Finally, I am going to share my thoughts on slot limits for striped bass and on some management measures that should go along with slot limits to make sense out of that management process. My fellow blogger John McMurray thinks that slot limits concentrate the catch in one segment of the striped bass population. I happen to think that raising the size limit concentrates the catch in one segment of the striped bass population. Who is correct?
I will say that I agree with John’s main premise that there has to be a reduction in the overall mortality. How to accomplish that reduction, and in the process use some existing natural and manmade mortality and physical stock makeup to best play into sustainable management, is the question.
First, I am not suggesting a slot limit regime could replace the existing two fish at 28 inches or above. That would simply not work. There needs to be reasonable conservation equivalency. The state of Maine made a case for conservation equivalency years ago and ended up with a one fish slot between 20 and 26 inches or a trophy fish over 40 inches. If I were king, I’d get rid of the trophy category. Catch a big one, measure it, snap a pic and return it to the water. Those big fish are barely edible, in my estimation. I’d rather eat an old piece of cardboard soaked in menhaden oil. As far s a trophy, 99 percent of all mounts are reproduction mounts that do not use any of the actual catch, beyond pictures and measurements. I digress.
So, my suggestion would be to drop the limit to one fish per angler per day at a slot limit somewhere in the range of 20 to 28 inches. Maybe the correct slot is 22 to 28 or 20 to 26 or 24 to 28. A population dynamics specialist would be better at determining that than I am. Do I think that a “set it and forget it” mentality will work with striped bass? No, I do not. This will always be a work in progress, and additional steps may have to be taken to ensure that the stock biomass remains above the threshold. A unique advantage of slot limits is that they can be adjusted up or down each year in order both to protect poor year classes and at the same time take advantage of the good ones. Constant adjustment will be the case as long as there are habitat impacts and ever-increasing coastal populations.
Why the slot limit in the first place? It has been determined, by folks a lot smarter than I am, that the big old females (BOFs) are the most valuable segment of any fish species. Per pound, they contribute more eggs that are more viable and produce stronger juveniles than less mature females. So McMurray’s suggestion that managers simply raise the minimum size as one mechanism to drop manmade mortality makes little sense to me. Why would you put all the fishing pressure on the very segment of the population that you need to sustain the species? Also, if one thinks of the perfect size and age composition of any fishery it will be shaped in the classic bell curve. The BOFs are past the peak or to the right of the bell curve. They have a lower natural mortality level than smaller fish, which also adds to their value.
Also, fish that are at the 28 inch limit or larger are 95 percent or better females. The males tend to be smaller, so dropping the size limit to spread the mortality between both sexes makes some sense. The females are the more important, and I am constantly reminded of that by my wife, daughter and four granddaughters.
Probably the major aspect of why slot limits could work has to do with the current statistics for release mortality. The current percentage used to estimate the mortality of released striped bass is 8 percent. In Massachusetts alone, the release mortality exceeds the commercial harvest.
If we look at the catch by size for 2006, which is similar in distribution to more current years, 39 percent of the total annual catch was 27 inches or less. Again for 2006, that amounted to 1,152,850 fish. Of that catch 92,000 died from release mortality. Of that number, 58 percent would have been in the slot of 20 to 28 inches. So, approximately 58,000 fish that were wasted could have been used to offset the recreational landings. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of BOFs would have been left in the water to help produce more strong year classes. Yes, I realize that in the past the correlation between numbers of BOFs and the spawning success as measured by the young-of-the-year survey is not a direct correlation. In fact, if you go back to 1986, the spawning biomass was at an all-time low, but the environmental conditions were perfect. Subsequently, the rebuilding process worked because annually adjusted measures protected the BOFs and allowed them to spawn. The current management regime focuses all the pressure on the very heart of the spawning stock. Somehow that needs to be spread around. And when the conditions are right, it makes more sense to me that one would maximize the potential spawning success.
One of the other factors is that there are a number of participants in the fishery who are simply interested in catching a fish to take home. Once they catch it, they will move on to another species or head to the beach. Making it easier for them to achieve their goal means that they will not have to catch and release a number of fish in an effort to get one to take home. That should reduce the release mortality and waste.
It seems to me that the current management regime has the drawbacks pointed out above, while the concept of a slot limit resolves a number of those drawbacks. I’ll be the first to say that a slot limit for striped bass may not be the perfect answer. However, I also think that the current management regime is not the perfect answer.
Slot limit management for striped bass has the benefit of protecting BOFs, mitigating release mortality by turning a percentage into landings and moving some anglers off striped bass when they have caught what they want for consumption. It also improves the chances for anglers to catch that trophy of a lifetime. The main drawback of the slot limit is the fact that fishing pressure gets concentrated on one or two year classes. Without doubt, that will require careful, real-time catch accounting and analysis with an understanding that changes may have to be made.
What I know does not work is the current management regime and the general proclivity of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to kick the can down the road. Oh, yes, and since we are near the end, I’ll throw in my thoughts that having gamefish status for striped bass also would help by changing the attitude of managers from managing for maximum sustainable yield to managing for a quality experience. ’Nuff said.