Striped Bass C&R in the EEZ

Opening up the EEZ to a “Catch-and-release” fishery seems like a no-brainer, but is it?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will remember that two weeks ago, I wrote about a recent suggestion by some that we open up the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) to striped bass fishing so that anglers in Virginia and North Carolina could have access to the large bodies of big fish that have been found to winter offshore there`.  Maybe a good idea to read that blog before continuing on:  OF STRIPED BASS, THE EEZ AND THE SAME OLD (EXPLETIVE)

In short, the EEZ is that area of the ocean outside of 3 miles, what our Government considers federal waters.  Everything outside of that, up to 200 miles, is off limits to striper fishing.  It has been for 25 years.  Such a closure was put in place to protect the spawning stock back when things got really bad for striped bass.  Since then, it has served as a critical buffer for the species, and really the only place they don’t get absolutely hammered, at least not legally.

To understand how critical the EEZ closure is, consider that just last week, on a joint NCDMF/USFWS tagging survey five people with hook and line gear tagged a total of 274 stripers fishing 24 miles off the North Carolina Coast.  Included was one 74-pound striper, reportedly ten or so fish over 50lbs and too many 30s and 40s to count.  Such large concentrations of big adult fish do indeed occur offshore and currently are not accessible to fishermen.  Given the striped bass’ decline, these are exactly the fish we should be protecting, and while there are some enforcement hiccups, we are indeed protecting them.  That is unquestionably a good thing.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

The EEZ should remain closed.  There is absolutely no reason to open it.  Certainly, I got some feedback from those who disagree, and while I understand the rationale I think it’s based on a false premise.  Their argument is that there is so much illegal fishing in the EEZ that reducing the bag limit from two to one fish and allowing folks to fish in the EEZ would actually reduce fishing mortality.  In other words instead of killing two fish illegally, they’d be killing one legally.  I think that’s bullshit though.  For one, the Coast Guard has actually been really good on the enforcement stuff in the last couple of years.  Sure, there’s probably still some illegal targeting of striped bass out there, but from what I’m hearing, it’s not near as significant as it was a few years ago.  Like I said in my last EEZ piece, an increasingly sophisticated Coast Guard and serious fines have made most realize that it just isn’t worth it.  Frankly, I kinda think the guys using the reduced fishing mortality argument are really just throwing it out there, because they are simply interested in getting on those large concentrations of wintering fish.

So, now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, the point of this week’s blog is to take a look at what opening up the EEZ to just catch-and-release fishing would mean.  And I bring this up now, because at the last ASMFC meeting the Striped Bass Board discussed the potential of such an opening.  Which confused me a little bit, because…  Well, because catch-and-release fishing already exists in the EEZ.

Technically, it’s not legal to fish for them.  The language in the regulation is pretty clear on that point.  But it really appears to be an unenforceable regulation as the angler isn’t retaining the evidence.  So, one could just claim he/she was targeting another species.  That said, the scuttlebutt is that some perhaps overly ambitious boarding officers have been boarding vessels and writing tickets for people fishing in areas of the EEZ where there doesn’t appear to be anything else but striped bass.  Or maybe it was that they were just writing warnings.  I don’t know.   Either way, this is the first I’ve heard of any such enforcement action for catch-and-release fishing in the EEZ.

As I referenced in the last EEZ blog, there are lots of businesses in both VA and NC that simply don’t have much business anymore because, for one, there’s real enforcement of the EEZ closure now, but also because the stock has contracted to the point where the inshore/legal striper fishery in the winter is virtually non-existent.  So…  Making it legal to go out and target some of these large wintering fish in the EEZ might indeed help these guys out.  I mean, I think the point is that these guys could advertise such a fishery.  Get guys to drive down from Jersey etc to get in on it.  So from that perspective I do get it.  And this is precisely why the subject was brought up at ASMFC.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

On the surface it sounds pretty harmless right?  What could be wrong with such a policy?  And why wouldn’t we all want this?  Seems like a win/win.  But I think we have to be very careful with this.  If this was 2006 and we were at peak abundance, I’d probably be inclined to think yeah, this a good idea, and probably harmless.   But we aren’t there anymore.  In fact we’re in the midst of a pretty precipitous decline, and it’s very possible that we’ll be over the fishing mortality threshold (read overfishing) and the stock will have fallen below the spawning stock biomass threshold (read overfished) by the end of this year.

With that in mind, we have to understand that even with an all release fishery, there will be some release/discard mortality.  Pretty sure 8% is the number the assessment uses.  That may not sound significant, but extrapolated over all those fish that are caught and released (remember the 274 stripers caught in the tagging survey by one boat with only five anglers on board) and you’ve definitely got an increase in fishing mortality.  And we’ve also got to remember that these are pretty much all old large fish.  The ones where the real release mortality rate is generally much higher than 8%.

The other thing that concerns me about making such a catch-and-release fishery “legal” is that I suspect it will invite non-compliance.  The big fleets of boats outside of the 3 mile limit used to send up red flags.  That won’t be the case if there’s a “legal” fishery out there.  Which is fine assuming everyone is in compliance, prosecuting a strictly catch-and-release fishery…  I doubt that will be the case.  There will likely be a significant number of knuckleheads hiding fish in compartments etc.

Yeah, I don’t really know where I’m at on this right now.  Really, I don’t think this stock needs any increase in fishing mortality right now, even if it’s incremental.  On the other hand, I kind of intuitively think “so what, it’s catch-and-release…  There won’t be that much mortality, and, well, people are doing it anyway” (of course it will be on a much larger scale now though).  But that’s just a gut feeling, and my gut is often wrong.  The logical part of me is thinking this is a bad idea.  At least right now.  I guess for me to really make up my mind, I’d have to see a full analysis by the Technical Committee, but I suspect such an analysis would be less than comprehensive.  Often such analyses don’t take into account noncompliance, not to mention all the boneheads who don’t know how to, or simply don’t take the time or expend the energy to properly release a big fish.  In other words, I suspect the Technical Committee would just apply the 8% release mortality rate across the board.  And I believe, particularly with the large fish we’re talking about here, that it is much higher.

Where are we now with all of this?  As mentioned, the initial, albeit abbreviated discussion has taken place at ASMFC.  If I understood that conversation correctly Commissioners need more info/analysis from the Technical Committee, and they also wanted to hear from the Advisory Panel (I look forward to weighing in here!).  I should note here though that that ASMFC in itself cannot reopen the EEZ.  They can only recommend that the Feds (NOAA Fisheries) open the area again.  Of course given the processes for making such public decisions, the Feds would have to offer significant justification to reopen the EEZ, there would have to be scoping, public hearings etc.  So I certainly don’t think that this is something that’s right around the corner.  That said, I do know that the Coast Guard has already had some preliminary discussions on how they might enforce such an all-release fishery.

Moving forward, I guess we’ll see how this all shakes out.  Stay tuned!  I’ll be sure to be reporting on this as we get more information.

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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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3 comments on “Striped Bass C&R in the EEZ
  1. avatar Ron Hoff says:

    The ASMFC has done nothing positive for the Striped Bass since 2005. Now they would like to open the EEZ to another disaster catch and release. Sure lets see how many big fish will die. These are the big girls that carry millions of eggs each. It’s about time the ASMFC did something positive for the Striped Bass.
    Yea there hurting for business in the Carolina’s because there are very little bass in shore. The same thing is true up and down the coast. Montauk tackle shops will be hurting and so will tackle shops up and down the coast. I used to be able to catch 15 to 20 bass on a tide in Long Beach and Lido Beach. Now if I catch one or two it’s a big deal. I used to go to Montauk and catch so many fish in a day that I would loose count. Until Striped Bass fishing returns to the way it used to be, leave the EEZ zone closed. As you said how many boats will find illegal ways to hide away fish on there boats for the money. It’s all about the money.
    I am so pissed at the way the ASMFC has handled the Striped Bass like there was nothing wrong. I could mention a few name on the ASMFC that strictly side with the commercial fisherman, but known name calling. Look at how many species are on the endangered list, all mismanaged by the ASMFC. I have been surf fishing for more than 30 years and I am in one of Long Islands premier Surf Fishing clubs. The club is into catch and release and over 99% of all fish caught during the year are released. I have served as President and V.P. Pres. and Treasurer over the 20 years in the club. There is not a member in the club that thinks fishing has improved since 2005. So please keep the EEZ zone closed to catch and release fishing. P.S. I recently heard of a fishing boat going for Beg all’s because they found a market for them. The party boats are running out of fish to fish for, very sad. However they will target and kill anything they can for money.

  2. avatar jeff nichols says:

    Good blog John, as always. are we sure that all those big slobs were caught over the ez?..probably not hard to find out. They did get some big fish down there,
    “The number of big fish taken in the last two years is mind-boggling. In January, 2012 outside of Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, on a charter boat named Rigged Up, 12-year-old Stephen Furlough caught a 63-pound cow—a state record—and was edged out a week later by one Keith Angel with a new mark of 64 pounds and change.
    On January 20, 2011, Cary Wolfe on a charter boat, The Badabing, shattered the Virginia record with a 74-pound slob.”
    From “Caught.”.Zack HArvey(in closing essay) talks in detail about what the CC is up to to protect fish off NC… but the damage has been done sadly and not by “sporties” but by commercial draggers… They got the big girls in the nets three yard ago. One dragger had over 100 fish over 40 pounds as they sat dormat..just like in the late 70′s..thats what happened. Thats the truth.
    a few seconds ago · Edited · Like · 1

  3. avatar WildBill says:

    Great read and extremely insightful. Some studies show that catch and release failure may be much greater than the 8% that is used by the industry. It could be as high as 15%. Most of the studies have been done in fresh water environments and may not translate well to salt water environments.

    I agree that we should be very conservative about this. We know that it the past striped bass populations have fluctuated greatly. And its not clear, scientifically, exactly why this happens although there are some pretty solid theories. With the oceans warming the changes will likely be even more pronounced.

    Best to hold off on striped bass catch and release in EZ zones for the time being until we have a better handle on where the populations are heading.

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