For years, there has been fear and anxiety spreading about the status of the Atlantic striped bass resource, fueled by the continuous decline in the striped bass population since the early 2000s and most recently by below-average recruitment (spawning success) in Maryland portions of Chesapeake Bay. Since 2018, when striped bass were declared overfished, the recreational fishing community has rallied to push for conservation to rebuild the striped bass fishery, culminating with the finalization of Amendment 7 to the fishery management plan earlier in 2022. It has been a bumpy journey, and we still have a long way to go, but for now, I have positive news to share.
The final draft of the 2022 Atlantic Striped Bass Stock Assessment found that the striped bass population is not experiencing overfishing, meaning fishing mortality is where it needs to be to rebuild successfully. In other words, the new slot limit regulations are succeeding at reducing the impact of recreational fishing on the struggling striper population.
The results indicate that if managers can keep fishing mortality where it is now, there is a high probability of rebuilding the overfished striped bass stock by 2029. Does that mean it will be smooth sailing and we’ll have the same striped bass regulations the entire time? Likely not, as managers will need to review updated stock assessments to ensure the current slot limit is keeping fishing mortality at or below where it needs to be. If it isn’t, they will consider further adjustments as required by the management triggers reaffirmed in the fishery management plan through Amendment 7. The next striped bass stock assessment is currently scheduled for 2024.
Although a finding of no overfishing is great news, it’s important to note the 2022 stock assessment results are based on assumptions made by a team of technical experts charged with providing the best scientific information available for management. Because of inherent uncertainty in estimating fish populations, they test different scenarios to check the robustness of the results. This assessment was no different, especially considering data challenges linked to COVID. A significant aspect adding confidence to the results is the use of a conservative assumption of low recruitment (juvenile striped bass) in future years. This means the rebuilding challenges associated with continued poor spawning are accounted for in the projections. Rebuilding uncertainty is still high because it relies on long-term projections, but taken in totality, the results represent the best scientific understanding of the population and its trajectory. If you’re feeling cautiously optimistic, you’re right where I am.
If you’re wondering what you can do to help bolster rebuilding the striped bass population, I suggest focusing on implementing best fish-handling practices. The 2022 assessment still indicates that approximately half of the total striped bass removed from the population comes from catch-and-release mortality. Following best fish-handling practices can increase the survival of released fish. Know them before you go and teach others along the way. But, most of all, get out and enjoy some fall striped bass fishing as we breathe a temporary sigh of relief that we’re headed in the right direction to rebuild this iconic fishery.
For more information about this and other policy issues, visit www.KeepAmericaFishing.org.
Mike Waine is the American Sportfishing Association’s Atlantic Fisheries Policy Director