Sunday, October 10, 2021


We all know that, right now, striped bass aren’t in good shape.  A recent stock assessment found them to be overfished, and the recruitment of new fish into the population isn’tgoing all that well.

There were big year classes in 2001 and 2003, but that was two decades ago, and the survivors are dwindling fast, although if you catch a high-40s or 50-plus fish, those two year classes are probably responsible.

Spawning was generally below average from 2004 to 2010.  After that, there was a big year class in 2011 that Amendment IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan was supposed to protect, but for whatever reason, failed to do; the 2011s never recruited into the spawning stock in the expected numbers, although there still seems to be fair numbers of them around.

2012 saw the lowest Maryland juvenile abundance index ever recorded.  2013 was better, but far from good, 2014 just below average; 2015 produced a solid year class that, while not as big as the 2011s, recruited into the stock in greater numbers and arguably forms the current last, best hope for rebuilding the spawning stock biomass.

Very slightly above-average year classes in 2017 and 2018—I tend to think of them as “strong average” given the statistical uncertainty and the fact that they’re only a couple of points above the average level—could provide the 2015s with an assist in rebuilding the stock if we don’t kill them off before they mature (both year classes can already be legally killed in the Chesapeake Bay).  

On the other hand, 2016,2019, and 2020 produced dismally below-average abundance indices of 2.20, 3.37,and 2.48, respectively (the long-term average is around 11.6); the whispers I’m hearing out of Maryland are suggesting that the 2021 numbers won’t be much, if any better—we should know that for certain in a few days, when the numbers ought to be released.

All of which means that, given the current age structure of the population, if we lose the 2015s, the striped bass is probably screwed.

There are a lot of folks out there who realize that.

At the May meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, Maine fishery manager Meagan Ware made a motion to include measures to protect the 2015 year class in the draft Amendment 7 to the striped bass management plan, even though such measures weren’t specifically contemplated in the Public Information Document that sought stakeholder comment on issues to be addressed in such amendment.  The motion passed by a vote of 9 to 4, with two Management Board members abstaining, showing broad-based support for the concept.

In supporting her motion, Ms. Ware stated

“While I don’t think we are at the place where the stock was in the 1980s, at this point we have had five years of average or below average recruitment.

“It is this repeated poor recruitment that got us in trouble last time, so I think how we deal with this 2015-year class could be kind of make or break on where this stock goes, and how successful we are in rebuilding…”

David Sikorski, Maryland’s Legislative Proxy, seconded Ms. Ware’s motion.  In doing so, he observed

“recent Addendum VI measures probably failed to meet reducing fishing mortality on this 2015 stock, as implemented by all three [Chesapeake] Bay jurisdictions.

“I really have the utmost concerns of the impact we’re already having on these fish.  I think the best way to address this is to be laser focused on limiting fishing mortality on these fish that are left in the system, recognizing that they hold a lot of the hope for the future, as we all cross our fingers and hope that 2021 brings us brighter recruitment projections.”

It’s difficult to disagree with either Ms. Ware’s or Mr. Sikorski’s comments.  As Michael Armstrong, the Massachusetts fishery manager, noted,

“we’ve got five-year classes locked and loaded, with nothing behind 2014 [sic].  We have the 2015-year class, and 2014 was not bad out of the Hudson.  That is all we’ve got to rebuild with.  You know we targeted that for [a fishing mortality rate of] 0.2, and we never achieved it, so I’ve got to assume we didn’t hit it this time.  We have to start doing draconian things to get this stock back.  That is the bottom line, and so I support that.”

Of course, protecting the 2015s is easier said than done. 

The simple expedient of a 35-inch minimum size, originally one of the options included in Addendum VI, would have accomplished that goal for a few years, until the 2015s reached that size, at which point the current 28- to 35-inch slot limit might have been adopted to protect what would then have been the older, larger females.  By adopting the slot limit for the 2020 season, just as the 2015s were approaching 28 inches in length, the Management Board placed a huge bullseye on the very year class they must depend upon to rebuild the stock.

It’s unclear whether they will be able to change management measures quickly enough to prevent severe damage to those fish.

The ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team is certainly trying to get that done.  It has developed a number of proposals that will be presented to the Management Board at its October meeting, all of which are intended to reduce fishing mortality of the 2015 year class, enhance the female spawning stock biomass, and facilitate the recovery of the striped bass stock.

Now, it’s up to the Management Board to decide which, if any, of the PDT’s proposals to include in the draft Amendment 7 that will be released for public comment, and which to include when the final version of the Amendment is adopted, probably at next February’s Management Board meeting.

It’s possible that the Management Board will decide to abandon any special protections for the 2015s, and just leave the current slot limit in place, but I don’t expect that to happen.  I don’t think the real question is whether the Management Board will adopt measures to protect the 2015s, but rather whether, if it adopts such measures, they will be put in place soon enough to make any real difference.

