Senior Fishing Editor Joe Cermele. “I got to be here for an incredible rebound, which lasted until 2012, and it’s been on a quick decline since then.”
Much to the chagrin of Joe and other anglers who spend time patrolling the waters of the striper coast, today’s fishery is a shadow of what it was when numbers peaked back in 2003.
“Historically speaking, anytime between October first and December first, I could get in my boat in central Jersey, run 5 miles north and 5 miles south, and run into stripers,” Joe said. “It doesn’t happen that way anymore.”
Amending the Management According to the official language of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a consortium of coastal states along the Eastern Seaboard tasked with managing stripers and a host of other migratory species, Atlantic striped bass are overfished (read: depleted) and actively subject to more overfishing via current regulations.
In a 2018 stock assessment report put out by the ASMFC, the female spawning stock biomass, a metric that managers use to measure striper populations in terms of weight, was estimated at 151 million pounds. While that sounds like a hefty number, it falls woefully short of the Commission’s biomass target of 250 million pounds. The 2018 Stock Assessment triggered alarm bells that are still ringing in the striper fishing community today.
In an attempt to mitigate the damage and rebuild the stock to something that resembles the striper heyday of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the ASMFC has proposed a series of reforms to its Striped Bass Management Plan housed in a document known as Draft Amendment 7.
On the surface, Draft Amendment 7 looks relatively routine. It addresses such issues as management triggers, recreational release mortality, and the Commission’s “stock rebuilding plan.” But the anglers who live in the weeds of the complex issues that entangle striped bass management aren’t altogether hopeful about the results that the amendment could ultimately usher in.
They worry that the management triggers specified in Draft Amendment 7 will allow for too much delay and not enough on-the-fly adaptation to the constantly shifting conditions of the stock. There are misgivings about the way in which different states are sometimes allowed to tailor their own regulations, satisfying their own needs but not adhering to the coastwide standards. And there are a lot of stakeholders who believe that the ASMFC’s stated goal of reducing “the number of striped bass released alive,” i.e. catch-and-release angling, is based on an outdated paradigm that values harvest over sound fish handling tactics.
Opposition to specific management techniques aside, one thing that most anglers, guides, and conservation groups tend to agree on is the need for quick, decisive action. And the ASMFC, with its slow-moving machinations, may not be able to deliver change as quickly as is desperately needed.
“The growing threat of returning to the darkest days of the fishery has frustrated recreational anglers who are demanding fisheries managers in the Chesapeake and along the East Coast take decisive steps immediately to head off another crisis,” the Coastal Conservation Association said in a press release. “[The ASMFC’s] plan is not expected to be adopted until late 2022 although there is nothing preventing individual states with the foresight and political will from taking more conservative action now before the ASMFC mandate takes effect.”
Conservation Equivalencies For Joe, one of the most troubling aspects of striped bass management in its current form is a concept defined by the ASMFC as “conservation equivalency.” In the simplest terms possible, it gives individual states an out to manage stripers according to their own localized parameters whenever certain circumstances permit. Joe believes that the concept is counterproductive and needs to be thrown out.
“This allows states to effectively sidestep the coastwide regulations if they choose to serve their needs or their angler’s needs,” he said. “For example, the slot limit in Jersey now is 28 to 38 inches, which means that nobody can kill their 30 or 40 pounders anymore, which is a good thing. It is effectively taking trophy hunting off the table in New Jersey."
Maryland, on the other hand, Joe said, used their conservation equivalency to continue allowing trophy harvest. You can still take big, fecund females out of the same population once they enter different waters.
“Some states have chosen not to use their conservation equivalency, some have put it forth in terms of local regulations, but I think everybody’s pretty much in agreement that that [conservation equivalency] needs to go away,” he said. “What is the point of coastwide regulations if every state where the striper population breeds and matters is not doing the same thing?”
According to the American Saltwater Guides Association, Draft Amendment 7 won’t eliminate conservation equivalencies altogether, but it does include options that could reign in some of the worst abuses of the policy. Whether those options will ultimately be implemented is yet to be seen, as Draft Amendment 7 is open to public comment from now until April 15, 2022.
Catch and Release Mortality Joe will be the first to tell you that striped bass fishing just isn’t what it used to be. He’ll even admit that the species has been overfished as of late to the detriment of the coastwide stock. But he seems to believe that far too much onus for the decline of Atlantic striped bass populations is being placed at the feet of recreational anglers, many of whom practice catch-and-release when it comes to striper fishing.
“The easiest way to cloak problems in striper management is to say, well, there’s too many recreational anglers,” he said. “Most of them catch-and-release striper anglers, so that must be the problem here. But that’s not really founded in any kind of science.”
Whether the ASMFC’s assumption that 9% of all striped bass released by recreational anglers will die after—a figure that the organization put forth on page 2 of its 2018 Stock Assessment Report—is either accurate or founded in science is a matter of contention. A new and promising study to address that question of how many stripers die after being released is currently underway at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
According to Joe, some people in the striper community believe that the whole draft amendment process should be put on hold until that new research is fully borne out.
“That promises to be some pretty groundbreaking work,” Joe said. “A lot of people are saying that this whole Amendment 7 should have been tabled, that we should have put the brakes on until this data comes out. Some people think that this study could show that catch-and-release mortality isn’t as terrible as everybody thinks it is.”
Moving Forward There are a whole host of other complicated issues on the table in the Draft Amendment 7 for the Striped Bass Management Plan, and the matter is far too intricate and complex to fully define here. Suffice it to say that huge numbers of anglers are fired up. The striper community wants nothing more than a return to the glory days of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and conservation-minded anglers are prepared to make sacrifices to that end.
Precisely what those sacrifices will be won’t be completely clear until May, when Draft Amendment 7 is finalized by the ASMFC. Those who want to stay abreast of this important issue should read this detailed synopsis of the draft amendment process by Capt. John McMurray of the American Saltwater Guides Association, take the time to provide public input here, and check back for more details as the Atlantic Coast’s striper saga continues to unfold.