ASMFC ACCEPTS PRELIMINARY STOCK ASSESSMENT

In February we reported that the ASMFC’s “preliminary” stock assessment report indicated what those of us who fish a lot for stripers already knew, and that was the spawning stock biomass ”SSB” – total weight of spawning age fish in the striper population – has shrunk below the “threshold” level, and corrective action is required – see graphic.

The current SSB is estimated to be at about the same level as it was in 1992, and many of us believe the number of larger striped bass that were around in 1992 was much greater than we are looking at today. Further evidence of problems for striped bass comes with a recognition that spawning success in Chesapeake Bay during the last 15 years has slumped to about one half of what it was during the glory years of the 1990s.

Finally, fishing mortality, that is the percentage of the striped bass population killed by fishing, has risen to levels well above the threshold where corrective action is supposed to have been taken. As you can see from all of these graphs the decreased spawning stock and increased fishing mortality are trends that began about 15 years ago. There was evidence of this at many points along the way, but as has always been the case, the ASMFC is very slow to take steps to cut back on fishing mortality.

In their April 30th meeting, the ASMFC accepted these findings and charged the scientific board to come up with various measures including slot limits and closed seasons to bring the fishery in to compliance with the 17.5% reduction that is thought to be required to rebuild the SSB. It is unknown at this time what these new regulations will look like – though it was expressed that a 35” minimum size in the recreational fishery would achieve the required reductions.  This large minimum size would cut recreational harvest almost in half, and would raise catch and release mortality a small amount. It was also determined that recreational and commercial interests would share equally – relative to their catches – in the reductions. The potential new management measures are supposed to be decided upon in August, taken to public hearings in September, and then formalized at the annual meeting the last week in October for implementation in 2020.

Stripers Forever’s board is still discussing the possible options. It’s safe to say that all of us would put the stripers first and are willing to support whatever measures the ASMFC decides on that will bring about the necessary mortality reductions. We do, though, think that this is also a time when we should be examining the goals for striped bass management.

In the 1970s the striped bass population collapsed from overfishing. A complete moratorium on harvest was implemented in Chesapeake Bay, and coastal fishers accepted a minimum size that eventually increased all the way out to 36 inches. This formula created a striped bass population the likes of which no living person had ever seen. The abundance of stripers created an entire striped bass saltwater fishing culture, put hundreds of guides into business, sold tons of boats, and drew many thousands of citizens to the ocean. It was wonderful to witness. This recreational striped bass fishing infrastructure has been slowly declining for years. Some striper fanatics saw it coming very early on. The beginnings of the increased bag limits and commercial quotas had an immediate and obvious effect on the fishery. That is why in 2003 we started Stripers Forever. As you can see looking at those graphs, we were right. The commercial fishery should never have been reopened, and instead of concentrating the whole coastal fishery on large stripers there should have been a slot limit and a season if necessary, to keep mortality in the desired zone.

Striped bass cannot be everything to everyone. We cannot, simultaneously, fish for them commercially, make them the target of head boats, hold up the dead bodies of the big breeders, gut hook them with bait in lukewarm water, have unlimited season-long possession limits, and expect to have an abundant resource and the great fishing opportunities that provides. Stripers Forever will be advocating for a new day in striped bass management that stewards these fish for their greatest socio-economic value to the public.

The ASMFC has accepted the findings of the stock assessment; Connecticut, Massachusetts and Virginia have already sent a strongly worded letter to the ASMFC suggesting more action be taken ASAP. Virginia has also taken emergency action and canceled its spring trophy season. We will continue to follow this and bring updates to your attention as things progress.


ASMFC Main Meeting Materials

ASMFC Supplemental Materials

ASMFC Summary


 

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ASMFC PRELIMINARY SB STOCK ASSESSMENT

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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MDMF PROPOSES NEW SB REGULATIONS

DAWN COMES TO MARBLEHEAD“, a memo from Massachusetts

For those that are not familiar with the expression “Dawn comes to Marblehead” it literally refers to the easternmost town in Massachusetts that is the first to “see the light” from the rising sun. It also refers to a person or in this case people who are slow to grasp the facts but finally understand.

