Atlantic striped bass (Morone saxatilis) are an estuarine species that can be found from Florida to Canada, although the stocks that the Commission manages range from Maine to North Carolina. A long-lived species (at least up to 30 years of age), striped bass typically spend the majority of their adult life in coastal estuaries or the ocean, migrating north and south seasonally and ascending to rivers to spawn in the spring.
Mature females (age six and older) produce large quantities of eggs, which are fertilized by mature males (age two and older) as they are released into riverine spawning areas. While developing, the fertilized eggs drift with the downstream currents and eventually hatch into larvae. After their arrival in the nursery areas, located in river deltas and the inland portions of coastal sounds and estuaries, they mature into juveniles. They remain in coastal sounds and estuaries for two to four years and then join the coastal migratory population in the Atlantic Ocean. In the ocean, fish tend to move north during the summer and south during the winter. Important wintering grounds for the mixed stocks are located from offshore New Jersey to North Carolina. With warming water temperatures in the spring, the mature adult fish migrate to riverine spawning areas to complete their life cycle. The majority of the coastal migratory stock originates in the Chesapeake Bay spawning areas, with significant contributions from the spawning grounds of the Hudson and Delaware Rivers.
For centuries, Atlantic striped bass have supported valuable commercial and recreational fisheries on the Atlantic coast. Currently, commercial fisheries operate in eight Atlantic coastal jurisdictions, while recreational fisheries operate in 14. Commercial fishermen harvest Atlantic striped bass with a variety of gears including gillnets, pound nets, haul seines, trawls, and hook and line, while recreational fishermen use hook and line almost exclusively.
Increased fishing pressure in the 1970s coupled with degradation and loss of habitat led to stock collapse in the early 1980s. Commercial landings peaked in 1973 at almost 15 million pounds and then declined abruptly to 2.2 million pounds (271,958 fish) by 1983. During the mid-to-late 1980s, a number of states closed their Atlantic striped bass fisheries in order to initiate stock rebuilding. In the mid-1990s, the commercial fishery slowly grew again under a new management program (Amendment 4). Coastwide commercial landings rose from about 700,000 pounds (94,000 fish) in 1990 to 3.6 million pounds (540,000 fish) in 1995. Under Amendment 5, commercial striped bass harvest grew to 5.6 million pounds (921,000 fish) by 2002. Since the passage of Amendment 6, commercial harvest has been managed through a quota system, and landings averaged roughly 6.5 million pounds (943,000 fish) annually from 2004 to 2014. The commercial quota was reduced starting in 2015 through implementation of Addendum IV. Commercial landings are consistently dominated by Chesapeake Bay fisheries. Total commercial landings were estimated at 4.6 million pounds (592,576 fish) in 2017, of which approximately 56% (by weight) came from the Chesapeake Bay (77% in terms of numbers of fish).
Between 1982 and 1989, recreational anglers landed an annual average of about 325,000 fish due to a combination of low stock abundance and stringent regulations. Under Amendment 4, recreational landings grew from 579,000 fish in 1990 to more than one million fish in 1994. The following year, with the declaration of restored stock status, recreational landings more than doubled to 2.3 million fish, and landings continued to increase to a record 5.4 million fish in 2010. From 2004 to 2014, recreational landings averaged 4.7 million fish annually. From 2015-2017, recreational anglers harvested an estimated 3.2 million fish annually, which can be attributed to implementation of more restrictive regulations via Addendum IV. Of those coastwide recreational landings, Maryland landed the largest proportion (37%) in 2017, followed by New Jersey (21%), New York (16%), Massachusetts (13%), and Virginia (4%). Anglers continue to release the vast majority of striped bass they catch, primarily due to regulation (meaning the fish is not of legal size or the angler has already landed the bag limit). Since implementation of Amendment 6 in 2003, anglers have released roughly 84% of fish caught each year (the proportion of fish caught and released in 2017 was 91%). The number of released fish peaked in 2006 at 53.5 million fish. Total numbers of releases have declined since then, averaging 26 million fish annually from 2007-2017. An estimated 38 million fish were caught and released in 2017.
On a regular basis, female spawning stock biomass (SSB) and fishing mortality rate (F) are estimated and compared to target and threshold levels (i.e., biological reference points) in order to assess the status of the stock. The 1995 estimate of female SSB is currently used as the SSB threshold because many stock characteristics, such as an expanded age structure, were reached by this year, and this is also the year the stock was declared recovered. The female SSB target is equal to 125% female SSB1995. To estimate the associated F threshold and target, population projections were made by using a constant F and changing the value until the SSB threshold or target value was achieved. For the 2018 benchmark, the reference point values have been updated. The female SSB threshold was estimated at 91,436 mt (202 million pounds) with a female SSB target of 114,295 mt (252 million pounds). The F threshold was estimated at 0.24 and the F target was estimated at 0.20.
