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Another dismal season at the Striper Coast and the premature dissemination of stock assessment data has pessimists warning of an Armageddon. But is it too soon?
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  December 17, 2018
While many anglers continue releasing the "big girls" along the Striper Coast, the preliminary stock assessment report shows spawning stock biomass continues to decline, which could prompt fisheries managers to initiate action at the upcoming ASMFC winter meeting in February.

The latest news in the social media world is that striped bass has been deemed overfished with overfishing occurring.

So, is the end near? Is this the striper Armageddon that many had warned about? Or could it all just be more of that “fake news” we hear all about?

As with everything in the sociopolitical world today, the truth can probably be found somewhere in the middle.

While preliminary numbers are still well above those dark and gloomy days in the 1980’s when there were less than 20 million pounds of spawning class stripers in the coastal population, early indicators do show we may be facing new management decisions on striped bass in the very near future. But preliminary is the key word here, meaning it’s probably too soon to react to sensationalism from either side just yet.

At least until February!

Work is currently underway on a comprehensive benchmark stock assessment of Atlantic Coastal striped bass. From November 27-30 at a formal peer review conducted at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s 66th Stock Assessment Workshop (SAW/SARC), the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Atlantic Striped Bass Assessment Team presented their latest assessment findings to an independent peer review panel.

In the draft Striped Bass Stock Assessment Report presented to the peer review panel, the document itself noted “This information is distributed solely for the purpose of pre-dissemination peer review. It has not been formally disseminated by NOAA. It does not represent any final agency determination or policy.”

While some folks couldn’t wait to leak the “overfished” and “overfishing” presentation slides to a bass-hungry angling public, the actual peer-reviewed assessment will not be presented until the ASMFC convenes for its annual winter meeting from February 5-7 at the Westin Hotel at 1800 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington, VA.

In other words, anything substantive regarding the health of the coastal striped bass stock will not be presented as final until February.

In the fisheries management world, the target is where you want the stock to be, while a threshold is the point at which action must be taken should numbers fall below the mark. As per the preliminary numbers, overall coastwide striped bass SSB is approximately 23 thousand mt below the threshold level of 91.4 thousand mt.

In terms of pounds of fish, consider that the last stock assessment on striped bass in 2016 showed that while the striped bass fishery was not then considered overfished nor experiencing overfishing, the SSB had in fact been on a 12-year overall decline. In 2015, SSB was estimated at 129 million pounds, just above the threshold of 127 million pounds but below the target of 159 million pounds.

2016 Stock Assessment Data

Again, these latest numbers aren’t final; they could be, but not yet. Not until ASMFC meets and finalizes the report in early February.

During a benchmark assessment process for any fish stock, scientists and fisheries experts work together to incorporate new assessment models, while pulling together seine or trawl surveys and harvest reports from both the recreational and commercial sector. As these stock analysts pore over the data, a figure or two might be modified, or a decimal point moved left or right; science being what it is, a fluid and dynamic medium.

On the other hand, of major concern within the conservation community and much of the striper world is with regard to biological reference points set by scientists, including those actual targets and thresholds. There are some members of the ASFMC who believe that certain biological reference points are too conservative; for example, lowering the target and threshold to accommodate new modeling approaches, environmental factors, migration shifts or updated recreational harvest (MRIP) methodologies could actually remove the “overfished” and “overfishing” by way of a penstroke.

As for the trawl surveys and where researchers collected striped bass samples used in the overall stock analysis, questions remain as to whether or not the spawning class fish are truly gone, or if they’ve traveled farther east into deeper offshore grounds in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or even into Canadian waters.

“There seem to be a lot of fish in different areas where they’ve never been before, that’s a fact due to warming waters, climate change, whatever you want to call it, that’s a fact,” said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA). “That’s why NOAA has been talking about incorporating this type of scientific data into future assessments, they have to. I suspect there may be far more fish in the EEZ than we could possibly imagine,” he added.

The preliminary report reviewed at the November SAW/SARC cited a North Carolina Cooperative Winter Tagging Program that does suggest that striped bass distribution on their overwintering grounds during December through February has changed significantly since the mid-2000s. “The migratory portion of the stocks has been well offshore in the EEZ, requiring travel as far as 25 nautical miles offshore of Chesapeake Bay to locate fish to tag,” the report stated, though it also noted that acoustic telemetry work on adult fish that aggregate on Stellwagen Bank located in the EEZ and beyond 12 nautical miles also move inshore as part of their normal migratory and feeding behavior.

While researchers acknowledge that striped bass are spending more time offshore in waters protected against commercial and recreational harvest, the common belief is that these spawning class fish must travel inshore at some point during the year, where it’s hoped that catch and trawl surveys will intercept them for research efforts.

Mike Waine, former fisheries management analyst at NOAA Fisheries and the ASMFC, now Atlantic Fisheries Policy Director at the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), has been tracking the stock assessment process and said there will be a lot for ASMFC Management Board members to digest in February.

“SSB has been on a gradual decline since 2003, and the Management Board took corrective action in 2015, but SSB has not rebounded as much as hoped,” Waine said of the preliminary report.

In 2015, Atlantic coastal states were required to reduce commercial and recreational striped bass harvest by 25% (Chesapeake Bay states/jurisdictions were required to implement a 20.5% harvest reduction from 2012 levels), with much of the effort aimed at protecting a valuable 2011 year class which was the highest recruitment level of young fish since 2004.

“Protection of strong year classes has typically led to management success in the striped bass fishery,” Waine noted.

Following along the ASFMC process, Waine said when the Board receives the final stock assessment document in February, they will likely request projections from the technical committee to further evaluate how different management options will impact the striped bass stock moving forward. That ultimately will help the Commissioners develop a suite of final options designed to turn SSB numbers back towards an upwards trajectory. Waine also noted there will be plenty of opportunity for interested stakeholders to be involved in that process.

Overall, the preliminary report shows the decline in total biomass of striped bass is far less than the drop in spawning stock biomass. Coupled with the fact that the findings thus far show that mortality has increased on aged 8 and up striped bass while both fishing mortality and abundance of aged 1 and up fish has remained relatively stable coastwide, it might suggest a need for better management measures on larger, spawning class stripers.

“I don’t think the sky is falling on striped bass, not yet,” said Donofrio. “But can they be managed better? Absolutely!”

Despite the recent decline, the stock is still well above the horrifically low SSB numbers experience during the 1980’s stock collapse, a crash which ultimately late to passage of the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act and a coastal moratorium on harvest. The fishery was ultimately reopened in 1990, with the stock declared rebuilt as of 1995.

“In the early 80’s, looking at where striped bass abundance was, the moratorium discussion was reasonable and played a huge part in the recovery,” said Mike Leonard, ASA vice president of government affairs. “But we’re nowhere near where we were in the 80’s, and whatever response comes from management needs to acknowledge the condition of the stock today.”

“We need to keep things in perspective, not to put lipstick on this, but it’s not necessarily doom and gloom,” Leonard added.

So while the coastal run of striped bass throughout The Fisherman Magazine’s region has certainly been less than desirable in recent years, no one should be ringing the “moratorium” bell just yet.

Not yet.