Striped Bass: Where Are We Headed

by Tom Fote
(reprinted from March Newsletter)
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association September 2019 Newsletter)

There will be some interesting decisions made on the management of striped bass in the near future. The reason the regulations will be up for discussion is the most recent benchmark stock assessment. Because of the recent government shutdown, the document we discussed at the winter meeting of ASMFC was not the final version. But the draft document stated that we were exceeding the reference points on where the spawning stocks should be. This is after all the states took a 25% reduction a few years ago. Basically, the stock assessment says that the current regulations are not rebuilding the striped bass stocks to the base year of 1995 and that we are overfished and overfishing is taking place. The striped bass management plan calls for us to take action. Before we make these decisions, there is important information everyone should have.

My History with Striped Bass

First, my history with striped bass dates to my childhood. I fished in Brooklyn on piers and occasionally on a party boat with my father. My real introduction to striped bass fishing was on the beaches of Coney Island. One day I saw an angler who had caught a striped bass on the jetty fishing overnight. That is when I became passionate about catching a striped bass. My fishing was interrupted when I went into the army in 1966 and didnít begin again until I was in the hospital at Fort Dix in 1970. While recovering, my therapy was fishing. The first thing I did when I came home from the hospital was a party boat trip with my father fishing for bluefish.

In 1970 my then girlfriend who is now my wife of 44 years took me to Island Beach State Park to surf fish. A family friend introduced me to the Berkeley Striper Club (BSC) and I became a member in 1972. Since I had free time due to my medical retirement from the service, I was asked to start attending meetings on striped bass. I was lucky enough to meet people like Bob Pond who started Atom Lures. He was volunteering his time to go to clubs from Maine to North Carolina explaining that striped bass was in trouble. I was not a fluke fisherman, a tautog fisherman, a black sea bass fisherman. I fished for striped bass and bluefish. In this period of time, there was much discussion about the collapse of the Chesapeake striped bass stocks. In 1983 BSC asked me to represent them at JCAA. From 1983 to 1987 there was an ongoing discussion at JCAA about whether or not to work to make striped bass a no-sale fish in New Jersey alone or work on the coastwide no-sale.

When I became vice-president, after much discussion, JCAA voted to support NJ Senator Lou Bassanoís bill to make striped bass a no-sale fish in New Jersey. It is important to know who was selling fish in NJ at that time. Many of the hard-core striped bass fishermen who belonged to clubs in that era were what we call ďpin hookersĒ. They were selling most of their catch to pay for their fishing passion. New Jerseyís law was one of the strictest along the coast. We had one of the highest size limits and we were the only state that had a bag limit on the number of striped bass you could keep. There was no net fishery so it was all hook and line. At that time I was recreationally fishing almost 200 days a year and bicycling 6000 miles a year. When JCAA voted to support passage of the bill, I took on the responsibility for passage of the bill. I was naÔve. I really did not know about state or federal politics. I knew how the management of striped bass and the agencies for their management worked since I started attending meetings for BSC and JCAA. As fishing had been my passion, now getting this bill passed was my passion. JCAA lost 5 of the original founding clubs of JCAA since their members sold fish and they would not support no-sale. I visited almost every club in NJ and began visiting coastwide clubs seeking their support. In the 70ís I actually belonged to Save Our Stripers in NY which was also pursuing no-sale. This battle changed the course of my life. I started going to ASMFC meetings and learned I had no respect for how they were managing striped bass or how the board was controlled. Even as a Governorís or Legislative Appointee, you were not allowed to sit on a management board. The management board for striped bass had representatives from only 5 states, consisting mainly of the states with a large commercial fishery, NY, Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. JCAA started sending me to ASMFC meetings to represent our interests. I built friendships with people at the meetings from other states who shared my passion for the protection of striped bass and, in some instances, for making striped bass a no-sale fish.

Three years of my life was spent on the NJ legislation, going to hearings, meeting with politicians and clubs. Iím a fast learner and I had some good teachers. The culmination was in 1991 at a JCAA meeting at the Jersey Coast Shark Anglers building when Governor Florio signed the striped bass no-sale bill with Senator Lou Bassano on one side and Assemblyman John Paul Doyle on the other; the bill that people said I could not get passed. When you are in my house you see a copy of the bill, a pen from the signing and a picture from that night prominently displayed. I felt that was my first accomplishment for JCAA and our member clubs. We went from 36 clubs to 100 clubs which included clubs from Maine to North Carolina, all wanting to work on coastwide no-sale. JCAA was so passionate about promoting catch and release that when we started the Governorís Surfing Tournament we had judges riding the beach so people could catch and release any fish they caught. We only measured the length and that is still how it works 25 years later.

