The annual young of the year (YOY) survey results are in, and, well, they are not great, but they’re not that bad either. (See this month’s new briefs section for details.) Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the end all, be all of the future of striped bass that some make it out to be when the survey comes in overly high or low, but it is an indicator of the potential of future fish stocks. A great reproduction year can easily be wiped clean by an almost innumerable amount of natural and man-made obstacles, but it is a start. Conversely, a low reproduction year can be corrected when the planets align and things go right for those little fish for several consecutive years of their growth and development.Each year several coastal Atlantic states conduct seine surveys in their waters for a variety of fish species. When tracked from year-to-year, we get a good idea of how successful or unsuccessful the year-class will be. The idea here is that you begin each year with a finite amount of fish in the sea, and from there the population base can be estimated.
The most popular, or at least the most commonly referenced survey when it comes to striped bass, is the one conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries Service. This year’s Maryland DNR YOY index came in at 14.8. This is a little bit above the 65-year average of 11.8; it follows last year’s above-average index of 13.2 in 2017 and an abysmal index of 2.2 in 2016. In 2015, the second-highest index ever recorded—a whopping 24.2—had anglers up and down the coast rejoicing the fish Gods—oh how fleeting those cries of joy turned out to be the following year. What this shows is that year-to-year things can fluctuate, sometimes doing so quite wildly. Many factors go into the results including warm winters and dry springs. And while those conducting the survey do a good job of including a wide sampling, there is simply the factor of chance which weighs-in on the results—it’s a cloudy science by any extent of the imagination.
So where does this put us, now? Another decent year of striped bass reproduction is a positive thing, but unless we take steps to protect these fish up to and into breeding capacity, it is all but worthless. As reported almost too regularly, there are groups up and down the coast looking to harvest more, not fewer, striped bass. In February 2017, the Striped Bass Advisory Board to the ASMFC initiated the development of Draft Addendum V to consider liberalizing coastwide commercial and recreational regulations. This was done in response to concerns raised by Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions regarding continued economic hardship endured by its stakeholders since the implementation of Addendum IV. Fortunately for the striped bass, the Board did not advance the draft at that time, choosing instead to wait until it reviews the results of the 2018 benchmark stock assessment before making changes to the management program. More recently, in early February 2018, the ASMFC approved a Conservation Equivalency Proposal for Maryland to liberalize its recreational striped bass fishery in the Chesapeake, which decreased the minimum size limit on striped bass from 20 inches to 19 inches on their 2-fish bag limit. This targets those solid year-classes from a few years ago, which are now on the move, migrating up the coast, and essentially kills them off before being given a chance to reproduce.
Then later in February this year, it was announced that cuts in the Federal budget were going to eliminate the enforcement of the prohibition of targeting striped bass in Federal waters around Block Island, RI by NOAA Fisheries and the Coast Guard. This essentially made a no-enforcement zone of illegal fishing for striped bass. And then most recently is a proposal on the books right now to open up part of the EEZ off Block Island to striped bass fishing. This will target primarily large, breeder-class fish that are known to summer in the EEZ. I covered this subject extensively in my Editor’s Log in the November issue, so I won’t re-hash things here today, but I recommend you give it a look if you happened to gloss over it last month. We will see where things end up this off-season as there is a lot going against our friend the striped bass. Be sure to check back here as well as at www.TheFisherman.com for any and all breaking news and updates.