What’s up with striped bass these days?

How’s your bass season been? I mean really, how many 20-plus-pounders have you gotten this year? I’m not talking about those fish you might have caught eeling or live-lining bunker, but those fish over 20-pounds you’ve taken on a fly. I could be wrong, but my guess is not many. I do know that the number of fish over 20-pounds that my boat has seen is down quite a bit. Pretty darn frustrating when you go back to the marina and there are dozens of dead bass carcasses under the cleaning table, smelling the marina up at low tide.
Big striped bass caught on a fly
Undoubtedly, the guys fishing bait appear to be having a standard “good” bass year. In fact the last several years have been good for them. That’s why I wasn’t surprised a bit back in the fall of 2004 when the ASMFC released its 2003 striped bass stock assessment. The virtual population analysis (VPA) – showed that larger, older striped bass (ages 7 to 11 — fish in the 10-plus-pound range) were being drastically overfished along the coast. According to the report, the kill rate for these larger fish was 150% above the overfishing threshold (the point at which the ASMFC requires that corrective action be taken to curb mortally). The numbers further indicated that the largest, oldest fish – those fish most would label a “trophy” – were experiencing the highest mortality rate. The report further suggested that these big breeders had been heading downward for several years before 2003.

Unsettling, but like I said, not surprising. A trip down to any local marina in the Spring or the Fall of 2003, 2004 and 2005 provided ample evidence that these bigger fish were in fact being caught in large numbers. Add to all of this the fact that the illegal striped bass “poaching” industry in my neck of the woods appeared to be having a banner two years and one can begin to see the problem that the larger older striped bass are facing.

But, the estimated increase in mortality and decrease in spawning fish contained in the 2003 ASMFC assessment was so dramatic, particularly when compared to previous years, that members of the ASMFC Technical Committee questioned the accuracy of the findings. Conversely, tagging data which was previously considered less reliable than the population model indicated that the kill rate was just a hair over target and under the overfishing threshold.

So, the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board decided to take the easy road and punt. I would have preferred that the ASMFC had taken some precautionary measures back then, but it decided to wait another year to see if the 2004 stock assessment confirmed the overfishing of the older larger bass.

Because those numbers in the 2004 ASMFC report reflected the 2003 catch, they didn’t take into account the 2004 liberalization in regulations that came after Amendment 6 to the striped bass management plan was adopted, like the 40% increase in commercial quota and a decision by Massachusetts, the largest recreational harvester on the coast, to increase anglers’ bag limit from one to two fish. Many folks in the angling community were fairly certain that the number of larger, older bass killed in 2004 would be far greater than it was in 2003, and that it would probably force ASMFC to take action and quell what appeared to many to be an unsustainable harvest. But, that’s not quite what happened.

On October 31, 2005 the 2004 Stock Assessment was released at the ASMFC Striped Bass Management Board meeting. Apparently, the formula that was used during prior years to estimate the number of fish killed by anglers was abruptly changed. Under the new formula, the mortality on the larger older stripers was now conveniently just a hair below the threshold for corrective action. The new formula dramatically changed the estimates for both 2003 and 2004 fishing mortality. Under the old VPA model the 2004 fishing mortality would have been way over the threshold for corrective action as many expected that it would be. Even if one were to accept the accuracy of the model, you still have to question whether sufficient caution was being used when interpreting the results.

Even with all of this uncertainly, the ASMFC didn’t miss the chance to pat themselves on the back claiming in a press release “Scientific advice presented to the Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board indicates that striped bass management under amendment 6 to the interstate management plan continues to be a success.” However, even with the very significant changes in the stock assessment caused by the adoption of the revised model, anglers are still on the brink of overfishing those 7-year-plus striped bass, and about 30% above the target fishing mortality established in Amendment 6 to the Striped Bass Management Plan. In addition, the 2004 stock assessment report pointed out that the number of fish killed was up 33% from 2003. However, because the morality level is still below the threshold, the ASMFC is not required to take any action, and so will continue to maintain the status-quo. New York ASMFC commissioner Gordon Colvin said that he was not convinced that the Management Board shouldn’t be talking about serious conservative changes to striped bass management. I agree!

Because I’m inherently a cynic, I can’t help but think that the change in the VPA model was the result of the ASMFC feeling pressure to protect their image and the accuracy of the management plans they had created in the past. Regardless, given that the new stock assessment’s numbers still indicate we are so close to overfishing larger older fish, and given the well known fact that there is a lot of variability and uncertainty in any estimate derived from the VPA, one would hope that the ASMFC would prefer to error on the side of conservation. However, historically this hasn’t been the case.

The Stripers Forever survey released last December showed that its members were catching smaller and fewer striped bass during the 2005 season than in prior years, and at least from where I sit, I see that trend continuing in 2006, at least with us flyfishers. While that is speculative, one thing is for certain; the number of old, larger breeders being harvested is increasing dramatically each year. Can the stock keep up with this kind of mortality? The fact that I’m seeing fewer and fewer large bass each year on my charters leads me to believe that it can not, and I would urge the ASMFC to take a closer look at bass, and perhaps make some hard choices. My charter business caters to saltwater flyfishers and light tackle anglers; hence my anecdotal data applies to them. Those who fish with bait or even plugs may disagree with my assessment, but flyrodders are the proverbial canaries-in-the-coal-mine. Because the technique we use makes it harder to catch large fish, we are the first to see the effects of a decline. I would hope folks heed our warning.

I’d be interested to see if other flyfishers out there are experiencing a death of large bass also. Please, weigh in on the subject. Let me know.


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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