Maryland Spins Mediocre Striped Bass Spawn

takufatherinlawThe State of Maryland recently released its 2014 young-of-the-year index for striped bass.

The index came in at 11.0, which is just a little below the long-term average of 11.7.

Under normal circumstances, a young-of-the-year number that nearly reaches the long-term average is hardly worth noticing.  It’s merely what one would expect if all was well with the stock.

However, there are three things that make the 2014 more significant than the raw number suggests.

One is the fact that the most important factors in spawning success, a cold winter and a wet spring, were present last year, yet the index could barely struggle up close to the long-term average.

Another is the fact that, if you look at the 2014 number in context—as part of a multi-year average and not a stand-alone number, the bass just aren’t doing that well.

And the final and biggest factor that draws attention to the young-of-the-year figure is the way that Maryland is trying to spin what is, at best, a mediocre spawn into some sort of fisheries management victory, gushing that

“the 2014 juvenile index, a measure of striped bass spawning success in Chesapeake Bay, is 11.0, nearly equal to the 61-year average of 11.7. The results indicate a healthy level of reproduction for Maryland’s state fish.”

That’s the kind of talk you hear from someone who is trying to downplay the fact that the striped bass stock will likely be declared “overfished” in 2015, and is trying to find a way to water down fishery managers’ efforts to reduce fishing mortality and begin rebuilding the stock.

It’s the sort of thing that you’d expect to see coming out of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and Tom O’Connell, Director of its Fisheries Service, who has already said

“I think that it really comes down to a cost-benefit analysis…

“…I think…a 32 to 36 percent reduction is going to have large socio-economic impacts as well as potential ecological impacts.  I think we don’t have a stock situation that is in dire need of protection…”

and spearheaded the effort to rewrite the management plan to allow phasing in harvest reductions over three years, instead of making them all in 2015.

We can expect the other “kick the canners” (which is what Capt. Dave Pecci, founder of the Save Our Stripers, calls Management Board members who continually strive to delay action to rebuild the stock) to quickly latch onto Maryland’s forced exuberance and use it in arguments to drag out—or completely set aside—reductions in fishing mortality.

We can only hope that a majority of Management Board members won’t be fooled by such sleight-of-hand.

Because, as mentioned above, conditions seemed right for a much better result, given the weather last winter and spring.

A good example of how weather affects spawning success can be seen in the very different young-of-the-year figures for 2011 and 2012.  The winter of 2011 was cold, and led to favorably wet conditions in the spring; the result was an index of 34.58, the fourth-highest ever recorded.  The winter of 2012, on the other hand, was one of unprecedented warmth; the result was an index of 0.89, the worst on record.  Even during the last collapse, none were so low.

Granted, other factors can influence young-of-the-year production.  A successful spawn may have been frustrated by poor survival of eggs, larvae or fry.  Or conditions other than weather might have held spawning success down.

The take-away message is that even when the weather is good, other factors may lead to mediocre production.  That gives little hope for a good year class when the winter is warmer than it should be.

And given the worldwide temperature trend, warmer winters are becoming the rule…

So clearly, in that context, the 2014 Maryland index gives little cause for celebration, and less cause to delay harvest cuts.

In other contexts, the index looks even worse.

Back in 1985, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fisheries Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass—the amendment that was ultimately responsible for bringing the stock back from a catastrophic collapse—it set a three-year rolling average for the Maryland index of 8.0 as a threshold indicating that the stock had begun to recover.

Until the three year average hit 8.0, ASMFC imposed restrictions on harvest designed to assure

“That the states prevent directed fishing mortality on at least 95% of the 1982 year class females, and females of all subsequent year classes of Chesapeake Bay stocks until 95% of the females of these year classes have an opportunity to reproduce at least once.”

The current three-year average, which includes the supposedly ‘healthy” 2014 spawn, is 5.9, and people are still arguing about whether to reduce fishing mortality to F=0.180, a lot higher than the Amendment 3 levels…

Certainly, there’s a big difference between rebuilding a collapsed stock and trying to rebuild a stock that has just slipped below the “overfished” threshold.  But if the stock is declared “overfished” in 2015, do we believe that a three-year average index of just 5.9 is going to be enough to bring it back to health, without prompt and meaningful reductions in harvest?

And if we want to look at the intermediate-term trend, things still aren’t all that comforting.  The 10-year average, which includes the dominant 2011 year class still comes in at a sub-par 10.4.

The trend of sub-par spawns is particularly troubling when you realize that the long-term average itself includes a built in “shifting baseline” provision.

As more and more below average spawning years are included in the index, the index will trend ever downward.  Today, an “average” spawn would result in an index of 11.7; ten years ago, before the recent run below-average year classes, it would have been 12.1.

Not a big difference, to be sure, but still an unsettling trend with the potential to grow worse over time.

The Management Board meeting that will decide the striped bass’ fate is still six days away.  There is still time for concerned anglers to warn their states’ ASMFC commissioners against finding reasons for undue optimism in this year’s Maryland spawn.

They must not be like the young boy of legend who was so filled with naïve optimism that his father finally decided that, for the child’s own good, he must be brought back to earth.

When that boy’s birthday came around, he came down from his bedroom early, knowing that a wonderful present must be awaiting him somewhere in the house.  So he looked at his father expectantly, and his father told him what he wanted to hear, that his gift awaited him in the garage.

Excited and filled with expectation and wonder, the boy rushed outside and flung open the garage door, only to find a heap of manure.  Upon seeing the pile, the child cried out in joy, jumping up and down and clapping his hands, finally shouting “With this much manure, there must be a pony around somewhere!”

Maryland spinning this year’s index as good certainly deserves to be viewed as manure.

But there sure ain’t no pony around.

And if managers don’t look past Maryland’s spin, in a few years, there may not be any striped bass around either.

 

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Charles Witek grew up in coastal Connecticut, fishing for Long Island Sound’s then-abundant bottom fish before graduating to weakfish, bluefish and striped bass. He was already in his early twenties, and an avid striped bass angler, when the stock began to collapse. It was then that he had a chance meeting with Bob Pond, creator of the Atom plug, who was an early advocate for striped bass conservation. Pond’s efforts touched a chord and Witek, too, took up the striper’s cause. Over the years, he became more involved in conservation issues, serving as a bluefin tuna technical advisor to the US ICCAT delegation and holding a seat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. He is currently a member of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council and a sits on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel. He is also a Vice President of the New York State Outdoor Writers’ Association. Witek currently resides, with his wife Theresa, on New York’s Long Island, where he fishes for everything from back-bay weakfish to canyon tunas from his 31’ Ocean Master, Arion.

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2 comments on “Maryland Spins Mediocre Striped Bass Spawn
  1. These are my thoughts as I see different thing unfold in the areas that I fish . One the number of bass we use to catch and release are way down .Two the fish we are catching do not look as healthy as they have been in the past. I don’t like the skin and scales on a lot of the bass that show up first during the spring .most fish we check for sea lice to let us know that they are fresh ,in coming fish . I also fell the number of larger bass is down.I think you should talk to more shore fishermen to get their feed back .Just some of my thoughts

  2. avatar Charles Witek says:

    I don’t think that many striped bass fishermen will disagree with you. What you describe is what people are seeing up and down the coast.

    That’s just what makes Maryland’s effort to pretend that all is OK so annoying.

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