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 2005 to 2014, total coastal recreational harvest has ranged from a high of 31 million pounds in 2006 to a low of 19.2 million pounds in 2012, with an average of 26.2 million pounds. Landings from New York (29%), Massachusetts (19%), New Jersey (18%), and Maryland (12%) have comprised approximately 78% of annual recreational landings since 2005. Recreational harvest in 2014 were estimated at 24.1 million pounds. The number of fish released alive increased annually after the passage of Amendment 6 (2003) to a high of 23.3 million fish in 2006. Since then, the number of fish released alive has decreased by 77% to a low of 5.2 million fish in 2012. Reasons for the decline may be attributed to a reduction in stock size from the peak in 2003, a decreased availability of fish staying in nearshore areas, and changes in angler behavior in response to socioeconomic factors. The number of fish released alive in the recreational sector for 2014 was estimated at 7.3 million fish.
The total commercial harvest from 2005 to 2014 ranged between 5.8 and 7.2 million pounds, and averaged 6.7 million pounds. The Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions accounted for approximately 59% of total commercial harvest over the same time period, and ranged between 3.3-4.4 million pounds and averaged 4.1 million pounds. Other primary contributors to coastwide commercial landings include Massachusetts (17%) and New York (11%). Commercial landings in 2014 were estimated at 5.9 million pounds.
Within the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River management area, total harvest in 2014 was estimated at 121,956 pounds with 71,372 pounds coming from the Albemarle Sound commercial fishery, and 61,642 pounds from the Albemarle Sound and Roanoke River recreational fisheries.
On a regular basis, female SSB and 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 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 SSB has continued to decline since 2004, and in 2015 is estimated at 129 million pounds just above the SSB threshold of 127 million pounds, and below the SSB target of 159 million pounds. Total F is estimated at 0.16 in 2015, a value that is 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 by 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.
In response to the results of the 2013 benchmark assessment indicating steady decline in the spawning stock biomass, the Board approved Addendum IV in October 2014. The Addendum establishes 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 are required to implement a 25% harvest reduction from 2013 levels, and the while Chesapeake Bay states/jurisdictions are 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 Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (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; total F in 2015 is estimated at 0.16 which is below both the F threshold and target levels. However, even though the stock is not overfished, female SSB has continued to decline and in 2015 is estimated at 129 million pounds which is just above the SSB threshold of 127 million pounds. Addendum IV continues to set the coastwide regulatory program for Atlantic striped bass (i.e., commercial quotas and recreational bag and size limits).
Given the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River stock of striped bass contributes minimally to the coastwide complex when compared to the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware, and Hudson stocks, Addendum IV defers management of this stock to the State of North Carolina using stock-specific biological reference points. These stock-specific reference points, which have been approved by the Board, will result in a separate quota that is set to maintain fishing mortality for the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River (A/R) stock at its target level. The target quota for the A/R stock in 2014 was 305,762 pounds.