The state of the striped bass

The striped bass was once abundant but overfishing threatened its existence. A controversial issue as to whether the striped bass should be declared a gamefish has arisen due to interests of profiteering commercial fishermen.

As the horrifying crash of America’s coastal fisheries makes daily headlines from Seattle to New York and beyond, the striped bass story is one of very few offering any good news. On the West Coast, Oregon’s striper populations seem at least stable, and though in California the fish is still on a downward spiral, there’s reason to believe that trend might be reversed. And on the Atlantic Coast, where the bass originated and were fished nearly to extinction during the 1970s, populations are gradually recovering some of their once enormous numbers.

Millions of coastal sport fishermen applaud this news, as do the thousands of workers whose jobs depend on these anglers and the communities that benefit from the millions of dollars thin bought into their often depressed economies. There’s other applause, too – a kind of muffled clapping of hands shrouded in gill nets – by a very small but politically powerful number of commercial fishermen who are again eyeing potential profits from striped bass. This has given rise to a rapidly escalating controversy as to whether or not the striped bass should be declared a gamefish throughout its coastal range, rather than only in a few coastal states as is presently the case.

Striped bass have a powerful, almost mystical character that goes to America’s very soul, one that’s been fueling some kind of controversy for more than 300 years. In the summer of 1623, for example, members of the tenuous colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, were able to use their last, leaky, small boat to catch enough stripers near shore to keep themselves well fed into the fall. Striped bass then, as now, were an inshore fish, available to everyone with or without a boat, and their value and the dangers of overfishing soon became obvious. On May 22, 1639, the General Court at Boston issued America’s first fishing regulation: “And it is forbidden to all men. . . to imploy any codd or basse fish for manuring of ground.” Like all good things, striped bass catches were also taxed, helping thereby to build America’s first public school in Massachusetts in 1669.

As America’s industrial revolution milled, dammed, and polluted its way through the nineteenth century, striped bass lost their access to numerous spawning rivers, and along with other anadromous fish such as salmon and shad, suffered widespread declines. But though overfishing and the loss of spawning grounds took their toll on striper numbers, at least some of the dramatic population swings noted by early historians probably occurred naturally.

The best example of how greatly a population can fluctuate occurred in California, where striped bass Were first introduced in 1879. The initial stocking consisted of about 150 New Jersey fingerlings, which were introduced into San Francisco Bay at the mouth of the Sacramento River. Another planting of 300 fingerlings followed in 1882, and within eighteen years the commercial striped bass catch in San Francisco waters hit 1,251,000 pounds. Later, as both sport and commercial fishing grew through the 1920s, larger striped bass became increasingly scarce. In 1935, striped bass became gamefish under California law, and catch limits were set. Those efforts were at least partly successful, and by 1946, the late Kip Farrington was reporting in FIELD & STREAM that 40- and 50-pound California stripers were becoming increasingly common.

Both the early California bass boom and the currently on-going East Coast recovery derive from the immense fecundity of female striped bass. An eight-year-old female, meaning a bass of 32 to 34 inches and about 14 to 18 pounds, will produce about 1.2 million eggs at annual spawning, while a larger and less common old cow bass at fifteen years and about 50 pounds may produce 5 million eggs. A few striped bass weighing as much as 125 pounds were captured by commercial netters in North Carolina’s Roanoke River during the 1890s, and bass dose to that size may be rarely present along the coast even now. In 1986, for example, Maryland hatchery workers in the upper Chesapeake captured and accidentally killed a female that weighed 92 pounds. She was empty of eggs, but would have weighed well over 100 pounds with roe intact. Striped bass spawning takes place in the upper estuarine reaches of major rivers; large females are typically surrounded by a swarm of smaller males, and eggs and malt are ejected simultaneously. The eggs are of neutral density and drift gently in the current, usually hatching into minuscule larvae within 48 hours. The larvae feed on zooplankton, gradually drifting and migrating to nursery areas in the lower estuary, where they quickly become recognizable as juvenile stripers.

