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 16. 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.
The commercial fishery is managed by a quota system resulting in relatively stable landings since 2004. There are two regional quotas; one for Chesapeake Bay and one for the ocean, which includes bays, inland rivers, and estuaries. The ocean quota is based on average landings during the 1970s and the Chesapeake Bay quota changed annually under a harvest control rule until implementation of a static quota in 2015 through Addendum IV. From 2004 to 2014, commercial landings averaged 6.8 million pounds (1 million fish) per year. From 2015-2019, commercial landings decreased to an average of 4.7 million pounds (619,000 fish) due to implementation of Addendum IV. Commercial landings are consistently dominated by Chesapeake Bay fisheries, accounting for approximately 60% of total commercial landings by weight since 1990 (80% in terms of numbers of fish).
The recreational fishery is managed by bag limits, minimum size or slot size limits, and closed seasons to restrict harvest. From 2004 to 2014, recreational harvest averaged 4.6 million fish per year. From 2015-2019, annual harvest decreased to an estimated 2.8 million fish due to the implementation of more restrictive regulations via Addendum IV, changes in effort and changes in size and distribution of the population through time. However, the fishery is predominantly prosecuted as catch and release, meaning majority of striped bass caught are released alive either due to angler preference or regulation (e.g., undersized, or the angler already harvested the daily bag limit). Since 1990, roughly 90% of total annual striped bass catch is released alive of which 9% are estimated to die as result of the fishing interaction (referred to as “release mortality” or “discard mortality"). In 2019, total recreational catch was estimated at 30.9 million fish. Of that, 2.2 million were harvested and 28.8 million fish were released alive resulting in a release mortality estimate of 2.59 million fish. Of the total recreational harvest in 2019, Maryland landed the largest proportion in number of fish (36%), followed by New York (23%), New Jersey (19%), and Massachusetts (9%).
Please refer to the 2019 FMP Review for more details on annual fishery performance by state and sector.
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 SSB threshold. The associated F threshold and target are calculated to achieve the respective SSB reference points in the long term.
In May 2019, the Board accepted the 2018 Benchmark Stock Assessment and Peer Review Report for management use. The accepted model is a forward projecting statistical catch-at-age model, which uses catch-at-age data and fishery-dependent data and fishery-independent survey indices to estimate annual population size, fishing mortality, and recruitment. The assessment indicated the resource is overfished and experiencing overfishing relative to the updated reference points. Female SSB in the terminal year (2017) was estimated at 151 million pounds, which is below the SSB threshold of 202 million pounds. F in 2017 was estimated at 0.31, which is above the F threshold of 0.24.
The assessment also indicated a period of strong recruitment (numbers of age-1 fish entering the population) from 1994-2004, following by a period of low recruitment from 2005-2011 which likely contributed to the decline in SSB in recent years. Recruitment was high in 2012, 2015, and 2016. In 2017, estimated at 108.8 million age-1 fish in 2017 which is below the time series average of 140.9 million fish.
Young anglers with an Atlantic striped bass. Photo credit: Captain John Brackett of the Queen Mary.
Increased fishing pressure in the 1970s, coupled with degradation and loss of habitat, led to stock collapse and stimulated the development of a cooperative interstate fisheries management plan (FMP). However, 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 first Interstate 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 plan under the Striped Bass Act to include mandatory conservation measures. The Amendment implemented measures to protect the 1982 year class, the first modestly-sized cohort for nearly a decade. Some states elected for an even more conservative approach and imposed a total moratorium to protect the 1982 year class. The Amendment contained a mechanism to relax fishery regulations based on a juvenile abundance index. The mechanism was triggered with the recruitment of the 1989 year class and led to the implementation of Amendment 4 (1989), which aimed to rebuild the resource rather than maximize yield. In 1995, with adoption of Amendment 5, 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 reference points. The commercial quota for the ocean fishery was restored to 100% of average landings during the 1972-1979 historical period, and recreational fisheries were constrained by a 2-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.
From 2007 to 2012, a series of three Addenda to Amendment 6 were implemented. These addenda addressed a range of issues, including implementation of a bycatch monitoring program, modifying the definition of recruitment failure, and implementation of a mandatory commercial harvest tagging program. Addendum IV (2014) 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. Addendum IV also formally defers management of the A/R stock to the State of North Carolina, under the auspices of the Commission, since the A/R stock was deemed to contribute minimally to the coastal migratory population. Addendum IV was also initiated in response to a steady decline in SSB since 2004 and F being above target. Accordingly, the Addendum modified commercial and recreational measures coastwide to reduce F to a more sustainable level and stabilize SSB. The 2016 assessment update indicated that the Addendum was successful in reducing F.
However, in 2019, a new benchmark assessment which used updated recreational catch estimates, changed our understanding of stock status. The benchmark assessment found the stock to be overfished since 2013 and experiencing overfishing. As a result, Addendum VI was initiated to end overfishing, and bring F to the target level in 2020. Specifically, the Addendum reduces all state commercial quotas by 18%, and implements a 1-fish bag limit and a 28” to less than 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. The Addendum maintains flexibility for states to pursue alternative regulations through conservation equivalency (CE). 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.
In February 2020, the Board approved state management options for 2020 on a state-by-state basis (some through implementation plans and others through conservation equivalency). States implemented final Addendum VI measures by April 1, 2020. In October 2020, the Board approved state implementation plans for circle hook requirements but did not permit any exemptions to the requirements. The mandatory circle hook requirements were implemented January 1, 2021. In response to questions and comments from the public about differing interpretations of the circle hook requirement, the Board created an ad hoc committee in February 2021 to develop a definition of bait and methods of fishing that would require the use of circle hooks, as well as how to handle incidental catch. After considering the ad hoc committee’s recommendations in March 2021, the Board approved a clarification on the definition of bait and methods of fishing that require circle hooks and approved guidance on how to handle incidental catch of striped bass when targeting other species with non-circle hooks with bait attached (see here for more details).
In August 2020, the Board initiated development of Amendment 7 to the FMP. The purpose of the amendment is to update the management program in order to reflect current fishery needs and priorities given the status and understanding of the resource and fishery has changed considerably since implementation of Amendment 6 in 2003. The Board intends for the amendment to build upon the Addendum VI action to end overfishing and initiate rebuilding. In February 2021, the Board approved for public comment the Public Information Document (PID) for Draft Amendment 7. As the first step in the amendment process, the PID was a broad scoping document seeking public input on a number of important issues facing striped bass management. After the PID public comment period that included 11 virtual public hearings and more than 3,000 submitted comments, the Board approved in May 2021 the following issues for development in Draft Amendment 7: recreational release mortality, conservation equivalency, management triggers, and measures to protect the 2015 year class. As the next step in the amendment process, the Plan Development Team (PDT) will develop options for these four issues in a draft amendment document. The Board will meet in August 2021 to review the PDT’s progress on the Draft Amendment and recommend any further changes to the document. Based on progress made on the Draft Amendment, the Board’s next opportunity to meet and consider possible approval of the document for public comment will be in October 2021.