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.
Atlantic striped bass have formed the basis of one of the most important fisheries on the Atlantic coast for centuries. Early records recount their abundance as being so great at one time they were used to fertilize fields. However, overfishing and poor environmental conditions lead to the collapse of the fishery in the 1980s. Through the hardship and dedication of both commercial and recreational fishermen, the stock was rebuilt.
From 2007 to 2014, total recreational landings along the coast have averaged just over 25 million pounds annually. In 2015, recreational anglers harvested an estimated 18.2 million pounds, which can be attributed to implementation of more restrictive regulations via Addendum IV. Of those coastwide recreational landings, Maryland landed the largest percent in numbers of fish (30%), followed by New Jersey (21%), New York (20%), Massachusetts (13%) and Virginia (7%). Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Delaware accounted for the remaining harvest (9%). Anglers continue to release the vast majority of striped bass they catch; 73% to 90% since implementation of Amendment 6 in 2003. The number of released fish peaked in 2006 at 23.3 million fish. Total numbers of releases have declined since then, averaging 8.7 million fish annually since 2007. An estimated 8.4 million fish were caught and released in 2015.
Under Amendment 5, striped bass harvest grew from 3.4 million pounds in 1995 to 6 million pounds in 2002. Since the passage of Amendment 6, commercial harvest has been managed through a quota system, with landings averaging just shy of 7 million pounds annually from 2003 to 2014. In 2015, the commercial quota was reduced through Addendum IV. Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions accounted for approximately 64% (3.1 million pounds) of the total commercial landings in 2015 (4.8 million pounds). Other primary contributors to coastwide commercial landings in 2015 include Massachusetts (18%) and New York (11%). In 2015, commercial harvest in the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River (A/R) management area was estimated at 113,475 pounds and recreational harvest estimated at 126,970 pounds.
The 2016 Atlantic striped bass stock assessment indicates the resource is not overfished nor experiencing overfishing relative to the biological reference points. Although the stock is not overfished, female spawning stock biomass (SSB) has continued to decline since 2004, and in 2015 is estimated at 129 million pounds. This is just above the SSB threshold of 127 million pounds, and below the SSB target of 159 million pounds. Total fishing mortality (F) is estimated at 0.16 in 2015, a value below both the F threshold and target levels (0.22 and 0.18, respectively). Total removals were in 2015 were estimated at 3.02 million fish.
Despite recent declines in SSB, the stock is still well above the SSB during the moratorium that was in place in the mid-late 1980s. Atlantic striped bass experienced a period of strong recruitment (i.e., number of age-1 fish entering the population) from 1993 to 2004, followed by a period of lower recruitment from 2005 to 2011 (although not as low as the 1980's stock collapse). Recruitment of the 2011 year-class was high, but was followed by the second lowest recruitment estimate on record going back to 1982. However, in 2015, recruitment was again high and estimated at 122.8 million age-1 fish (the 2014 year class), the 7th highest on record.
It is projected that if catch remains constant at 3.02 million fish each year for 2016-2018, there is a 39% chance of SSB falling below the threshold level in 2016, but only a 20% chance of this in 2018. This trend is largely driven by the presence of the 2011 year class (now age 5) which is presently maturing into the spawning stock, and is beginning its migration from the Chesapeake Bay into the coastal migratory population.
Young anglers with an Atlantic striped bass. Photo credit: Captain John Brackett of the Queen Mary.
Atlantic striped bass is managed through Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (February 2003) and its subsequent addenda (Addendum I-IV). The management program includes target and threshold biological reference points and sets regulations aimed at achieving the targets. Required regulatory measures include recreational and commercial minimum size limits, recreational creel limits, and commercial quotas. States can implement alternative management measures that are deemed to be equivalent to the preferred measures in Amendment 6 through the conservation equivalency process.
In response to the 2013 benchmark assessment results which indicated steady decline in SSB, the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board approved Addendum IV in October 2014 to establish new fishing mortality reference points (F target and threshold). In order to reduce F to a level at or below the new target, the coastal states were required to implement a 25% harvest reduction from 2013 levels, while Chesapeake Bay states/jurisdictions were required to implement a 20.5% harvest reduction from 2012 levels.
To reduce recreational harvest, states implemented a one fish bag limit while keeping a 28” size limit. Eight states and jurisdictions submitted conservation equivalency proposals for at least one of their fisheries (alternative measures that achieve the same reduction but are designed to meet the state’s fishery needs) which were approved by both the Technical Committee and Board. Based on the results of the 2016 Atlantic striped bass stock assessment, the implementation of Addendum IV successfully reduced F to a more sustainable level, though SSB is still in decline.
Given the A/R striped bass stock contributes minimally to the coastwide complex when compared to the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware and Hudson stocks, Addendum IV deferred management of this stock to the State of North Carolina using Board-approved stock-specific biological reference points. These stock-specific reference points result in a separate quota set to maintain F for the (A/R) stock at its target level.