Are Stripers Doing as Well as ASMFC Claims?

Recently the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) released a peer reviewed stock assessment for striped bass for the fishing year 2006. The bottom line of the assessment was that striped bass are not being overfished, although the spawning stock biomass - the total weight of all spawning age fish - has declined each of the last four years, and fishing mortality is at the "target" fishing mortality rate - the maximum rate at which striped bass should be killed by fishermen. In summary, it was decided that no action needed to be taken on striped bass management this year and that the situation would be reviewed again next year.

This information appears designed to reassure the public that all is well with striped bass, but Stripers Forever believes an in depth review is warranted. Our concerns with the stock assessment center on the fluctuations that these statistics have had over the last five or six years, and what we perceive to be the determination by fishery managers to put a positive spin on striped bass stocks in spite of some serious negative indications.

Let's take a look back to October 2004. The stock assessment covering the 2003 fishing year, using the much heralded virtual population analysis (VPA) method determined the spawning stock biomass had fallen to 13,600 metric tons, a 30% drop from the record 18,900 tons registered just two years earlier! The fishing mortality rate which had hovered in the target .30 area for several years shot up to an alarming .40 overall and much higher on the larger breeding size fish. All indications in that October 2004 assessment were that we had greatly surpassed the target mortality rate and were now overfishing adult striped bass. Surely serious changes needed to be made in the management process.

Fast forward to January 2008: The VPA model has been scrapped in favor of a new formula. This new and improved method showed that the spawning stock peaked in 2003, not 2001, and not at 18,900 tons, but actually at 33,000! (and has since declined to 25,000 metric tons.) The 2003 fishing mortality has been revised to F=.23 from F=.40 and only in this 2006 assessment has risen to exceed the F=.30 target level (at F=.31).

There are some hard to understand surprises in the new report. In the table below you will note that commercial landings in 2006 were essentially the same as in 1997, yet the coastal commercial quota was increased 40% in 2003. While reported landings did indeed increase from 2002 levels, they didn't increase from the 1997 level during a period of so-called abundance. Also the wide fluctuations in commercial discards are offered with no explanation. An example is the reported 780,000 dead discards in 2005 followed by only 220,000 the following year when an 8% increase in landings is reported.

Catch and Status Table (millions of fish): Striped Bass

Year 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006

Commercial Landings 1.06 1.22 1.10 1.06 0.94 0.65 0.87 0.91 0.97 1.05

Commercial Discards 0.22 0.33 0.24 0.67 0.31 0.17 0.26 0.52 0.78 0.22

Recreational Harvest 1.65 1.46 1.45 2.03 2.09 1.97 2.55 2.62 2.34 2.78

Recreational Discards 1.27 1.21 1.02 1.36 1.08 1.10 1.19 1.38 1.52 2.07

On the recreational side, all the data were derived from the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Surveys (MRFSS), conducted annually by the National Marine Fisheries Service. This survey was designed to observe long-term trends and was never intended for use in making stock allocation decisions. Reacting to criticism from all sides, NMFS has committed to developing a new recreational data collection system to replace MRFSS, but until such a system is developed, there will continue to be no other source of data for estimating harvest and releases. Recreational discards are calculated using an assumed 8% mortality rate against the MRFSS guesstimate of live releases. Thus the 2,070,000 recreational discard figure for 2006 reflects the MRFSS conclusion that the recreational catch of striped bass was at an all-time high, far surpassing any previous year.

The MRFSS study is, by its very nature, anecdotal, as the data are gathered from interviews conducted with recreational anglers. Stripers Forever has conducted an annual survey of its own membership each year since 2003 and the notion that the recreational catch in 2006 was even close to being such a banner year was certainly not the conclusion we reached. A plurality of respondents felt that fishing was worse or much worse than five years earlier. In fact, 2006 was the third consecutive year that our member anglers felt the fishery was declining in quality. In addition, we receive many emails during the year from fishermen reporting on the fishing in their areas. Our information is unquestionably anecdotal, but has been consistent and not very encouraging.

Even through the fog created by wildly vacillating stock assessment numbers, we can see the negative trend taking shape. By every measurement, fishing mortality is rising and spawning stock biomass is shrinking. One doesn't have to extend the dots for more than a year or two to see that a huge problem looms ahead. Since the new assessment was for 2006, one of those years has already gone by, and it was a year of increasingly negative reports from a large majority of the anglers we heard from.

It isn't the probable inaccuracy of the stock assessment that concerns us most. We recognize the extreme difficulty in making accurate and consistent stock assessments. At the Striped Bass Game Fish Symposium 2006, one of the panelists, a fishery Ph.D. and one-time Director of Marine Fisheries for a large southern state, told attendees that these stock assessments were accurate to no more than 50% in either direction and could be even farther off than that! What does bother us is the ASMFC's lack of recognition that this fishery is slipping away, and that the recreational industry depends on high quality fishing for its vitality.

But we shouldn't be too surprised. Virtually every fish species managed by the ASMFC is doing poorly. Fisheries managers have no experience and little understanding of the concept of a purely recreational fishery, one where the economic value derives from the willingness of people to spend money to enjoy a great outdoor experience They are used to spending their time parceling out what little is left of our marine resources to a few commercial fishermen who then take what they can out of those decimated stocks.

One also needs to read the peer review to make some sense of what an approval means. There is no real estimate of the margin for error. The list of information that the peer review committee suggests can be improved is very lengthy and includes everything from developing better methods of determining uncounted mortalities like commercial discards in the EEZ and from high-grading - which they offhand characterize as minor - to developing models that break the stock down to individual components, like Hudson River, Delaware Bay, and Chesapeake Bay fish. They made no comments about the illegal commercial catch; even though confiscations and arrests records show that the illegal catch is large, very likely equaling a substantial part of the overall commercial mortality

The time is now for responsible fishery management to recognize that the striped bass is no longer a fish that should be harvested commercially, and that the slaughter of the large breeding females that nature intended to live 20 years or more must cease. Stripers Forever is confident that without the pressure of commercial quotas, the ASMFC would do as the recreational community has consistently asked which is to manage striped bass at a much lower fishing mortality rate, and to preserve the quality of this fishery for the millions of people who find fishing for this creature such a compelling pastime.

--Stripers Forever