Striper Concerns

by Capt. John McMurray

If you’re an avid striper guy (my guess is you are if you are reading this) then by now I’ll bet you’ve seen the ASMFC press release regarding the new reference points for the striped bass fishery. If not, you can find it here: Yeah, I know, it looks like it was written in another language right? I’ll do my best to try and interpret what it means.

First, if you are totally unfamiliar with the system you may be asking “What the H is a reference point?” Biological reference points are parameters that are useful benchmarks for guiding management decisions. Typically they are limits set by the best available science at the time.
Several new models were developed for use in the 2007 benchmark stock assessment which was released back in February, including the Forward-Projecting Statistical-Catch-at-Age model (SCA). The SCA is a significant departure from the virtual population analysis that had been used to assess striped bass stock status since 1997. It is an aged-based model that projects the population numbers-at-age forward through time, rather than backwards, as had been the case with the VPA.

So, without getting into too much detail and confusing not only readers but myself, my understanding is that the new SCA model indicates that a lower level of fishing mortality (“F”) at Maximum Sustainable Yield (the highest rate at which bass can be taken out of the stock without impairing its renewability through natural growth or replenishment).

Striped bass fishing is managed by target and threshold parameters (those reference points we were just talking about). Regulations are set so that fishing mortality does not exceed a fishing mortality target which is lower than the fishing mortality threshold. The fishing mortality threshold is essentially Maximum Sustainable Yield in this case. Such management provides a precautionary buffer which allows catch to exceed the target (which it has in many years) without ever exceeded the overfishing threshold.

So, the only thing particularly noteworthy with the new reference points is that the Threshold has changed. (As mentioned, fishing mortality at maximum sustainable yield has been lowered.) The target, the fishing mortality number that managers shoot for has not changed at all. The failure to move the target in conjunction with the lowered threshold makes the difference between the two quite a bit smaller, meaning that a harvest that is only a little over the target could violate the threshold.

Since the threshold figure is the one used to mandate changes in regulations, the change brings the thresholds closer to current harvest levels. Although we are not overfishing yet, this makes future “overfishing” quite bit more likely.

Indeed, there seems to be abundant concern right now with the striped bass fishery, and quite honestly I share in that concern. The flyfishers and the light tackle crowd are experiencing it to a greater effect than others and those poor folks in Maine have had the worst consecutive two seasons since the 80’s.

But given the prevalence of localized pods of large fish (e.g. VA in the winter, Northern NJ in the Spring, Rhode Island in the Summer) and the widely accepted science which indicates that the stock is at a high level and, compared to other stocks, is doing well, I’m almost certain that managers will not change any aspect of striped bass management until we exceed the threshold in the coming years. These new biological reference points make that quite a bit more likely.

While indeed I would like to see more precaution exercised with the striped bass fishery (e.g. higher size, mandatory circlehooks in bait fisheries, the banning of Yo-Yoing etc.), managers are much more apt to concentrate their resources on fisheries which are truly in trouble and in which overfishing continues, and leave striped bass alone for the time being. And, if readers think the commercial fishing community and/or the charter/headboat fleet are going to voluntarily agree to stricter limits when there is no science indicating that they should be making such cutbacks, then they are sadly mistaken, especially in light of the hits such folks have taken on summer flounder, black sea-bass, scup etc.
I also think in large part angler’s attitudes have changed, mostly because of the anit-enviro propaganda perpetuated by the local fishing press. Because of the decidedly anti-conservation movement by a New Jersey-based coalition of commercial and recreational fishing industries to weaken the Magnuson Steven Act, any sort of precaution these days is looked on as “alarmist” and “radical” or “elitist.” I don’t think we could fill a room these days with anglers preaching conservation with striped bass like we did five years ago with the Amendment 6 hearings.

In short, I do think we’re seeing the signs of trouble with striped bass, but I don’t think there is much anyone can do about it at the moment, save getting folks to talk about it. If or when the ASMFC is forced to act in the coming years, I just hope it’s not too little too late. I truly hope we don’t travel down that same road.

For more info on bass, see my July/Aug 2008 Flyfishing in Saltwaters column: