On striped bass, why we’re really seeing a decline

Commercial fishing is probably the least of our worries

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

During yet another substandard charter last week, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when one of my anglers started with the “if the commercial guys weren’t killing all the striped bass” stuff. It always helps to rationalize poor fishing, I suppose, but I hear this kind of thing a lot, and while it may feel good to place blame, for the most part it just isn’t true.

I try not to preach on the boat. That’s certainly not what guys pay me to do. (They pay me to put them on fish, which I’m beginning to think I might really suck at. Although, if you wanna count bluefish, I guess I’m still pretty good.) But, I did indeed just try and give a few reasons why this simply wasn’t the case, although it’s usually something people don’t want to hear. In hindsight, I should have just played along, as it’s always easier to blame some other entity for bad fishing – helps shift responsibility away from the guide.

Yet given that brief conversation, I thought it might be beneficial to go into some detail here regarding the reasons we’ve seen striped bass slowly but surely fade – and why guys like me are suddenly having to gain a new appreciation for bluefish.

Yeah, I suppose it’s intuitive to think that commercial guys are wreaking havoc on the striped bass population, because they use nets, etc., and I don’t fault people for having that point of view. Sure, like any stakeholder the commercial sector is a contributing factor, but it’d be dishonest to place all or even a good portion of blame on those guys. The fact is, there are a bunch of things going on here. Some are fishing related, and some are not. But let’s start by talking about the commercial guys, because that misconception seems to be pretty frequent.

Commercial harvest has actually been capped for decades. Commercial fishermen, at least the legal ones, are easily managed. Every fish they bring to market is theoretically counted. While each state does it differently, when the quota is reached, they get shut down.

McMurray_may june 14 edited

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

The recreational part of this fishery, on the other hand, is managed by bag and size limits. It is very difficult to monitor the mortality, much less control it. The recreational catch can and has gone up tremendously in the last two decades as the stock recovered. Dick Brame, Coastal Conservation Association’s Atlantic states fisheries coordinator, coined the phrase “the Bubba Effect.” If Bubba catches a bunch of fish and tells his friends, they all want to go fishing. And thus the number of anglers targeting striped bass increases exponentially as the stock rebuilds, and there are more and larger fish to catch. That sort of thing has greatly intensified with the various information sharing platforms online.

This of course isn’t a bad thing (more anglers, more money spent, more businesses doing better, ehm, like mine) as long as they can keep mortality in check. With striped bass, managers are really beginning to fail in that respect, but I’ve dedicated a bunch of posts to that so I’m not gonna harp on it again here.

Getting back on point, of course as the stock increased in abundance, the number of fish killed by anglers increased. It peaked in 2006 (since then it’s been going down because, as you might have guessed, there are less fish to catch). During that peak, recreational fishing mortality dwarfed commercial landings. We accounted for more than 80 percent of fishing mortality back then. In fact, just the recreational discard mortality (those fish that don’t survive the catch) was more than double the total commercial catch.

Sure, that disparity has evened out some as the stock declines – because there are simply less fish around for anglers to catch while commercial guys of course still can reach their quotas pretty easily – but anglers still are accounting for a good twothirds of fishing mortality. Given the amount of striped bass anglers we’ve created during the recovery, even as the stock continues to decline, we’ll still have enough guys in the fishery to account for most of the mortality. That probably won’t change until it gets really bad, and there is little hope of catching even one striped bass during the course of an outing.

The point is that anglers account for most of the mortality in the striped bass fishery –certainly more than the commercial sector. It’s just inaccurate to say that if we just got rid of the commercial striped bass fishermen we’d see this fishery come back quickly, especially since there’s no clarity about what would happen to that commercial quota. I think a lot of folks suspect/hope that it would mean anglers get to kill more fish. And what would that accomplish? It’s also folly to think that anglers have little impact when it’s pretty darn clear that over the last decade we’ve had considerably more impact than the commercial guys. So when you start saying that commercial guys are decimating the stock, you lose credibility with decision-makers pretty quickly.

Let me be clear that I do think commercial fishing mortality is significant. And poaching, which we can’t even begin to quantify, is a big issue. But that doesn’t mean that recreational fishing isn’t a large, if not the largest, part of the problem in terms of fishing mortality. And some of the biggest advocates of putting off needed reductions in catch are the charter/party-boat people, who argue that reducing their bag limit from two to one fish will put them out of business. Unfortunately that tends to resonate with managers, who for some reason fail to consider that if the striped bass population declines beyond a certain point, people are going to go out of business anyway. That said, most rank-and-file recreational fishermen, and certainly the surf fishing and light-tackle communities, want to see fishing mortality reduced like, uhm, yesterday! We see the writing on the wall. We know the striped bass fishery is in trouble.

But that still doesn’t change the fact that most commissioners seem to believe that fishing mortality isn’t really the big issue. To some extent, they are right. The primary reason there are less fish around is because the Chesapeake Bay, where the bulk of the striped bass populations spawns, doesn’t seem to be putting out the same sort of good year-classes that it did in the 90s and early 2000s.

Each year a seine survey is done in various spots in Virginia and Maryland. Those surveys have shown that there’s been a good decade of average to well-below-average young-of-the-year survival. 2003 was our last good year-class that recruited into the fishery. Then, there was the anomalous 2011 year-class that appears to be quite good, and there were two average year-classes in between. Aside from that, every year from 2004 to 2013 saw poor young-of-the-year indices. The 2012 year-class appears to be the worst in more than 50 years. Even after the stock collapsed in the early 80s, the young-of-the-year index was never so low.

That is indeed a bummer. It means we’ve pretty much got nothing coming down the pike to replace all the 2003 fish we are currently knocking the crap out of. But what’s interesting is the cause. When you look at the young-of-the year indices over the last three decades, you see that the bulk of the boom as well as the bust years come in bunches. And there’s some recent science that shows such ups and downs are due to cyclical climate patterns.

There are definitive “Atlantic multidecadal oscillations” (AMOs), ocean cycles that bring several decades of warming waters followed by several decades of cooling waters. Striper numbers appear to rise during warm decades of the AMO, but they sag during cool decades. Since the early 1990s, the AMO has been in a warm phase, and we’ve seen a good amount of boon years for stripers.

That’s because during a warm phase, air masses off the ocean collide with cold fronts off the land, and that creates winter/early spring coastal storms. The result during springtime snowmelt and runoff is higher river flow, more food in the rivers during spawning, and an expanded nursery zone for tiny new stripers. When the AMO flips to a cold phase, you get drier springs, less rain, less food and worse young-of-the year indices. Since the AMO current warm phase heated up in the early 1990s, we’ve had more boom years and fewer bust years.

The recent warm phase of the AMO, which gave us a good run of boom years and contributed to the great striped bass recovery, appears to be winding down. According to several reports, we’re currently turning toward a cooler phase. This explains the Chesapeake’s fewer boom years for stripers, and it doesn’t bode well for future year-classes.

It’s not unreasonable to believe that just such a down cycle caused the striper crash in the 80s. In fact all the data shows a strong correlation. And, when that cycle ended, stripers recovered, not just because of the moratorium put in place, but because conditions for Chesapeake young-of-the year survival became favorable.

What’s the point? Well for one, let’s stop placing the blame where it doesn’t belong, especially when the recreational sector kinda lives in a glass house. But also, if we know we’re getting poor young-of-the year indices, and if we know we can probably expect another two decades of more bust than boom years, then why wouldn’t we immediately take action to lessen the impact? In other words, make a rational decision to reduce fishing mortality across the board. This will allow us to keep as many of those poor-year-class fish in the water as we can while protecting the only two good year-classes we’ve had in the last decade. Subsequently, when conditions become favorable for young-of-the-year survival, we can create big new year-classes. Really, managers should be doing everything they can to protect the 2011 year-class. But they aren’t. Maryland allowed a 14 percent increase in harvest just this year so that it could direct mortality on/take advantage of the supposed abundance of those 2011s, which would just be reaching 18 inches (the “producer area size limit”). I mean come on man… Seriously?

Striped bass have been the ASMFC’s one and only success story. They’ve screwed up just about everything else, and they are dangerously close to screwing up striped bass. “When you get right down to it, striped bass aren’t managed very well,” says noted blogger Charlie Witek. “They managed to get along during the fat years, when favorable conditions in their natal rivers allowed them to produce a big year-class every few seasons. But when times got tough and stocks declined and the population began to grow lean, ASMFC’s ‘flexible’ management approach lacked the solid legal foundation needed to assure that overfishing is stopped and the stock is rebuilt.”

