In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the history of striped bass management, what went wrong, how we ended up with an overfished stock, and the missed opportunities that could have prevented that from happening.

In Part 2, we’ll look at the direction we believe managers should take moving forward, and what it would require to truly rebuild the striped bass stock.

First though, let’s get some of the prevalent misconceptions out of the way. 

No, it’s not time for another moratorium  

Yes, the stock is overfished, and overfishing is occurring.  Many anglers up and down the coast have experienced a spectacular loss of access to fish that, for a long time, were consistently, well, there at certain times of the year.  We should note here that such a loss has been very pronounced to surfcasters (those that fish from the beach), one of the most historically relevant, culturally and economically important parts of the striped bass fishery.  That is a shame to say the least, and we can certainly understand where the calls for another moratorium are coming from. 

But, we are not in the same place we were back in the mid-70s/early 80s, when moratoria was absolutely justified.  Back then we had a real recruitment overfishing problem.  Too many fish were getting killed before they could spawn.  Managers fixed that, not simply with moratoria, but with a high size limit back then that allowed 95% of fish to spawn before fishermen were allowed to kill them.   The 28” limit (in most states) we ended up with after Amendment 5 ensures that at least 50% of the fish spawn.  The lack of productivity and the poor recruitment we had from the early 70s to the late 80s? Well, we’re in a considerably better place now than we were then. 

Yes, there’s been a precipitous decline in abundance and availability since around 2012.  That’s pretty much when the good fishing on the last of the dominant year classes (the 2003s) ended.  Those fish had fully recruited by then and subsequently had gotten hammered, and there wasn’t much behind them.  But looking at current recruitment and the juvenile young of the year indices, particularly the dominant 2011 and 2015 year classes, and two smaller, but relatively strong year classes in 2017 and 2018, while we’re not in a great place, we’re not in a catastrophic one either. 

Gamefish is not the answer 

It is easy to point the figure at the guys with the nets, or just those folks who use hook and line and legally sell fish.  Seems like they kill an awful lot.  And for sure, there are discard and high-grading issues in those fisheries.  But the reality is that anglers are responsible for the lion’s share of the fishing mortality.   

While it varies from year to year, recreational fishing accounted for 90% of the fishing mortality in 2017, the final year of the latest stock assessment.  That’s a hard pill to swallow for a lot of people, but it’s true.  I know, some readers are thinking, well, the data is wrong, because “I know what I see”.  But while there may some uncertainty in the recreational estimate, the commercial landings number is dead on.  Commercial fisheries are monitored pretty much in real time.  Every legally-landed fish s accounted for with some sort of state-based monitoring system.  ASMFC of course monitors all the states’ commercial landings, and if there are overages, then the states that overfish need to pay them back in the following year. 

The recreational fishery, on the other hand, is managed by size and bag limits.  There are no effort controls in place, other than seasons in some states, most of which aren’t terribly effective in constraining effort.  With the striped bass resurgence in the 90s, the number of anglers targeting striped bass grew exponentially.  So, while each angler isn’t killing a huge amount of fish, all of us together certainly are. 

Yes, there is likely a very significant unaccounted for poaching issue that isn’t figured into any of this.  But even if we could put a real number on it, it would still likely pale in comparison to recreational fishing mortality—and we always need to remember that a lot of the people who are illegally selling fish claim to be recreational fishermen. 

We understand the theoretical argument that management attitudes might change if it were to become a no-sale fish.  That emphasis would supposedly shift to a “quality fishery” rather than one based on extraction.  But I’m not so sure I believe that.  The truth is that while a lot (most?) of the anglers who target striped bass are inherent sportsmen and conservationists, it’s pretty clear that there’s a small but loud group of folks who are not.  And, while we hate to admit it, when a few of those guys show up at a hearing or a meeting and say that any conservation measure will put them out of business, well they seem to drive the discussion.  So really, it’s hard for me to believe gamefish would change much—it would likely result in relaxed recreational regulations, and more fish killed by the recreational side.  And, well, it’s politically impossible right now, so it’s not relevant here in any case. 

The truth is we don’t care who gets to kill the fish, so long as the resource is managed conservatively, for “abundance”.  Such abundance creates opportunity, which in turn drives participation, and guys like us book charters and guys like Craig Cantelmo (from Van Staal) sell reels. 

Slot limits?  Probably not the answer

We get it.  Leave more of the big spawners in the water, you’ll have a larger female spawning stock biomass that will produce more eggs, which will produce more young-of-the-year etc. 

It should be clear to most, however, that you can’t get that if you kill too many stripers before they grow old enough to spawn, which is essentially what we’d be doing if we put in place, say, a 24 to 28” slot limit.  Arguably, the entire reason we were able to rebuild striped bass after the first crash is because we stopped killing them before they had a chance to mature and spawn. 

