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PLAYING THE SLOTS

With reductions in striped bass harvest on the horizon, one option being thrown around is a slot limit; but how would that work and what might be implemented?
By Toby Lapinski
PLAYING THE SLOTS
With a slot limit enacted to promote healthy, breeding-class striped bass, specimens like this mid-40-incher would be protected.

When the subject of fish management comes up, whether the species being discussed is striped bass, fluke or whatever the flavor of the day is, many often turn to the concept of a slot limit as a way to help rebuild the species. From there I see rather arbitrary numbers thrown around in which different user groups would support, but often there is little science behind the numbers to back them up and instead the suggestions are based upon what would benefit said user group the most. Unfortunately, it’s the “science” in which the managers usually fall back upon when making decisions. Well, at least that is what they say motivates their actions.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a slot limit is a method of fishery management which regulates the size of a fish for legal harvest within a determined length range, or “slot.” Fish which fall below or over the range must be released, while fish that fall within the range are eligible for harvest. There is also a “protected slot limit” in which any fish that fall within a certain length range must be released, while those that fall outside the range would be eligible for harvest. Depending on the intended result, fisheries managers have used the slot limit and the protected slot limit at different times on different species.

One of several species commonly used to support the concept that a slot limit would work on striped bass, for example, is the redfish/red drum fishery in Florida. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), “In the late 1980s red drum was overfished, thus several emergency closures were established to reduce fishing pressure. In 1989, the slot limit of 18-27 inches, the bag limit of one fish per person and a closed season from March-May were put in place. Red drum stocks have rebounded and are currently meeting or exceeding the FWC's management goal of 40% escapement in most parts of Florida. Escapement is the proportion of fish that survive through age four relative to the fish that would have survived if there was no fishery.”

I am somewhat familiar with the success of the slot limit on the Florida red drum, but I never knew the story of how it came to be. Well, while in Orlando in early July 2018 at ICAST, I had the good fortune to be able to spend some time talking to several local captains who had fished through the lean years of red drum. My primary goal of our conversations was to figure out if and how what they did could be applied to our beloved striped bass in the Northeast. Knowing there has to be some science behind the numbers, I asked how the slot was determined.

Well, as it turns out, redfish generally begin spawning when they reach 26 inches in length, roughly the same length at which they make a move from primarily inshore waters to those further offshore. By setting the maximum harvest length at 27 inches for redfish, the spawning stock is protected. Sure the fish might be harvested prior to reaching spawning size, but any fish which are successful in dodging an army of hooks and nets to reach spawning size can basically do so moving forward free of any unnatural harvest.

So applying all of this to striped bass, we would need to look at minimum lengths for reproduction to begin the discussion. It is also good to note that almost all striped bass in excess of 40 inches are females, and it is well-documented that when the end goal is species recovery, it is best to remove the males and leave the females, so first and foremost leaving all fish in excess of 40 inches in the population at large is a good thing by this logic. The science behind this concept is that it only takes one male to fertilize many females so by reducing the male population you do little to hurt reproduction. Further, as a striped bass gets larger, so does its fecundity (ability to produce eggs.) For example, a 12-pound female can produce in the range of 850,000 eggs while a 55-pounder can produce about 4,200,000 eggs. Now where there enters some discussion and debate is to the viability of those eggs on the larger fish, but to the best of my knowledge no such definitive data exists at this time.

Striped bass reach sexual maturity somewhere between age 4 and 8, and that age range equates to a fish of anywhere from 21 to 32 inches long. So by applying the same concept as seemed to work on redfish, one would assume that we would need to protect striped bass in excess of 32 inches on the high end. If you look at the way today’s regulations are set up along the ocean (outside of the Chesapeake Bay), we basically do the exact opposite of this in that harvest is prohibited on fish below 28 inches, smack dab inside the range of when they reach sexual maturity which means we basically ONLY harvest sexually-mature fish. Further, with the emphasis on taking the largest fish possible by tournaments and egos alike, we are further targeting the large females of the species. This all seems counter-productive to ensuring a healthy, robust and self-sufficient stock. Is it any wonder why the striped bass population is in as poor of a state as it is?

So where might this lead us? Now I am only throwing ideas out there, but if we were to take the redfish as an example of a similar species’ success story, then anglers would have to be willing to accept a slot limit somewhere in the range of 16 to 24 inches (somewhat arbitrary numbers but it falls inside the range as outlined above.) To be honest I’d be somewhat surprised if anything like this ever comes to fruition in my lifetime, but I can’t say that I’d be opposed to it, either. We must all put aside our own personal feelings and short-term gains and put what might truly be best for striped bass first, for once, if we hope to have a fruitful and plentiful fishery for generations to come.

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