It is important for me to explain my philosophy for supporting making striped bass a no-sale fish. Striped bass along the coast was mainly a recreational caught fish. Outside of the Chesapeake Bay the commercial market was largely made up of a hook and line fishery. In NJ and Massachusetts, the commercial catch of striped bass was totally a hook and line fishery, mainly made up of recreational anglers selling their catch. People supported striped bass no-sale for different reasons. Some want all fish to be catch and release. Some wanted an abundant fishery for everyone to have the opportunity to land one of the biggest fish from the surf. My feeling was it was the only game fish we could protect that so everyone could harvest, rich or poor. Some of the best striped bass fishermen I know fish with gear that is not expensive. They repaint their plugs and reuse everything and they are some of the best striped bass anglers. Because I grew up fishing on party and charter boats, I realized anglers took home fish to feed their families. I felt that if we eliminated the commercial sale of striped bass there would be enough fish to provide the all recreational anglers with a quality fishery. Recreationally, I have always understood both the catch and release community and the catch-for-dinner community. The overriding factor is that this needs to be a sustainable fishery with large enough numbers that it can be a quality fishery for all sectors. Striped bass has gotten me involved in ocean dumping, water protection, renewable energy, endocrine disruptors and many other areas. It has changed my life as it has for many other anglers.

1995 Regulations

To understand todayís discussion, you need to understand the regulations that were put in place in 1995. I have been at the striped bass board meetings since 1986. At that time the public was not allowed to ask questions and neither were ASMFC Commissioners who were not state directors. In 1989 the discussions began about how to re-open the fishery since many of the states along the east coast had a total moratorium on fishing for striped bass but the stocks had begun rebuilding. The 1989 year class was one of the best in striped bass history and pushed the 3-year average high enough to allow for the resumption of the fishery. During the discussions at the striped bass board meeting and with the advice of the technical committee, the board debated all day long about whether or not to open the fishery with 2 fish at 24 inches in the Chesapeake Bay and 2 fish at 34 inches along the coast recreationally and with the same size limit commercially with quotas. Before the board broke at 9:30 PM the audience was asked for comment. I was pushed to speak for the audience and asked the board for an opportunity to speak before the vote the following day. The board agreed and we went to sleep. The next day they opened the meeting at 8:30, made a motion to open the fishery at 18 inches in Chesapeake Bay and 28 inches along the coast. That motion was passed in 45 minutes without public comment. At 1:00 they asked for our comments and I was again the spokesperson. I said, ďYou donít give a damn what we have to say but you will in the future.Ē

Because of that board meeting the community was excited to be more involved and began attending more striped bass meetings. There were no longer 5 or 6 of us in the audience but more often 30 or 40. The ASMFC commissioners began hearing from the recreational anglers and the process began to open. By the time the 1995 amendment was being drafted, the recreational sector along the coast had developed a stronger voice. There were not only ASMFC commissioners from the states who were speaking at board meetings. The 1995 amendment was an example of our participation. It was designed to have a quality fishery and the base year was the year that we declared the fishery recovered, the highest point we had seen since we started the striped bass emergency act in the early 80ís. The referent points, unlike other fisheries, were made more precautionary. I was one of the three NJ ASMFC Commissioners making those striped bass management decisions.

In 1995 the participation in the striped bass fishery was different than it is now along the coast. But so was every other fishery. It is important to understand what was happening in 1995. We were still benefitting from the large number of big striped bass that were protected during the moratorium that was in place from the 80ís through the early 90ís. Many of the states had not opened the fishery to 2 fish at 28 inches along the coast and put in seasons that were more conservative than required. There was also a smaller group of anglers. Most striped bass fishermen were like me, we didnít talk about catching fluke, black sea bass or tautog. Our 24/7 talk was about striped bass fishing. The seasons were open all year for black sea bass, fluke, scup and tautog. Summer flounder had a 10 fish bag at 14 inch size limit and no closed season. Most of the people I fished with or knew didnít like striped bass for dinner and fished for other species for food. There were not as many striper fishermen in general, even fewer who were taking striped bass home to eat. That was part of the big increase in the number of private, party and charter boats targeting striped bass. The 1995 amendment was good based on the era for which it was written. It allowed for a fantastic fishery on big fish throughout the 90ís and into the early 2000ís.

The New Fisheries in the 2000ís

Because of the concerns of the MidAtlantic Fisheries Management Council and ASMFC, there was a dramatic change in the way we manage fisheries jointly. We kept raising size limits and shortening seasons and cutting bag limits. Anglers who fished for their tables had fewer opportunities to bring fish home. There were periods of time that striped bass and bluefish were the only fisheries without closed seasons. Anglers discovered they were spending a great deal of time, effort and money with little to show for it if their target was fluke, black sea bass or tautog. So it was the natural move for many private, party and charter boats moving into the striped fishery, especially since it was open year-round. The abundance allowed for novices to meet with success. All you had to do was snag a bunker and you were a striped bass fisherman. The pressure on the striped bass population resulted in fewer trophy fish being caught. In the 90ís the hook and release mortality rate was greater than the number of fish we were taking home to eat. By the 2000ís we began putting more pressure on the stocks. Because people were taking more fish home to eat and the hook and release mortality increased because more fish were being hooked and released, the stocks actually began to change and there were fewer big fish available. This is the natural progression for a recovered fishery. The question is whether or not this is sustainable.

