In a meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission (ASMFC) held on Wed. 2//6/19 the striped bass management board was presented with a preliminary benchmark stock assessment that said the striped bass spawning stock biomass had slipped to well below the target level.  This puts the stock into the formally overfished category.  It was also found that overfishing was still taking place.  Overfished and overfishing, while they don’t sound it, are somewhat technical terms.  But they essentially mean that the size of the fish stock in question is less than the acceptable level that the managers have set, and that the current mortality through fishing is too high for the stocks to recover.

I looked back through old SF records and saw that 2006 was first of some formal recognition by the ASMFC that the spawning stock biomass was beginning to shrink.  Never ones to act to quickly to reduce fishing effort the ASMFC continually kicked this can down the road until 2014 when it was noted that a 50% reduction in fishing mortality was really what was required to get the stock back on track.  I remember listening to the ASMFC meeting when Paul Diodati of Massachusetts made a motion to put an immediate 40% cut in place for the 2014 season.  No one else was ready to swallow that bitter pill, and in 2015 measures went into effect to cut mortality back by 25%, and a little less than that in Chesapeake Bay.  Predictably it wasn’t nearly enough.

Our annual fishing survey has turned out to be a very accurate gauge of how many fish are really out there, and while there was a small uptick for a couple of years in the number of small fish anglers were seeing, the numbers of large – breeding sized – striped bass has been sliding every year for a long time.  You can see it clearly in arenas like the MA commercial fishery, where over the last few years the commercial fishermen couldn’t find any number of large bass in one area of the state after another.  All the catches were coming from one or two large schools, and finally those fish ran out too.  In 2018, in spite of allowing fishing until into October when the migration had ended in MA, the landings for the season were about 754,000 pounds against a quota of 847,000 pounds.  By comparison in 2014 1,139,000 pounds were landed before the end of August.  And you can bet everyone tried hard to catch those fish because the flesh of the bass was selling for a lot of money per pound.

The recent assessment was accepted by the ASMFC managers in spite of some clear reluctance by some of the commercial fishing jurisdictions, but nothing was done to set in motion conservation measures for the 2019 fishing season.  The earliest that any adjustments could now be made is for the fall fishery, and no one is willing to bet how that debate will come out.  It is within the authority of the ASMFC to simply reduce the acceptable stock size “lower the bar” and continue on with the current regulations.  We certainly hope that won’t be the case, and without a doubt the largely recreational and game fish states will be pushing hard for some serious reductions.  Stripers Forever will be at the forefront of that advocacy.

There was one bit of good news coming from the meeting, and that was an essentially unanimous vote to write a letter from the ASMFC to NOAA requesting that the boundary lines of the EEZ not be changed in the area around Block Island which would have allowed recreational fishing for striped bass, and therefore a cover for black market commercial bass fishing too.

The only silver lining in all of this is that we may be presented with a return of the opportunity that we missed in 1988 to designate striped bass as game fish in all the coastal states.  Had that happened, we are confident that the decline we have all witnessed in the last 10 or 15 years would not have taken place.

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