It’s hard to argue that the ASMFC doesn’t consistently make bad decisions when it comes to allowable harvest. That’s because, as Charlie points out, there is no law requiring it to end overfishing and rebuild stocks. But it’s also because its members hear from the pro-harvest folks who want to fill their coolers and their wallets now, and to hell with the future, far more than they hear from rational, conservation-minded anglers like us.

Tell your commissioners NO MORE DELAY: You want to see a clear reduction in fishing mortality now. You can find their contact information here: ASMFC commissioners.


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.

Posted in Conservation
19 comments on “On striped bass, why we’re really seeing a decline
  1. avatar Dave A says:

    You make some good points but you seem to pretend that commercial fishermen are little angels that would never high-grade their catch, hence making them, as you say–very easily regulated. The other half is that a small percentage of the commercial fishermen are some of THE BEST anglers on the coast and with the old regulations (pre-2014), they were allowed to take 30 fish which when you factor in that there were mutiple licenses per boat, and plenty of binocular guys high-tailing for bent rods. These guys were given a license to kill and they decimated huge resident populations of stripers that are now gone–ask the Vineyard guys who ruined their fishery? Cuttyhunk? With that said, I don’t think the commercial fishery needs to go away–I believe that proper regulation needs to made across the board–charter, commercial, recreational. The other aspect that you seem to overlook is that while we have had a long stretch of lower-than-average spawns, even in years where conditions are not ideal, if there were twice as many fish, there’d be twice as many chances for YOY stripers to survive. I almost always read (and agree with) everything you say. But this post reads like a commercial bass fishermen edited it for you. 🙂

  2. Dave! I don’t really disagree with anything you’ve said. Except that I don’t think I overlooked any of those things. Yes, commercial fishing has an impact… Not just a small one. But so does recreational fishing… Likely even more so than commercial. And there are undoubtedly climate factors contributing to the decline! The point is that it aint right to just point the finger at the commercials and say they are killing our fishery. Just not accurate.

  3. avatar John Rice says:

    “Striped bass have been the ASMFC’s one and only success story”

    Really John? Really? I guess that black sea bass are scarce, eh? How about scup? How about fluke?

    Look up their status and get back to us. Y’know John, you may have “stepped away” from CCA, but you are still obfuscating and disillusioning, like you were their spokesman.

    As far as a supposed “decline”, I don’t buy it.

  4. Uhm… John… The ONLY reason those fisheries (BSB, sup and summer flounder) are rebuilt is because they are jointly managed by the Mid Atlantic Council, which as you know has to comply with the Magnuson Act’s 10 year rebuilding timelines. As far as the decline goes, I’m not gonna bother commenting here, because readers see it on the water. And as you know there’s been a definitive decline on paper since 2004. Very few people today deny there’s been a decline. And according to the projections we will like be overfishing by this fall and the stock will be in the overfished column then also, and certainly by next year if there isn’t a 30% reduction.

  5. avatar Eric says:

    Although I agree with some of this article and recreational fishing has boomed I think we should add another category to the list. I consider myself a recreational fisherman, that is that I catch fish for fun, I release more than 95% of the fish that I catch and many seasons I do not keep any at all. Now with the economy and the higher price of food in general I think that we need to reconsider the recreational status of the rod and reel fishermen and give the people that need to put food on the table their own category, perhaps a Sustenance or Provider category.
    I would also like to address the poaching situation. It must stop. I place a call to the warden or environmental police whenever I see people keeping short fish, no excused I do not care who they are or what back ground they are. I have witnessed people with trash bags full of short stripers in the Cape and called numerous times

  6. avatar jeff nichols says:

    John, While I love your writing style and wit, you finally wrote a blog that bothered me. Quite simply this particular blog like the recent NYTIMES article is academic, by that, I mean written by people who have not worked on a commercial draggers or spent a lot of time pin hooking for bass— I might be wrong maybe you have, its just inconceivable to me, based on what you wrote. from what I can tell you are not acquainted with how the tag “system ” works. Don’t feel bad, neither does the NYTIMES, sadly there journalism has turned to shit. They could cover this story-but they wont for whatever reason. Anway, The one thing we can all do , save go uindercover on a dragger, is A) a watch the videos of the NC massacre again on U tube, and B) read SriperWars by Dick Rustle? ITS ON AMAZON! SW is the only real literary reference we have on this fish. In his book Rustle (a professional journalist,) not a b-level hack like me) clearly speaks of a specific dragger off NC coming apon thousands of doormat breeders during the winter circa 79. To not thing that the est 2 million pounds illegally taken out of the Chesapeake in 2010, or the draggers massacre in 2012 is not directly affecting are fishing today is absurd. I also think all those fish that had micro died off. Finally 2 To think that rec guys, especial a party boats that rarely leave the dock (the viking sales once a week for bass in July! most party boats don’t leave the dock out here, (MTK) in July august!! last fall was an exception!! most times a party baot will only have five or six passes on the fish. They are to big to manover, many nights, only 7 or eaght fish are taken. Some nights they crush them. GOOD for them !! A pin hookers can stay on “the meat” as long as they want, and a dragger in the fog… I have already said to much.