The 2018 benchmark stock assessment estimated female SSB in 2017 at 151 million pounds, which is below the SSB threshold, indicating the stock is overfished. Fishing mortality in 2017 was estimated at 0.31, which is above the F threshold, indicating the stock is experiencing overfishing.
Young anglers with an Atlantic striped bass. Photo credit: Captain John Brackett of the Queen Mary.
Prior to passage of the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act (Striped Bass Act, 1984), the precursor to the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act (1993), the Commission did not have the management authority that it does today. The Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Atlantic Striped Bass (1981) and Amendments 1 and 2 (1984) only provided recommendations on how to sustainably manage the resource. Amendment 3 (1985) was the first enforceable plan under the Striped Bass Act. The Amendment implemented measures to protect the 1982 year class, the first modestly-sized cohort for nearly a decade. Several states, beginning with Maryland, opted for an even more conservative approach and imposed a total moratorium on striped bass landings. The Amendment contained a trigger mechanism to reopen fisheries based on a juvenile abundance index, which was triggered with the recruitment of the 1989 year class. Subsequently, Amendment 4 (1989) was implemented and aimed to rebuild the resource rather than maximize yield. In 1995, the Commission declared Atlantic coastal striped bass stocks fully recovered.
Currently, striped bass is managed through Amendment 6 to the FMP (2003). The Amendment introduced a new set of biological reference points based on female SSB, and a suite of management triggers based on the biological reference points. The coastal commercial quota was restored to 100% of average landings during the 1972-1979 historical period, and recreational fisheries were constrained by a two fish bag limit and a minimum size limit of 28 inches, except for the Chesapeake Bay fisheries, Albemarle-Roanoke (A/R) fisheries, and fisheries with approved conservation equivalency proposals. At the time, the Chesapeake Bay and A/R regulatory programs were different than the coastal migratory program because these portions of the stock were predicated on a more conservative F target than the coastal migratory stock. The independent F target allowed these jurisdictions to implement separate seasons, harvest caps, and size and bag limits as long as they remained under that target.
Since 2007, a series of three Addenda to Amendment 6 were implemented. Addendum I (2007) established a bycatch monitoring program to improve stock assessments, and Addendum II (2010) modified the definition of recruitment failure, a term defined in the FMP and associated with one of its management triggers. Addendum III (2012) addressed illegal striped bass harvest and was developed in response to a multi-year, multi-jurisdictional investigation conducted within the Chesapeake Bay that uncovered over one million pounds of illegally harvested striped bass with an estimated net worth of $7 million. The Addendum requires all states and jurisdictions with a commercial striped bass fishery to implement a commercial harvest tagging program whereby each commercially-caught striped bass is affixed with a unique tag that must remain on the fish until purchased by the consumer.
Addendum IV to Amendment 6 was approved in 2014. The Addendum established one set of F reference points for the coastal migratory population in all management areas. Now, and as it was prior to Amendment 5, the Atlantic striped bass complex (excluding the A/R stock) is managed and modeled as a single stock with one set of SSB and F reference points. Since the A/R stock was deemed by the Commission to contribute minimally to the coastal migratory population, Addendum IV defers management of the A/R stock to the State of North Carolina under the auspices of the Commission. Addendum IV was also initiated in response to a steady decline in SSB since 2004 and F being above target. Although the stock was not overfished or experiencing overfishing, the Addendum modified commercial and recreational measures coastwide to reduce F to a more sustainable level and stabilize SSB. Addendum IV measures were implemented prior to the 2015 fishing season and the 2016 assessment update indicated that the addendum was successful (i.e., F in 2015 was below F target). However, in 2018, a new benchmark assessment which uses updated MRIP estimates, changed the Commission’s understanding of stock status over the last decade. The benchmark assessment found the stock to be overfished since 2013 and experiencing overfishing. As a result, Addendum VI was initiated to reduce harvest, end overfishing, and bring F to the target level in 2020.
Specifically, Addendum VI (2019) reduces all state commercial quotas by 18%, and implements a 1 fish bag limit and a 28”-35” recreational slot limit for ocean fisheries and a 1 fish bag limit and an 18” minimum size limit for Chesapeake Bay recreational fisheries. The measures are designed to achieve at least an 18% reduction in total removals at the coastwide level, and apply the reduction equally (proportionally) to both sectors. States may submit alternative regulations through conservation equivalency. All conservation equivalency proposals are subject to technical review and Board approval. Since catch and release practices contribute significantly to overall fishing mortality, the Addendum mandates the use of circle hooks when fishing with bait to reduce release mortality in recreational striped bass fisheries. Outreach and education will be a necessary element to garner support and compliance with this important conservation measure.
States are required to submit Addendum VI implementation plans (and conservation equivalency proposals) by November 30, 2019 for review by the Technical Committee and approval by the Board in February 2020. States must implement mandatory circle hook requirements by January 1, 2021. All other provisions of Addendum VI must be implemented by April 1, 2020. In May 2020, the Board will consider a postponed motion to initiate an Amendment to address overfished status and other issues with the management program.