Spawning success depends on the weather. A sudden spring flood or cold snap can kill unusual numbers of eggs or larvae outright, or kill or otherwise reduce the zooplankton on which the larvae depend, causing mass starvation. In such cases, that year’s spawning produces relatively few adults. But if conditions are exactly right, spawning success and eventual numbers of adults can be phenomenal, producing a dominant year class. Because female stripers not only produce great quantities of eggs but also live as long as thirty years or more, they have many opportunities to overcome the years when things go wrong.

Left strictly to nature, the good-year, bad-year cycles will average out in time, sustaining a healthy overall population. But when things such as overfishing, pollution, acid rain, and river diversions are added to the mix, the problems magnify. Even the most perfect weather can’t mitigate some situations. According to biologist Lee Miller, the California Delta Water Project’s huge pumps are sucking millions and millions of striped bass eggs and larvae out of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River system, and sending them to federally subsidized cotton fields in the Central Valley. There are fewer adult striped bass in San Francisco Bay every year as a result and while the bass keep spawning, the pumps keep pumping, and the pumps are slowly winning. A recently negotiated settlement between California water authorities and the federal Environmental Protection Agency intended to provide increased Delta water flows for wildlife may help to reverse this trend.

The ability of striper populations to recover, given the chance, and the controversies surrounding the value of these fish are most obvious in the fish’s traditional home, the Atlantic Coast. Striped bass populations crashed here during the 1970s and early ’80s, primarily because of overfishing by increasing numbers of fishermen – both sport and commercial – using gear or tackle that was becoming increasingly efficient. While the enormously productive striper could use its millions of eggs to compensate for vagaries in weather and even, to a degree, the pollution of its estuaries, there was no natural safeguard against relentless slaughter.

It’s important to note that a migrating Chesapeake Bay striper, to use an extreme case, might travel as far as 1,000 miles north in the spring to summer in Canada’s Bay of Fundy, skirting inshore beaches and rocky points en route, then making the reverse trip in the fall. That inshore route takes an individual fish through at least thirteen different political jurisdictions, each of which may have its own fishing rules – an obvious regulatory nightmare.

Partly for that reason and partly because some states just weren’t doing the job, striped bass regulation in the early ’80s fell increasingly to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The ASMFC is formed of member states from Maine to Florida, and in 1984, after several years of toothless plans, finally got Congressional authority to shut down striped bass fisheries in any state refusing to comply with minimum bass regulations set annually by the commission.

Commercial striped bass fishing was generally halted between 1985 and 1989, and sport fishing for stripers was either stopped completely in a few states such as Maryland or limited to one fish daily, with a dramatic minimum size increase also instituted in order to protect future spawning stocks. Things improved immediately. By 1989, striped bass spawning success seemed to be increasing, and the ASMFC decided to relax striped bass restrictions with the 1990 season. Those states that had dosed all seasons (primarily around Chesapeake Bay) resumed not only sport fishing but also commercial fishing on a limited – but now growing – basis. This has fueled arguments coastwide not only about commercial fishing, but also about the wide regional differences in striper catch limits based on fish length. In some so-called “producer” areas – meaning those areas such as the Chesapeake Bay where stripers spawn and where small pre-migratory fish are plentiful – commercial netters and sport fishermen target fish as small as 18 inches, whereas along the coast a 36-inch minimum size has been generally maintained to protect large spawners.

But even that protection of valuable, large females is far from complete. Massachusetts’ commercial striper fishing has been limited to hook-and-line methods since the 1940s, for example, and here during 1994 some 2,100 so-called “sportsmen” used a commercial license costing as little as $45 to specifically target bass of 36 inches and larger for sale in local markets. The commercial season here typically starts on July 1 and runs until the state’s ASMFC-determined quota is reached, which in 1994 was about 238,000 pounds – or roughly 8,000 mature, female bass – in a season that was closed after three and a half weeks according to the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. This provides no more than a little extra money for gas or tackle for a small minority of Massachusetts’ estimated 620,000 marine anglers, while at the same time helping to depress spawning stocks coastwide.

This controversial length-limit difference has been maintained through the ASMFC technical committee’s development of a “Spawning Stock Biomass” (SSB) model. In simple terms, SSB is the total estimated weight of sexually mature females in a population at any given time. The number of eggs typically produced by a female striper at any age and size is well known, and scientists can estimate the number of mature females in an overall population through tagging returns and other information. SSB totals can also be estimated with female age and size.

According to this model, a striper population composed of many small females, each with a million eggs or so, or one with fewer numbers of heavier cows, each with a larger number of eggs, would be approximately the same as far as spawning potential goes.

This is not being treated as a theory. In the spring of 1994 the ASMFC declared that, according to their SSB model, as of January 1, 1995, the Atlantic coastal striped bass population would be fully recovered! This means that their figures show that the total weight of mature females spawning this spring in the Chesapeake will be the same as it was in the early 1970s.

But many local fishermen coastwide say they aren’t seeing as many big stripers as they did years ago. Mark Gibson, a Rhode Island biologist who’s also chairman-elect of ASMFC’s technical committee, answered that argument: “Technically, they’re correct. There are not as many large, old fish around now as there were during the 1960s. But the SSB model is still correct because of the greater number of smaller females now available, and the large old fish are simply a matter of lag time.”

Even as east coast striper populations are apparently recovering, there still aren’t enough fish to go around. For the past few years, for example, Chesapeake fishermen – both sport and commercial – have been allowed to keep bass as small as 18 inches because most of the big coastal-migrant bass are only in the Bay for a few weeks during spring spawning. So to keep the SSB model in “balance” and to assure adequate spawning stocks, the ASMFC has retained a much higher size limit – meaning fewer fish kept – in the coastal states. As a result, Chesapeake fishermen can keep lots of small bass while coastal fishermen can keep a very few large ones, releasing everything under 36 inches in most areas. Because big snipers are less common than small ones; because persistent commercial fishing in states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York removes large numbers of fish from the equation; and because there are now millions of coastal sniper fishermen, the vast majority of coastal anglers aren’t allowed to keep any fish at all!

Coastal fishermen don’t have to get the short end of this stick; at least in theory, because other size-limit combinations could give them more fish while still maintaining healthy spawning stocks. For example, if Maryland raised its size limit from 18 to 24 inches, fewer fish would be killed in Chesapeake Bay. In that case, more bass could be taken along the coast and so the coastal size limit could be lowered – say to 24 inches, also – which would allow many more coastal anglers to keep an occasional striper. The length-limit distinction is pure politics within the ASMFC, where – so far at least – Southern states and commercial interests have managed to keep most of their own size limits low and everyone else’s high.

That may be changing this spring, but not all for the better. The ASMFC is scheduled to adopt in March or April what’s called Amendment Five to its striped bass management plan, which would allow more fish to be caught because fish populations have “recovered.” Part of the package is a length limit change – increasing from 18 to 20 inches in producer areas like Chesapeake Bay, and decreasing from 34 or 36 inches to 28 inches in coastal areas – for sport fishermen during 1995. This means that most East Coast states will be changing their striper rules at the same time, something for which sportsmen should be alert.

The bad news is a simultaneous increase in commercial quotas, as much as triple for some states such as Maryland where netters will soon be taking 7 million pounds or more of striped bass annually and starting with bass as small as 20 inches. And even though coastal size limits will apparently be reduced to 28 inches this year, that’s still larger than the typical striper encountered by shore-based coastal anglers, millions of whom will continue to be shortchanged for the sake of a handful of commercial fishermen. For many sportsmen, that equation makes no sense.

So why should there be commercial fishing for striped bass at all? That’s the inevitable question, and the arguments against it are powerful. In 1993, there were 3.2 ion resident saltwater anglers in the coastal states from Maine to North Carolina, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which conducts annual surveys. An additional million or so nonresidents visited these states to go saltwater fishing during the same year. Most of them fish for stripers, since there’s little else left to fish for.

By the same reckoning, there are no more than 10,000 commercial fishermen in the same region who are legally licensed in some way to take striped bass for sale. Why should this small group be permitted to take fish when severe size-limit restrictions on sport-caught fish often prevent sport fishermen from keeping any fish at all?

That question is especially important because commercial fishing for wild striped bass has an alternative in aqua-culture. According to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) aquaculture office, production of “fish-farmed” striped bass and striper/white bass hybrids (USDA makes no distinction between the two) began to take off with the start of commercial closures on wild fish in 1985. Nationwide figures went from 395,000 pounds in 1987 to 7 million pounds in 1993, with a recent projection for 1994 totaling 8.5 million pounds, all based on producer reports. These figures are already more than the presently allowable commercial catches of wild fish coastwide and would doubtless expand to fill market demands if commercially caught wild fish were not available.