  7. You’re missing the point of the blog man. I’m not saying commercials or mico aren’t having an impact. I’m say’n we all are man. But yeah, recs probably more than anyone. Come on… You’ve seen the dumpsters full of legal striped carcasses. Multiply that sht by every f’n marina on the striper coast and it’s pretty plain that there’s a sht-ton of mortality on the rec side. What’s academic about that? And the illegal stuff? Yeah, it’s a huge problem. Not arguing it isn’t. But what’s your point there?

  8. avatar jeff nichols says:

    I don’t no, so complicated, I should really shut up. I do know that out here in MTK Less people are fishing. The dumpster are not full even in mid July. Maybe it is gas prices.
    Also an editor at the Times, when pitched an article on poaching, googled “Poaching striped bass” and came up with a recipy, and said there was no info on the subject. Were is CNN on this one? Just the arrest, and tonnage of confiscated fish
    alone , make a story.

  9. avatar Lenny Rudow says:

    Hey Capt. John: while a lot of what you say resonates, particularly regarding the massive numbers of fish taken by recreational anglers, I’d appreciate it if you could point us in the direction of where you got your information regarding AMOs. Having been on the Chesapeake personally dozens of times literally every spring since the mid 80’s, I find it very hard to believe we’re currently in any sort of “cooling phase”. In fact, this year was the only relatively cool spring on the bay in many years. You point to the below-level recruitment numbers of the past decade, but this same time frame has been unusually warm – yet it’s the “cold phase” that’s to blame? If this information is correct, why have we had just two boom years during this time frame? Beyond that, the spring snow melt which you mention running into the Chesapeake has been virtually non-existent during the same time-frame(this spring excepted). It’s been regular old rain, and often in large amounts – which is also good for spawning conditions… except that much of said runoff is surely contaminated with lord-knows-what. I find the AMO theory interesting, but it just doesn’t seem to jibe with reality. One final thought: while I note your recognition of poaching on the commercial side, I don’t believe you’re giving it it’s due by a long shot. As recent discoveries have shows (abandoned illegal gill nets found in the middle bay with tens of thousands of pounds of dead stripers, the Hayden poaching ring, etc.) a single dishonest commercial has the capacity to kill more fish in any one specific area than the entire recreational fleet.
    All of that said, I admire your bravery for taking a position you surely knew would be unpopular, and speaking your mind on it.

  10. avatar Brad Burns says:

    The mortality from commercial fishing for striped bass is a very large percentage of the total. It depends on how you measure it, but it is well over 50% if you count it by the number of fish. In any case it is a lot of the catch allocated to a very small number of people. The more important point, though, is the effect that the commercial fishing mentality has on the whole management landscape. You point out the strong resistance to any cuts coming out of MD. I can tell you it is there in MA too, and that resistance does not come from the recreational community. I think you are missing the boat by complaining about recreational fishermen wanting to take home a fish to eat. I agree that we need to drastically reduce fishing mortality. Personally I think we need to stop it altogether until things turn around. But no longer looking at striped bass as a commercial crop is a necessary step to creating a future of sustainable quality fishing for striped bass.

  11. Lenny… Re AMO, here’s the reference (below). It should answer your questions about warm vs. cold phases. Re poaching, I don’t disagree. Doesn’t change the fact though that recs are responsible for a lot of mortality. According to the numbers, most of it. Pointing fingers at the commercial guys isn’t helping things IMHO… Just makes us look like hypocrites. We should be focusing on reducing F right now, not playing the blame game. And while it’s certainly unpopular to say, anglers should understand that they are, a lot of times, part of the problem.


