On Downplaying the Plight of the Striped Bass

Why are some talking heads still in denial?

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

I read with some interest Gary Caputi’s recent piece in Outdoor Life, Are Stripers on the Brink Again?I suppose factually, it’s accurate, although it looks like he got some of the year-class info mixed up. For the record, it was the 2011 year class that was the fifth-highest on record (not 2010), and 2012 was one of the lowest on record (not 2011). I’m not trying to be smug, but this did jump out at me. The other numbers he references are mostly correct. It’s the tone of the piece that bothers me a little.

I was somewhat struck by the last paragraph. Maybe I’m just reading it wrong, and perhaps I’ve become too close to the issue – and just too sensitive – but really, man, it seems to downplay what’s become a dire situation with striped bass. “Yes, there is reason for concern,” Caputi writes, “but there is not yet reason to panic.” I completely disagree. There was reason for concern back in the mid 2000s when the number of fish began to visibly decline. Now, it is most certainly time to panic.

I’ve written about the striped bass situation here so many times I can’t bear to go into the details again, and I’m sure you can’t bear to read them again. But in short, a new stock assessment made it pretty clear that we were probably overfishing striped bass for around half the last 10 years, and it showed that the stock would likely be “overfished” as early as this year.

Caputi is right that technically the stock isn’t yet “overfished.” The December 2013 update to the stock assessment showed that spawning stock biomass point estimate in 2012 (the last year available) was just above the threshold for “overfished” status. However, that update pointed out that given the error associated with estimate, there is a 46 percent probability that that we were already below the threshold.

In other words, there was a 46 percent chance – not quite 50-50 – that the stock already was overfished in 2012. If that was the case, where are we likely to be now? I’d say there’s a damn good chance the stock was indeed technically overfished in 2013/2014.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Let’s forget about the stock assessment for a minute and talk about what’s happening on the water. Each year since 2006, it’s gotten harder to find striped bass in their usual haunts. This year was horrific, save for a few isolated bodies of crazy-big striped bass off the South Shore of Long Island, like the one I mentioned last week. I did mention here that the occurrence of dense, localized incidents of large fish is a very similar scenario to what happened in the late 70s/early 80s. If you want to read something that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, I highly suggest reading this 1977 article from the Boston Globe, Striped Bass Population Threatened by Extinction. Yes, it’s time to panic!

Just about everyone who spends more than a little time on the water is aware of what’s going on. Why is the decline happening? Well, I’ve probably talked about that way too much here also, (most recently here: On Striped Bass, Why We’re Really Seeing a Decline), but it doesn’t matter. The response should be the same: reduce fishing mortality, like yesterday, before things get worse.

So what has the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission done? Well, they sat around for a few meetings, and, instead of taking action talked about minutia, made excuses, etc. The same sort of bullshit you usually hear from a management agency prone to deny/delay/avoid any sort of reduction that might prevent a few people from making money off what is supposed to be a public resource. ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee only recently came up with a plan that has a coin’s toss chance of ending overfishing. As far as I can tell, the plan doesn’t include buffers for scientific or management uncertainty, like you would find in a federal fishery management plan; nor does there appear to be any options that have more than a 50-percent chance of success. Blogger Charlie Witek calls it “a maximum-risk strategy that is as likely to fail as succeed.”

There’s even an option, which appears to have considerable support among commissioners, to draw the recommended mortality reduction out three years to avoid any economic harm that a reduction might cause fishing communities, with little consideration about the harm it will do to the fish. Seriously, man, the last thing we need is more delay!

I heard last week that the prior 31- to 34-percent fishing mortality reduction, which had been recommended by the Technical Committee, has been reduced to approximately 25 percent due to a reexamination of the commercial discard numbers – an estimate that the technical committee admits it doesn’t really have a firm grasp on.