Those same wild fish have a more beneficial economic effect when sought as gamefish. Measured in terms of its impact on regional, state, and national economies, the total dollar effect of a sport-caught striped bass can be as much as twenty times that of the same fish caught commercially. For example, during the 1990 re-opening of Maryland’s sport and commercial fisheries, resource economists from the Sport Fishing Institute (SFI) surveyed both sport fishermen’s spending and the market value of commercial landings. Both sample groups had been allocated identical striped bass quotas in pounds. By SFI’s calculations, the overall “ripple” or multiplier effect of sport-caught bass during Maryland’s 1990 Chesapeake season was $22.3 million while the effect generated by an identical commercial catch was only $1.1 million. The sport-caught numbers don’t include charter-boat activity, which would make the difference even greater.

But these clear economic differences don’t necessarily influence policy. The best example of the ongoing mind-set in favor of maintaining the commercial fishery is Maryland, where the annual striped bass quota for the state as set by the ASMFC has been divided equally between sport and commercial interests, with the state’s charter-boat fleet getting a minor share. This allocation, which was made by the state’s Tidewater Administration, gives “equal” shares in total pounds of bass to about 450,000 Maryland sport fishermen on the one hand and about 1,500 Maryland commercial watermen on the other.

William “Pete” Jensen, who has been Maryland’s Tidewater fisheries chief for nine years, explained his reasoning when I asked why there should be a commercial fishery for stripers at all. “It’s a public resource,” he said, “and a commercial fisherman is no less a citizen of a state than a recreational fisherman. I personally have heard no compelling arguments why having striped bass be a gamefish is any better or worse than the situation we have if we can control it. The position I take is that we have controlled it. The commercial fishery is very much under control. It’s not out of bounds. It’s not doing anybody any harm.”

Maryland’s commercial bass fishery, is intensely regulated. The number of striped bass gill net permits has been capped by law at 1,280 – each with a strict daily limit and short season. These account for nearly all the state’s commercial take. But because a waterman in Maryland can net 150 pounds of stripers as small as 18 inches a day, present ASMFC allocation rules then limit a north-coastal sport fisherman to only one fish greater than 36 inches a day. Consequently, most coastal anglers can bring home none.

Maryland’s watermen, estimated at 6,000 to 10,000 people, may be a dying breed simply because populations of oysters, clams, crabs, shad, and striped bass that once formed their year-round chain of income have collapsed, are increasingly restricted, or both. I asked Larry Simms, president of the Maryland Waterman’s Association, about their current, bottom-line view of commercial striped bass fishing.

“We don’t want all the fish for ourselves,” Simms told me over coffee at Pasta Plus, a Chesapeake fishermen’s breakfast joint. “We think that with all the groups working together, with the fish restored, there’s enough fish there for everybody. We would like to see all the user groups stop fighting one another and fight for the fish. We’ve always had open arms for the sport fishermen and the charterboat operators because we see what they do for the economy. But they just take this narrow view that they want all the striped bass for themselves and just want to eliminate us.”

Larry Simms is an astute politician and a master lobbyist in Maryland’s Legislature. The watermen’s survival seems to depend on a political clout far in excess of their actual numbers. I asked Bill Goldsborough, whose family settled on Maryland’s eastern shore over 300 years ago and who’s now an ecologist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a large environmental group, if he could explain it. He pointed out that the bay itself – and hence the watermen – are an enormous part of Maryland’s cultural tradition:

“Look at the Maryland state seal. It’s got a shield with an individual standing on each side. One is a farmer; the other is a waterman holding a fish, and the fish has stripes!”

Maryland’s commercial traditions are joined by Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina, all of which continue catching stripers for sale, benefiting a few commercial fishermen at the expense of a public resource and even though aquaculture fish are widely available as an alternative. Other East Coast states with migratory stocks have already made stripers a gamefish, along with California and Oregon. As eastern striper populations are slowly increasing, more and more sportsmen are realizing that now is the time to demand an end to this cycle of overexploitation.


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