Background: Massachusetts is the number one destination for striped bass fishermen. More striped bass are killed in Massachusetts both purposefully (commercially) and inadvertently (catch and release – C&R – mortality) than any other state along the east coast. After many years of putting pressure (read Stripers Forever plus many others) on the MA Division of Marine Fisheries (MDMF) to take conservation measures to reduce released striper mortality the Division itself is finally proposing new striped bass regulations to address the wasteful loss to C&R. Having the Division making the proposals themselves is a major game changer and their proposals are the exact changes that we have been seeking, pleading for, for more than 10 years…. the sun has risen over Marblehead – finally!

MDMF is proposing that the use of gaffs to remove or attempt to remove striped bass from the water be prohibited. It is impossible to accurately measure a fish while it is still swimming on the end of a line. A high proportion of the striped bass caught in MA will be under the legal keeper size of 28 inches and will have to be released hopefully alive. Using a gaff is deadly and wastes a valuable resource that is already in trouble.

Also, it is proposing to mandate the use of inline circle hooks beginning in 2020 by anglers fishing for striped bass with whole or cut natural baits. The circle hook mandate would not apply to artificial lures designed to be trolled, casted and retrieved, or vertically jigged with a natural bait attached. Using in-line circle hooks will dramatically reduce the number of fish that are gut hooked and unnecessarily die after being returned to the water.

These proposed regulations will be heard at two public hearings. WE URGE YOU TO ATTEND and express your support of both proposals! The public hearings scheduled to take comments on these and other proposals are at 6 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 25, at Admiral’s Hall at the Mass. Maritime Academy, located at 101 Academy Drive in Buzzards Bay; and at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 27 at DMF’s Annisquam River Station, located at 30 Emerson Avenue in Gloucester. Mark the dates.

The Division of Marine Fisheries will also accept public comment through 5 p.m. on Friday, March 1. Please address all written comments to Director Pierce and submit to DMF by e-mail at marine.fish@state.ma.us or by post to 251 Causeway Street, Suite 400, Boston, MA 02114. Please do this as soon as you finish reading this memo. Thanks!

You have an opportunity to have a direct impact on the outcome of these hearings and thus potentially save the lives of many thousands of striped bass. Please don’t let these fish be killed because we were too lazy to make a small effort to save them. There are times when, as members of Stripers Forever, we are handed a wonderful opportunity to make a difference. This time is now.

This is not a lecture although it sure reads like one. No, the fact is that you will make a difference whether you act or not. If each of us is proactive and show up in numbers and send enough emails we will convince the nine-person oversight board (MA Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission) to implement the proposals. However, if we (you) choose to do nothing then the commercial folks will once again rule the day and the Board will vote the proposals down. Your choice, to take action or to do nothing will, as I said, make a difference – one way or another.

Sorry, I guess this actually is a lecture! However, the outcome really is up to you and what you choose to do about it. Yes, you have heard us ask for your help before but this time, because these proposals now come from the Division itself and not us or from “the outside” as before, this time we have a real chance to be successful. A ton of work has been invested in trying to change the rules in order to protect more fish from wonton waste. Let’s make it happen. With your help – PLEASE – this time it has a real chance of becoming a true conservation reality…… and, it sure would be nice to win one for a change! Please mark your calendars and send that email. Thanks.

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ON THE WATER STRIPER CUP 2019- NOW NO-KILL NECESSARY TOURNAMENT

Kudos to the folks at On The Water magazine and T.V. show for their forward-thinking decision to make their 2019 Striper Cup Tournament a 100% no kill necessary event! “The mission statement of the Striper Cup has always been “to celebrate fishing for the beloved striped bass. ”That remains unchanged, and I think most striper fishermen would agree that there’s no better way to celebrate catching a big striper than to watch it swim away.” OTW This will have a marked and positive impact on the fishery as the Striper Cup is the largest striper tournament on the east coast. We take our hats off in praise of On The Water for their sincere and well thought out efforts to conserve these valuable fish for the future. Will the Martha’s Vineyard derby now follow suit? The increased acceptance of C&R is more reason for you to support the no gaff and mandatory circle hook proposals today.

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CONTACT INFO

Stripers Forever | 209 Winn Road Falmouth, ME 04105
stripers@stripersforever.org

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