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.
Young anglers with an Atlantic striped bass. Photo credit: Captain John Brackett of the Queen Mary.
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 and today's anglers again harvest striped bass in great number.
The striped bass commercial harvest steadily grew from 3.4 million pounds in 1995 to peak at over 7 million pounds in 2003. Commercial harvest of the species since 2004 has averaged around 7 million pounds per year. Gill nets are the dominant commercial gear used to target striped bass. Other commercial fishing gears include hook and line, pound nets, seines, and trawls.
As the saltwater recreational fishing sector has grown, so has the popularity of striped bass. The recreational sector now accounts for a larger portion of the total harvest than the commercial sector. Recreational harvest has grown steadily since the reopening of many state fisheries in 1990, with landings of 19 million pounds in 2012.
The 2013 Atlantic striped bass benchmark assessment indicates the resource is not overfished or experiencing overfishing relative to the proposed new reference points. Although the stock is not overfished, female SSB has continued to decline since 2004 and is estimated at 128 million pounds just above the SSB threshold of 127 million pounds, and below the SSB target of 159 million pounds (Figure 2). Additionally, total fishing mortality is estimated at 0.20, a value that is between the proposed new fishing mortality threshold (0.219) and fishing mortality target (0.18).
Atlantic striped bass experienced a period of strong recruitment (number of age‐1 fish entering the population) from 1993-2003, followed by a period of lower recruitment from 2004-2009 (although not as low as the early 1980s, when the stock was overfished). The 2011 year-class was strong (i.e., abundant), but early observations from several states’ juvenile indices indicate the 2012 year class was very weak (i.e., low abundance).
Projections of female SSB and fishing mortality suggest if the current fishing mortality rate (0.20) is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of the stock being overfished (SSB less than the SSB threshold) is high and increases until 2015-2016, but declines thereafter. This trend is driven by the lack of strong year classes currently in the fishery, and the emergence of the strong 2011 year class that matures into the spawning stock in three to four years. Despite recent declines in SSB, the stock is still well above the SSB during the moratorium that was in place in the mid-1980s.
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. The Board has tasked the Technical Committee with developing Chesapeake Bay-specific fishing mortality reference points for the Board's consideration in August 2015.
Given the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River (A/R) 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 F for the A/R stock at its target level.
Under Amendment 6, states may submit conservation equivalency proposals that meet reduction requirements. Submitted proposals were reviewed by the Technical Committee and approved by the Board in February 2015. States and jurisdictions must implement their final measures prior to the beginning of their 2015 fisheries.