Managers set to prescribe much-needed conservation measures on iconic fishery

Faced with a crisis in the striped bass fishery and mounting concern from anglers all along the East Coast, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board sent a clear signal today that it wants to do the right thing by requiring management measures via an addendum that would get them back to the target fishing mortality rate in 2020. There had been rumors that the Board would attempt to relax the current reference points – rather like moving the goal posts when you are losing the game – rather than take the hard steps necessary to recover the stock, but the Board elected not to take the easy way out.  The proposed reductions apply to all areas and sectors and may require the use of circle hooks to reduce release mortality.

“Taking these steps to manage to the target reference point sends a strong signal they want this population to return to its former abundance, and not simply find the easiest way out of this mess,” said Richen Brame, regional fisheries director for Coastal Conservation Association.

Striped bass are managed by reference points, or boundaries, with the ‘Threshold Reference Point’ as the line in the sand that managers cannot cross, or the stock begins to decline precipitously. The threshold reference point was crossed for the first time in the 2018 benchmark stock assessment and the action taken today by the ASMFC is the response to correct the situation and move the fishery back toward the ‘Target Reference Point’ which is the optimal zone for management of a healthy stock.

“Keeping the current reference points in place was critical,” said David Sikorski, executive director of CCA Maryland.  “We commend managers for recognizing that now is not the time to move the guardrails used to protect the future of this vitally important fishery”

Striped bass are an iconic recreational species along the Atlantic coast, with anglers wanting both an abundance of fish and the chance to catch a true trophy, both of which are by-products of managing at or below the target fishing mortality rate. The fishery has been one of the crown jewels for conservationists after it was brought back from the brink in the 1980s due to massive overfishing. In recent years, the fishery has been hampered by low recruitment, which means too few juveniles surviving to maturity to replenish the population due to a variety of environmental factors, both man-made and natural. While anglers have voiced frustration that managers did not act sooner to address the current crisis, it is hoped that the steps outlined today will reverse downward trends in the fishery until it moves into a period of better recruitment.

“This is not an ideal situation and we would rather have seen steps taken earlier that could have lessened the severity of what may be necessary now,” said Brame. “To set this fishery back on the right path is going to require broadly based reductions in all segments and at the same time we as anglers need to address real problems that have emerged with how we release fish. We have got to find better ways to ensure that more of the fish we release survive. Managers have done their part and now anglers are going to have to step up to improve our fishing practices as well.”

The ASMFC elected to implement management measures via the Addendum process, which takes three meetings to complete and means more conservative management measures can be in place by the 2020 fishing season.  However, to make fundamental changes in management will require an Amendment process, which usually requires 18 months at minimum.

“We appreciate the efforts being made to end overfishing as soon as possible, but as part of the overall rebuilding process we would like to see future efforts to be conservative when setting future reference points, and to prioritize the development of management trigger requirements so that managers can react more quickly to recruitment or population declines than they have in recent years.” said Sikorski. “We have to develop management techniques that prevent the mistakes of the past from being repeated.”