Sure, it is possible that the Striped Bass Technical Committee could come up with a slot limit option or two, but it’s almost a certainty such a slot would need to come with some sort of conservation penalty (i.e. a truncated season). 

In the end, if you want to reduce fishing mortality, and rebuild the stock, in a fishery where most of the fishing mortality is coming from anglers, then you set a reasonably high size limit.  Less of the fishing community has access to, or reliably catches say a 36” fish, fishing mortality goes down, more fish survive to become part of the female spawning stock biomass.  Plus, such a size limit spreads mortality out over a much broader swath of the population rather than just a specific part of it, which makes sense from a biological perspective, because what you want really is diversity, or, in other words, good age and size in the spawning stock, with a lot of different year-classes represented.

On Discard Mortality

It is true that when you raise a size limit, regulatory discards (released fish) increase.  The rate of fish that don’t survive such a release is generally accepted at 9%.  That is based on a 1996 study Mortality of Striped Bass Hooked and Released in Salt Water. 

While there’s been a lot of discussion on the accuracy of such an estimate, based on what I see on the water (note: this comes from a guy who does well over 100 striped bass trips a year), I think it’s a fairly good across-the-board estimate.  Certainly, release mortality changes based on angler experience, time of the year, gear used etc., but overall, I think 9 or 10% is just about right.  I could probably argue that it’s perhaps even higher, but I won’t.  It is, right now anyway, the best available science. 

So, that 9% extrapolated across angler effort (think all those striped bass anglers and all those fish we encounter and release) ends up being quite significant.  48% of total fishing mortality, according to the latest stock assessment. 

But the entire discard mortality discussion seems like red herring to us.  Discards in the recreational fishery have been significant for a long time.  In fact, release mortality has outweighed total commercial removals for well over a decade.  Only now are folks flagging it, because, as we all know, now the stock is overfished, and overfishing is occurring.  And something – what exactly we’re not entirely sure yet – will need to be done. 

And so, the pro-extraction folks are pointing to dead discards and saying dumb stuff like it’s the light tackle anglers and especially the surfcasters that are killing all the fish because they/we fight them too long, drag them on the beach, and release too many.  There’s even been some public comment suggesting that surfcasting should be banned…  Seriously.  But, perhaps the silliest argument is that managers shouldn’t increase the size limit or it will just increase release mortality. 

Well, let’s be clear about something.  A 9% discard mortality rate is quite a bit better than the 100% mortality rate that occurs when you throw a fish in the cooler.  To put it another way, for every 10 additional fish that die as a result of discard mortality associated with a higher size limit, 100 fish that would have been thrown in a cooler survive.

There are folks who argue that with a small size limit, people will go out, kill their fish then go back home.  Such contention displays a clear misunderstanding of the striped bass sport fishery.  For the most part, it is prosecuted for sport, for experience, not simply for meat.  Anglers generally don’t go home after one keeper.  They make a day out of striped bass fishing.  Whether the average striped bass angler catches a “keeper” or not, he or she will usually keep fishing until the fish stop biting, the sun goes down, or it’s simply time to go home. 

Again, it’s a simple glaring truth that you don’t reduce fishing mortality by lowering size limits.  It just doesn’t work that way. 

Still, there’s been plenty of pontification about of the horrible waste conservation measures (i.e. size-limits that allow a fish to spawn once or twice) produce in the form of dead discards.  Generally, these come from the same people who clearly don’t want to see the size limit increased, and perhaps put forth discard mortality arguments to have it lowered so that their “keeper” rate remains high. 

Yes, some fish, a lot of fish overall, die when we stick hooks in them, then throw them back.  It is simply a part of the fishery.  Yes, we should work to lower such mortality, though gear requirements (i.e. inline circle-hooks), education on proper release techniques etc., but we are just about certain that no matter what we do here, as long as angler effort remains high, dead discards are going to be significant.  Understand that while we don’t like the fact that that 9% of the fish we release die, they don’t necessarily go to waste either.  They merely return to the ocean’s food web, to feed eels and crabs and other, smaller animals.  Everything goes back into the ecosystem which, in itself, is not a bad thing. 

Initiating an addendum, not a full amendment

We made clear in Part 1, that during the ASMFC’s April 30th meeting the Striped Bass Management Board will receive a report from the Technical Committee on potential management measures required to end overfishing and rebuild the striped bass resource. 

How the Board proceeds after that is anyone’s guess.  At the last meeting there was a significant discussion on doing a full amendment vs. proceeding with a fast-track addendum that would put adjusted regulations in place – which would presumably end overfishing and rebuild the stock – by the 2020 fishing year.   

An addendum is just what it implies.  An addition to an existing amendment.  In this case Amendment 6, which as we discussed in Part 1, established “overfishing” and “overfished” reference points, and set triggers for management action.