Given all the scientific and management uncertainty and all the anecdotal information that seems to point to what may be another crash, why the F aren’t we considering a 50-percent reduction? Well, because unfortunately that’s just not the way ASMFC works.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

It’s all pretty goddamn distressing if you happen to be a fishing guide who built a business on striped bass.

Getting back to the above-mentioned article, again, maybe it’s me and the way I tend to interpret things these days, but it reads like it was written by someone who hasn’t spent much time on the water in the last several years, or someone without real skin in the game, or someone who doesn’t quite understand how important striped bass has become to the recreational fishing community – or, I dunno, someone close to a hungry party/charter boat industry that still claims the need to kill that extra fish to stay in business.

I’m not saying that any of the above is true of the writer.I In fact, from what I know about the guy, it isn’t. But hey man… to me that’s what it sounds like. And, frankly, it sounds like it could have been written by any one of the commissioners from New Jersey south, who are constantly trying to put a better face on a deteriorating situation.

The overarching point is that we are in a bad and worsening situation with striped bass. Fred Golofaro, senior editor of The Long Island Fisherman Magazine and one of the most respected voices in recreational fishing, seems to agree with that assessment. He lays it out well here: STRIPED BASS: THE CLOCK IS TICKING AS ABUSES CONTINUE. By all means, it’s worth the read.

It seems like the great majority of us understand what’s happening. But there are a few who don’t, or simply chose not to. Unfortunately they may be the ones who ASMFC hears from most often.

The next ASMFC striped bass board meeting is Aug 5, from 1:15 to 5:45, in Alexandria, Va. Those of us who are greatly concerned – the great majority of striped bass fishermen, I believe – NEED to make our voices heard. Try and attend this meeting if you can. I can tell you that your commissioners are not doing everything they can to stop the decline. Even the states that seem to have been advocating for an expedient reduction (e.g., Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts) need to be more aggressive. Let them know that passive acceptance isn’t an option. If you cannot attend, please email your commissioners asking that they support a significant reduction in fishing mortality. Contact info is here: ASMFC Commissioners.

Despite what Caputi writes, it is definitely time to panic!

 

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After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

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5 comments on “On Downplaying the Plight of the Striped Bass
  1. avatar John Boesenberg says:

    John
    Keep up the fight. Your articles say it all and I hope that the right people are listening. I witnessed all the destruction of the 60s 70s and early 80s and would like to see our fishery preserved. Thanks for all you do.
    John

  2. avatar WildBill says:

    Although I almost always agree with your take I could not disagree with you more on this. Panic NEVER leads to good decisions under ANY circumstances. Panic prevents reasonable people from drawing logical conclusions. Panic allows people to make rash assumptions leading to false decisions. Panic also makes people despondent and not capable of responding to a crisis. Rational thought, self control (never happens when we panic), and a positive attitude will lead to a good end. And that’s a fact.

  3. avatar Jeff Nichols says:

    the guy just did not wanna do any research it appearsthe commercial fleet out in Montauk cannot find a slot fish to save their livesall the fish are over 36 inches none under

  4. avatar Walleye Pete says:

    John,
    As always your writing makes complete sense to me……I’m a full-time Striper Guide who has spent 200+ days a year on the water over the last 10 years. I utilyze all light tackle and chase fish from the Susquehanna Flats to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel in VA Beach. Migratory Striped Bass IS in dire straights…..hope I’m wrong. The fish I fish on in Chesapeake Bay have shrunk in range to an astounding low level. All decent fish are in one small region. Very, very scarey. Been communicating my thoughts on the decline for many years. My fear is all coming to light now. Appreciate you obvious passion…..keep it up!

  5. avatar Ken says:

    A short-term economic benefit mind-set, that is the reason.

    Groups like the RFA fought a reduction in the weakfish harvest in 2005 in complete disregard of the warnings. In much the same way they are fighting the necessary cuts in the striper harvest today The weakfish collapsed, as predicted. The striped bass will go the same way as the weakfish without serious cut backs now. However, with striped bass the economic impact will hit the vital organs of related businesses.

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