The current thought is that Amendment 7 won’t be implemented until 2023; that means that at least some portion of the 2015 year class will have been bracketed by the 28- to 35-inch slot limit for three full fishing years, 2020-2022—and that doesn’t include earlier attrition that occurred in the Chesapeake Bay, where immature females may be legally harvested, beginning when they’re about two years old. 

Between 2017 and 2019, the period when the immature females would have been legal to harvest, but before a significant number would have entered either the spawning stock or the current coastal slot, Maryland landings totaled around 2,850,000 fish, with annual harvest steadily decreasing over that period.  While not all of the landed fish would have been 2015s, the size distribution of the such bass strongly suggests that, at least in 2019 and 2020, 2015s comprised the majority of the harvest.

So by 2023, the 2015 year class will have been heavily targeted for no less than five years.  It’s hard to say how many will remain when any Amendment 7 protections finally go into effect.

The Management Board might make an exception for the 2015-specific management measures, and implement them a year earlier than the rest of Amendment 7.  However, the Board is usually reluctant to implement measures mid-season, and any measures adopted in February 2022 probably couldn’t be implemented by the states until April or May, when the bass season along most of the coast is already well underway.

In addition, implementing new size limits, bag limits, or seasons a year before any new restrictions on the use of conservation equivalency go into effect would allow states like New Jersey and Maryland, which typically seek advantage through the conservation equivalency process, to undercut the 2015-specific measures with proposals designed to evade their full share of the conservation burden.

Thus, the question of what happens if we get Amendment 7 wrong, and we lose a large portion of the 2015 year class, looms large and real.

As Mr. Armstrong recognized in his statement quoted above, “We have the 2015-year class, and 2014 was not bad out of the Hudson.  That is all we’ve got to rebuild with.”  If we lose the 2015s, rebuilding will become very, very difficult to achieve, unless some unexpectedly good year classes emerge from the Chesapeake Bay.

That could happen.  But a continuing string of low recruitment years could happen, too, and in fact has happened before. 

From 1975 through 1988, the Maryland striped bass juvenileabundance index never rose above 8.45, well below the current long-termaverage, and bottomed out at 1.22.  In an exchange of thoughts with one of my management-savvy striped bass fishing friends, I commented that the years that teed up the stock collapse of the late 1970s and 1980s—that is, the recruitment decline between 1970 and 1975—bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the last few years of recruitment, between 2015 and 2020.

From what I could remember at the time that I made the comment, both periods saw a strong year class followed by a few near-average year classes, before below-average recruitment.

But I said that based on memory.  When I actually looked at the numbers, I found that the last 6 years of recruitment in Maryland—which tends to be the bellwether for striped bass abundance along the coast—was significantly worse than it was in the early 1970s.

Although we have seen larger year classes since, the 1970 year class was, when it was produced, the largest ever seen on the striper coast, with a value of 30.52.  The next five years saw the Maryland juvenile abundance index produce values of 11.77, 11.01, 8.92, 10.13, and 6.69, for a 6-year average of about 13.17.  That’s actually above the current long-term average of 11.6.

Of course, the ten years after that produced an average juvenile abundance index of 4.26 and a stock collapse.

Comparing the early 1970s to the past six years, we begin with another big year class in 2015, although with a juvenile index of 24.20, the 2015 year class was about 20% smaller than 1970.  The next five years saw juvenile abundance indices of 2.20, 13.19, 14.78, 3.37, and 2.48, for a 6-year average of 10.04, below both the long-term average and the average for the first six years of the 1970s.

That is an unsettling comparison.

At the same time, the management environment is very different today than it was in 1975.

For one thing, there is now a formal, coastwide management structure.  The Management Board may not be perfect, but it is far better than the management vacuum that existed forty-five years ago, when state managers’ greatest concern was maintaining a level playing field for their fishermen, an attitude that severely hampered the adoption of needed regulation.

Throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, there were no commercial striped bass quotas, no limitations on who could sell fish (many so-called “recreational” fishermen routinely did so, even in what were supposed to be “gamefish” states), and no meaningful recreational regulations.  The 1970 year class, which held out such promise, was largely wiped out by the middle of the decade.

Current management measures should prevent the sort of wholesale slaughter that went on back then.

At the same time, striped bass were under far less recreational fishing pressure than they are today.  During the 1970s, there were plenty of winter flounder, tautog, weakfish, bluefish, and other inshore species to absorb fishing pressure, particularly pressure brought by those who wanted to take fish home to eat.  Striped bass were not yet a panfish.

Charter boats had more plentiful targets offshore, with cod still relatively abundant, pollock teeming as far south as Block Island, and pelagic species such as mako sharks, white and blue marlin, and the various tunas more available in more places than they currently are.

So the two periods are not directly comparable.

Still, it’s clear that bass could be in serious trouble if we lose the 2015s.  There have been no big year classes since, and even if we get a good one in 2022, such year class won’t be fully recruited into the spawning stock until after the end of this decade.

Thus, we must get Amendment 7 right.

The bass are running out of options.



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