If the board chooses to do an addendum to Amendment 6, then Amendment 6 stays intact.  In other words, the science-based reference points and the triggers for management action will remain.  Likely the only thing such addendum would contain is a range of conservative to liberal management options that could reduce fishing mortality by various amounts. 

IF, however the Board decides to initiate a full Amendment the Board could and likely would revisit those reference points and triggers.  Regardless of the outcome of such an Amendment process, it would be at least two years before the Board could implement management measures, and given the political nature of striped bass, and what would almost certainly be contentious process, it could be longer.  Despite the fact that the stock is overfished, and overfishing is occurring under the current regulations, current regulations would largely remain in place until the Amendment was completed.    

The onus for pushing an amendment instead of an addendum should be pretty clear at this point.  Though an amendment Commissioners could ultimately avoid taking any meaningful actions to address overfishing, first by delay, and then by setting new reference points that reduce the spawning stock biomass target and threshold.  Such new reference points would increase the risk of a stock collapse by allowing fishing mortality to remain high, while reducing the size of the spawning stock. 

Essentially, this is an attempt to lower the goal posts under the justification that, well, since the Chesapeake isn’t as productive as it was when such reference points were developed, we should set lower goals. 

We believe the exact opposite is true.  We saw good spawning success in four of the last eight years, which suggests that the Bay remains productive.  But even if that weren’t true, then you would think any reasonable fishery manager would reduce fishing mortality in reaction to such loss of production; if you have fewer new fish entering the population, you need to take fewer fish out, or face a population decline.  Of course, that sort of assumption doesn’t take into account politics.  We do understand the political pressure commissioners are under from the small, but loud pro-harvest crowd. 

What states are pushing for the full amendment route?  Probably not surprising to readers that Maryland appears to be the big proponent.  Delaware seems to be in favor of such a route also.  North Carolina and Virginia have stayed quiet, but the Potomac River Fisheries Commission has indicated some support.  New Jersey?  Well, it’s New Jersey.  Rarely do they take a conservation position on anything, but they have been quiet on this also.  Otherwise, we don’t see much support from states north of Jersey. 

That said, we could be VERY wrong here.  It’s likely that Maryland and perhaps a few other states are calling other Commissioners and twisting arms.  If the Amendment process is the route the Board chooses, we’ll need to push back with everything we have.  In fact, it’s probably not a bad idea to shoot your Commissioners an email right now, and tell them that striped bass overfishing needs to be dealt with right away, though an addendum, and not though an amendment that has the potential to unnecessarily lower the goal posts, while delaying any action until 2021/2022. 

Addressing not just overfishing, but rebuilding

Assuming the Striped Bass Board does the right thing, and initiates an addendum, rather than an amendment, another variable is whether or not the Striped Bass Board will do what it did with their last Amendment 6 Addendum (Addendum IV) and simply address overfishing, without putting the stock on track to rebuild to the spawning stock biomass target.

While yes, this was a half-measure, in that case there was a reason for it.  The board mistakenly believed that the 2011 year class was going to save the fishery when it fully recruited.  It did not.  And one could certainly make the case that Maryland is at fault here (more on this below).

Regardless, any new addendum/amendment should not only address the overfishing part of the equation, but the rebuilding requirement as well.  This was a promise the Commission made when it finalized Amendment 6.  They should keep it. 

For sure, there will be discussion on the question of “can we rebuild,” if the stock is really not as productive as it once was.  But there is no science that we’re aware of that says we can’t, and certainly history has proven that indeed we can.    

State Accountability

As mentioned in Part 1, yes, with Addendum IV, Maryland adjusted it management measures implementing a higher size limit, but in the end, it didn’t achieve the required reduction in harvest.  Landings in that state actually increased, by a lot!  This was presumably the result of the strong 2011 year class that was still in the Bay. 

Yes, maybe anglers in that state encountered a lot them, but certainly the state could have adjusted its management measures the moment it understood what was happening.  Instead it succeeded in getting the Board to consider initiating an addendum that would allow them to liberalize their regulations rather than implement regulations that would actually constrain the fishery.  Once initial analysis on any such liberalization came back, the Board quickly shot it down.   

Again, as discussed in Part 1, it didn’t matter that Maryland exceeded its fishing mortality target by so much, because Addendum IV didn’t contain any language that would hold individual states accountable.  The only requirement was that an overall 25% reduction occur (although Addendum IV only called for a 20.5% reduction in Chesapeake Bay).  Of course, just about every other state’s new regulations resulted in significant reductions in fishing mortality, some by as much as 47%.  So, those coastal states picked up the slack for Maryland.   