  12. Man… It’s surprising how many people are missing the point here. It’s like you say that recs are just as much if not more so a part of the problem, then people assume you mean commercial guys aren’t part of the problem. Brad… You say commercial mortality is “well over 50% if you count it by the number of fish”… ??? Gonna have to explain that one to me. And yes, “it is a lot of the catch allocated to a very small number of people”, but one can certainly argue that commercial guys are just catching fish as a service to some dude in the Mid West who doesn’t have access to a boat, gear and uhm, the ocean. And certainly one could argue that this is in the public interest. Re “the effect that the commercial fishing mentality has on the whole management landscape.” I used to buy that, but not anymore. There are plenty of recs (mostly party boats) that are resisting any reduction in F. You may think resistance doesn’t not come from the recreational community, but it certainly does. Have you listened in on an ASMFC meeting lately? Listen to the Jersey guys? (note Mass has been adamantly advocating for a reduction). And who’s complaining about recreational fishermen wanting to take home a fish to eat??? Seriously? Did you read the article? No one was saying that. The point is we can’t just sit there and say the commercial guys are destroying the striped bass fishery, when we are just as responsible. And the climate thing? Certainly there is some science behind this. We need to reduce fishing mortality, across the board. Instead of sitting there and saying that the commercial guys did it all.

  13. That’s the most well reasoned editorial I’ve read yet about the state of the striped bass fishery.
    Sharing the blame amongst all user groups, rather than merely finger pointing is refreshing and in my opinion extremely accurate. Not surprised that some who have staked themselves to one side of the arguement or another are making negative comments.
    I suppose like many political issues, if everyone is mad at you, you’re probably right..

    Good Job Capt.

  14. avatar Lenny Rudow says:

    Terrifically interesting stuff; thanks for providing the link and bringing it to our attention. But a careful read raises more questions than it answers. First, if you accept the AMO conclusions, and that the recent boom began in the early 90’s, we should still be in for good striper recruitment into the early 2020’s. In fact, it would be easy to turn the conservation argument on its head – since there’s another boom decade on the way, which should be at least as good as the 1990 – 2000 time frame, why don’t we allow anglers to take more fish now? (I am NOT arguing this, merely pointing out a different way one could look at the AMO information). Second, again, many of the conclusions just doesn’t jibe with reality. Why did we have huge bunker populations in the late 90’s as compared to today? Why was 2004 – 2013 striper recruitment so low (excepting ’11), when these years lay smack in the middle of the “boom”? The scientists certainly seem to be onto something here, but to apply it to management with an admittedly “fuzzy” understanding seems premature, at best. Unfortunately, I have to believe there’s a lot more going on here – pollutants and water quality being biggies. And while your point about recs sounding hypocritical is valid, I disagree that any numbers showing their larger impact are even remotely possible to substantiate – we simply don’t know how many are commercially poached, period. We just know it’s a lot. So: what to do, what to do??? A good start is bringing these issues to the fore and discussing them, as you’ve done with this blog. I don’t regularly read anyone else’s fishing blog, but… bookmarked!

  15. avatar rip says:

    Slot limit like Maine would be good for all along the eastern shore.. Keep a fish but release the breaders

  16. avatar Ken says:

    You are right on target. New Jersey outlawed commercial fishing years ago. Yet the fall striper run in the Delaware bay and the Cape May rips is now a thing of the past. I remember, as far as I could see, boats chunking for big cow stripers. in the Delaware bay. Outdoor writer Lou Rodia was right when he said, the stripers will not withstand that pressure in a spawning area.

  17. avatar Chris says:

    All catch numbers need to be lowered, starting with the recreational catch. 1@32 would be a good start…1@36 would be even better. I often fish the Cape Cod Canal, and to see the amount of big fish killed during times of good fishing is appalling…the regs need to change in order to preserve this resource. The ASMFC has set dates for public comment and all those concerned should be sure to attend one of these sessions.

  18. avatar Les says:

    There is another disturbing fact to consider. It took the DNR three years to finally charge those guys for illegal netting. During that time tens of thousands of pounds of rockfish were allowed to be caught as evidence. With that said…the DNR did nothing to help either the recreational or commercial players. Those guys were guilty but they should have been put down three years earlier….many spawn sized fish would have been saved plus the by catch. If you are going point out one “culprit” point out the other. They should be embarrassed for their actions.

  19. avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    Didn’t a slot limit help save redfish populations? I say allow a limited commercial rod and reel fishery to supply the restaurants and fish mongers with both commercial and recreational slot limits …the 24 to 28″ fish are the best table fare anyway.

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