Weakfish & Striped Bass Public Hearings

by Tom Fote

(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association October 2002 Newsletter)


In the next four weeks there will be public hearings on weakfish and striped bass.  I find it interesting that both of the proposed amendments are designed to further restrict the recreational sector while increasing the commercial catch.  I would consider that normal if the proposals came from commercial fishermen.  However, these proposals are being driven by groups or individuals that want to catch and release big fish immediately.  The only way they can imagine this big fish availability is by further restricting those recreational anglers who would like to catch a fish for personal consumption.  I think some of them naively believe that this is the best thing to do.  But their lack of information about the system creates proposals that are well intentioned but flawed.  There are others whose motives are less clear and who should know better.  The state directors have thoroughly embraced this restrictive philosophy on the recreational sector even for stocks that are rebuilt or are in very good shape.  This allows them to be less restrictive on the commercial side and provide this sector with substantial increases.  All you have to do is look at bluefish and see how that scenario has played out during the past seven years. 


If you really study the models you realize that it will take time for the "big" fish to be available.  Further restrictions on the recreational sector will have only a minimal impact on this process if it was done in a vacuum.  If you consider the impact of greater hook and release mortality because people will have to catch and release more fish before they land one large enough to keep and the impact of transferring some of the same mortality to the commercial sector, the gains overall will be negligible.  The impact on the subsistence anglers, however, is immense and immediate.  They will have less opportunity to take home a fish to eat on a public resource that is renewable and in good shape.  They pay the price because someone else wants to catch and release big fish.  They pay the biggest price and, because the big fish are unlikely to appear in the bays and estuaries, off the docks and jetties where they fish, they are the least likely to ever see these big fish.  All you have to do is look at the statistics for the catch of larger fish.  They are concentrated in Massachusetts with Rhode Island and New York distantly behind. 


As a boy I took buses so I could fish from the docks and piers in Brooklyn.  I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with people from all walks of life.  Many of them were poor and were fishing with old equipment and very basic tackle.  They were enjoying the recreation but clearly had the intention of a fish for dinner to supplement their family's diet.  I cannot in good conscience allow the system to cut these people out of any fishery just because they don't have the time or the resources to impact the system.  One of the reasons I have always volunteered my time for Jersey Coast is because we have clearly considered these anglers in every decision we make.  Although some of us only catch and release or take only a few fish for our personal consumption, we all recognize our responsibility to the entire recreational community.  We want to be fair to all of our anglers.  We don't care if they show up at meetings or send big checks.  


Below I have included an article about where the big fish are, which was originally printed in our April Newspaper.  However, I think it is worth reading again with the hearing coming up. 


The hearing dates are included in other articles in this newspaper.  I hope you will find the time to attend the hearings and make your opinions known. 


Missing: Big & Old Striped Bass


It seems at every meeting of the ASFMC and in some articles I hear the same complaint, "Where are the older striped bass?"  We are now discussing more restrictions on striped bass because the perception is that there are few large striped bass available.  Were there more 50 pound striped bass in the early 70's?  Most of us would say yes.  But I think we need to review what has happened in the past 30 years in striped bass management to see why there are not a lot of bass over 20 years old now.


In the late 70's we recognized that the striped bass stocks were not as robust as in previous years and there was fear of a stock collapse.  In 1982 we saw a healthy year class.  In order to protect this class new regulations were implemented in 1984.  These regulations were designed to protect the 1982-year class until it spawned at least once.  Beginning in 1984 we raised the size limit routinely to protect those fish as they matured.  All the striped bass harvested after 1984 were fish that had spawned before 1981.  Remember, the young of the year index for years before 1981 were the ones that were very low.  But because of management decisions those were the fish that we were harvesting.  Some states put moratoriums in for a period of time while other states remained open.  For example, Massachusetts sent about 100,000 pounds of striped bass to market each year until 1991 when the fishery was reopened.  In 1989 we had a good young of the year index.  That was the reason the fishery was opened in 1991. We allowed for the harvest of 18 inch fish in the bay and 28 inch fish along the coast.  States with the largest amount of coastal harvest decided not to go to 28 inches and remained at the higher size limit thereby limiting the catch to older fish.  This means that a majority of the coastal stocks harvested prior to 1995 were older fish.  I estimate most of these fish were pre-1981.  Right now in Massachusetts the largest coastal commercial catch is still targeting older fish, 34 inch or larger. 


Let's take a look at the years when we had good spawning in the Chesapeake Bay.  The years in question are 1982, 1989 and 1993.    In 2001 the oldest fish from the good years  were currently 20 years old. The class of '89 is 12 years old and the class of '93 is 8 years old.  The classes before 1981, which were small class years, have been fished heavily every year.  That is why I am not surprised that we are finding few fish over 20 years old.  Since we reopened the fishery in 1991, our main source of striped bass for consumption along the coast has been the 1982 class.  It is no wonder we are not seeing a lot of fish from that class year anymore. 


What further complicates the whole issue is what has happened in Virginia since 1997.  At a recent ASMFC Striped Bass Board Meeting, we learned that Virginia was circumventing the process.  Their quota is divided into two parts.  The first, which is on pre-migratory fish, is part of the Chesapeake Bay total quota.  A model that is designed to show how many pre-migratory striped bass Virginia, Maryland and  the Potomac River can harvest in any given year determines this quota.  It is based on the mortality of these fish in Chesapeake Bay.  The other quota is for the ocean.  This quota has been at 95,000 pounds.  This quota is on migratory fish, older fish and bigger fish.  Virginia changed their tagging system for reporting commercial fish and allowed for the transfer of these tags.  They did not discriminate between coastal stocks and the Chesapeake Bay.  This has resulted in a commercial catch that has greatly overfished their quota in the ocean.  Instead of 95,000 pounds, they may have caught up to 890,000 pounds along the coast.  This catch is primarily 20 - 30 pound fish that are wintering over and are mixed stocks.  That is larger than any commercial catch in any other state along the coast.  One of the Virginia representatives was amazed that we were upset over the catch of approximately 50,000 fish over 20 pounds and from mixed stocks.  This affects the coastal stocks.  It also allows for a larger quota for the Chesapeake Bay harvest since the switch to a larger coast catch has an impact on the mortality figures in the bay.  We have always had concerns about the models for the Chesapeake Bay.  Now we need to be concerned not only about the models but also about the integrity of the information the models are based on. 


I cannot imagine how many large striped bass were killed in the spiny dog fishery.  This fishery used the right size mesh and were located where the big bass were.  If you are wondering what has happened to the big fish these are some of the reasons.  It is not surprising that we find fewer big fish.  Given these circumstances, it is surprising there are any big fish at all left from before 1981.  We will not see any 25-year old fish from the 1982-year class until 2007.  We will not see any 25-year old fish from the 1989-year class until 2014.  And I am really looking forward to catching and releasing those 25-year old fish from the 1993 class year in 2018.  God willing!


Management decisions can help produce larger, older year classes.  But that takes time. When you are looking at the decisions we need to make, please consider all of this information.  Rhetoric and emotion are not always productive when these kinds of decisions need to be made.