In hindsight, that was a big mistake, and may have been the death knell for the abundant 2011 year class.  Let me be clear that those fish did eventually show up along the coast.  And we had good fishing on them for a bit.  But they were not the panacea managers expected them to be.  It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s not unreasonable to believe that the Bay states just knocked the crap out of them before a significant amount of them could recruit. 

Whatever addendum or amendment the Commission develops moving forward should contain state compliance provisions.  Perhaps even a payback provision to keep states, particularly those that surround the Chesapeake Bay, from grabbing more than their fair share before those fish can become part of the migratory stock. 


Let’s be clear that there’s not going to be a moratorium, at least not soon, and hopefully not ever, if managers don’t drop the ball.  And let’s put aside all the social media arguments about slot limits and game fish for now.  Regardless of the efficacy it’s unlikely either of those things could happen at this point. 

We should all have one message and one message alone.  Reduce fishing mortality, significantly

We need a reduction meaningful enough to not only address the overfishing issue, but to rebuild the stock to target in a reasonable amount of time.  And to insure such a reduction works this time there needs to be a requirement that all states meet such a reduction, and there should be accountability measures in place to make sure that they do. 

It’s clear that those folks who argue it can’t be done, or that it’s too difficult with today’s productivity are simply trying to avoid upsetting the harvest-focused part of their constituencies, who will react negatively if they can’t kill as many small fish as they could in the past. 

Never forget that ASMFC fully rebuilt the collapsed bass stock in only 10 years, so it could certainly rebuild from today’s population level in the same amount of time.

Yes, we understand that for a small portion of the fishing community there’s an impact that comes with size-limit increases.  But frankly such a size limit increase won’t be a big deal to a great majority of anglers.   Because most of the striped bass fishery is prosecuted by those who fish primarily for sport, a much greater impact comes with loss of availability and loss of access along the coast.  And that’s exactly where we’re headed if strong action to reduce fishing mortality isn’t taken.  We’ve already seen some of that in our industry.  And the surfcasting industry is getting hit pretty badly already. 

How we achieve those fishing mortality reductions remains to be seen.  But if we had to make a guess, it’ll be a significant increase in the size limit.  How that works out in the producer areas will be tricky.  But one thing is for sure, there will be major push-back on anything that’s likely to have a significant effect on reducing fishing mortality, from both the top and the bottom in those states. 

That sort of short-term, me-first, my-state-against-yours thinking needs to stop.  The long term sustainability of an abundant striped bass resource is critically important not only to the recreational fishing community, but to the entire industry it supports.

To that end, what we really need is a sea-change at the commission.  A different way of doing business.  The Commission needs real mandates to end overfishing promptly, and a requirement to rebuild depleted stocks in a reasonable time-frame.  Mandates that force managers to make decisions that benefit the public interest instead of small loud special interests. 

We’ll cover this in part 3 of this series. 

10 Responses

  1. Emailing our commissioners is a great idea. Perhaps you guy should publish a draft email that says what needs to be said so we are all on the same page. If people simply just have to copy and paste, you’ll likely see more people take action! Great Article.

    1. Patrick,
      Thank you for the comment. We are preparing an action alert in conjunction with part 3 of the series. We appreciate your commitment to conserving striped bass.

      1. Enjoyed your article and agree with most of what you wrote. However i think a 36 inch limit would be a mistake. Majority of fish 36inch and bigger are females and when you’re in the 40 inch rang and above almost all are female that are big egg producers. This reg would then lead to further reduction of of large females which is a big problem now. A slot similar to whats been used to rebuild redfish(18-27) would be the better solution. At the moment, this range of stripers is robust and could handel to be harvested. At the same time it would protect the bigger fish and allow the fish under 18 to spawn at least twice. Size limits are a double edge sword. Something to think about.

        1. John, take a look at the article again. There are a couple of errors in your comments. First, the slot would have to have a minimum of 36 for the females to spawn a few times. Second, if a fish doesn’t make it to adult size, it can’t spawn anyway. That’s what’s happening in Maryland right now. Finally, that range of stripers isn’t robust. The 2011’s have been whittled down to nothing and the 2015’s are entering the meat grinder in Maryland. We have been doing this a very long time and took an awful lot into consideration.

  2. Can you guys get these articles to the guys that work at On The Water & similar magazines, the comments sections on the latest articles such as “Mass enacts new regulations” are full of the very issues you guys are doing such a good job at highlighting and I fear without reaching those less conservation minded anglers who want to keep harvesting and lay all the blame at the commercial sectors feet any meaningful reform will be stymied.
    Thank you for all you guys are doing!

    1. Joshua, thank you for the words of encouragement. Please feel free to share the links in the comments at other publications. It is bad form for us to share. It is their platform, not ours. We appreciate your comment and hope you understand why we aren’t comfortable sharing directly. Thanks again

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