Hook and release mortality has always played a big role in the striped bass stocks. In 2017 and 2018 the hook and release mortality exceeded the number of fish anglers were taking home to eat. The catch and release fishermen generally turn a deaf ear when we talk about catch and release mortality, denying they contribute to the problem with the stocks. In the late 90ís a friend of mine from NY, one of the leading striped bass conservationists, and I were having a discussion about striped bass management. We were discussing the two fish bag limit allowed to charter boats in NY. Since he had become a catch and release fisherman after many years of fishing, he thought they should only be allowed a one fish bag limit even though at that time there was no problem with the stock. I suggested he consider the angler who took two fish home. This angler may make 5 trips a year on a charter boat. If the angler is lucky enough, he/she kills 10 fish to take home to eat. The angler probably caught and released a few other fish on those 5 trips. We agreed the angler releases 30 fish on those trips. With 8% mortality, the angler has killed 2.4 fish in his releases for an estimated total of 13 striped bass he/she killed that year. The catch and release angler who was fishing almost every day, lands hundreds of fish in a season. I suggested that once this angler catches 160 fish, he/she should stop because the catch and release morality is 12.8 fish. Since a dead fish is a dead fish no matter if it is a catch and release or kept fish. The angler on the charter boat is more likely to be using heavier tackle, fishing in the spring and fall when the water is cold and in saltwater. These factors lower the catch and release mortality. The higher the water temperature, the greater the catch and release mortality. The lower the salinity of the water, the greater the hook and release mortality. A study by Maryland showed the higher the air temperature, the greater the hook and release mortality. So the year-round angler probably has a higher hook and release mortality due to the climate issues since he is fishing a lot more. For example, if you are fishing in a river where the water is fresh or brackish, the water temperature is high, the air temperature is high and you are using light tackle so the fight is longer, the catch and release mortality is extremely high. The studies again prove this is true. Catch and release anglers need to consider these factors before they blame other anglers who take a few fish a year for the table for problems with the stocks. We each need to put ourselves in otherís shoes before we condemn them and put our own homes in order.

Where Are We Now

We have a striped bass fishery that has expanded. Unlike the 90ís striped bass is important to the party and charter boats. It has also grown increasingly important to all the private owners who cannot fish for fluke, tautog or black sea bass in closed seasons or with the increasing size limits. The science tells us that the present spawning stock biomass is more than high enough to produce the highest young of the year in Chesapeake Bay. In spite of the skepticism I received when I said the spawning stock biomass was high enough to produce the highest young of the year when we were discussing the last addendum, the facts proved I was correct. The 2011 year class was the 4th highest in history of the young of the year. The 2015 year class was the 8th highest in the young of the year index in the over 70 year history. The hook and release mortality was going down but has increased in the last few years. It is also a fact that we are never returning to the way the recreational fishery operated in 1995 or the 2000ís. This is the first benchmark stock assessment in which we are using the adjusted recreational catch numbers which show an increase in both catch and participation from the methods we historically used.

There are also things that are affecting fish populations that have nothing to do with fishing pressure. The water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and the warming of the waters inside the bay and elsewhere are just two of them. Then there is added pressure on the harvest of the forage species that striped bass count on. NJ beach replenishment has impacted many species. I can list many more but these are things that we cannot control through fisheries management.

Management Choices

The ASMFC will be focusing its attention on what we do in either a new addendum or amendment. What we decide will have a huge impact on the recreational fishing industry, the anglers and the states. These decisions should be made thoughtfully and deliberately. They need to include all stakeholders and look at the long-term consequences on what we do. All options should be on the table and be discussed with the general public. In the mission statement of ASMFC it states that we are managing fisheries to be sustainable. That means different things to different people. Below I am listing some of the options that are available to us. I have not taken a position on any option at this time since I need more information and a discussion about the long-term impact of each of the options on the fishing community. There are more that may come up for discussion.

  1. Season closures Ė We could close the fishery when the highest hook and release mortality takes place.
  2. Size limits Ė We could raise the size limits though that might raise the hook and release mortality as anglers continue to fish until a legal fish is caught.
  3. Education Ė We could work with anglers to lower the hook and release mortality.
  4. Research on poaching Ė We need a better handle on the amount of poaching and better law enforcement especially in areas like Raritan Bay and the EEZ.
  5. Changed reference points Ė This could allow us to continue fishing as we do now since we would identify the stock as sustainable at a lower number.
  6. A combination of options or others now mentioned here

The Impossible Dream

It might be easier to get 10 striped bass together to agree on management issues than to get 10 striped bass fishermen to agree. I am always an optimist and realize that compromise is essential to deal with the needs of many. All of us are going to have to give a little to make this work. No one will be totally satisfied. I havenít dedicated 40 years of my life to striped bass management to give up now. But I am also not going to manage this fishery for just one sector of the recreational community. I have not been paid by anyone or any group in all the years I been doing these many jobs. Since I am a 100% disabled veteran and retired military officer, I did not need to get paid. I always have seen this as continuing my service.

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