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The Striped Bass Stock Assessment

A Tale of Two Reports
By Capt Jim White

March, 2006

I’m quite sure that by now almost everyone has read the glowing reports that have been published on the state of our striped bass fishery. Most have painted a picture of a healthy, robust and ever expanding stock, so you can go to bed and not worry about a thing. That is of course if you believe everything they say or put in their press releases. After spending my entire adult life watching these people and battling with them, I don’t usually believe anything that they publish to the public. Fortunately, there are others out there who feel the same way and together we keep an eye on what is going on.

I recently received an e-mail from a gentleman who said I needed to look at the document that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), presented to Congress on the State of the Striped Bass Fishery. He told me he didn’t like what he read and it was totally contradictory to what’s been published in various magazines. He said he felt that if I read it and agreed with him, that I would be the one person to act on it. He told me he wanted to but felt that no one would pay any attention to someone who had no history of dealing with striped bass conservation issues. He told me he’d been following my writings for more than 25 years and he had read Striper Wars by Dick Russell and felt that I would feel the same as he and act on it. He must have read a lot of what I’d written over the years because he was right.

I just finished reading the report that was presented to Congress on the state of the striped bass fishery. When I finished, I asked myself, is it me-or are they really crazy. This is what I found and my thoughts on the report.

The report clearly indicates that there have been strong year classes for 93, 96, 01, and 03. This is new young fish coming into the fishery. The Hudson River recruitment was low in 2002 and a record high in 2003. For us here in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts that’s good news since most of our fish come from the Hudson River. (We will return to that 2003 figure of Hudson recruitment)

The Marine Recreational Fishery Statistics Survey, (MRFSS) for short, indicated that the catch rate in Connecticut by recreational anglers has declined since 1997. This reported decline does not coincide with the initial findings of a growing and robust striper stock by the ASMFC but more on that later.

In 2004 commercial landings were 7.3 million pounds for an increase of 154,000 pounds from 2003. This figure is almost twice the reported landings of the base years of the 1970’s, at which time the fishery was being fished into oblivion. Commercial landings accounted for 65 percent of the catch for 4 to 8 year old fish. The recreational catch for 2004 was 26.2 million pounds but landings represented a decrease of 154,000 fish but showed an increase in weight of 3.5 million pounds. It would appear that this reflects the lack of smaller fish in the fishery and anglers are catching larger more mature fish.

The commission calculated the following discard landings by comparing the rates of commercial to recreational fish-tag recovery data, which indicated that commercial discards were estimated to be 2.4 million fish in 2003 and 4.1 million fish in 2004. An increase of almost 100-percent in just one year. Losses due to the culling process were estimated to be 262 thousand fish in 2003 and 519 thousand fish in 2004. Another increase of almost 100-percent in just one year. Commercial discards were dominated by fish in the 3 to 7 year old category.

Recreational non-harvest mortality was 14.6 million fish in 2003 and 17.2 million fish in 2004. A 2.6 million fish increase. Loss estimates are 8-percent of the recreational hook mortality that dies. Maryland and Massachusetts accounted for the highest percentage of this loss.

The following percentages are the Discard Mortality Rates for all gear types:
43- percent for anchored gillnets
35-percent for otter trawls
15-percent for haul seines (I didn’t think that was even legal any longer)
8-percent for drift gillnets
5-percent for trap and pound nets.
That adds up to a 106-percent discard rate for all gear types compared to 8-percent for recreational hook mortality.

In 2003, recreational discard losses accounted for 24-percent by number of the total annual harvest and 27-percent in 2004. The highest discard rate was for 3-year old fish. An additional interesting fact was that in 2002 the available spawning females were estimated to be 60.2 million pounds. That estimate dropped to 54.9 million pounds in 2004. A decrease of 5.3 million pounds in the number of female spawners and that does not include any females taken in 2005, so the chances are that that number (5.3 million) is even higher as their science is always one year behind on this issue.

This following statement in the report as a real shocker! The Army Corps of Engineers are looking to create a seven (7) square mile excavation of the bottom that will be dug 20-feet deep. Where you may ask? Right in the middle of the major wintering grounds of the female spawners, located off the North Carolina coast on the Outer Banks. In other words, they want to dig a seven square mile hole in the middle of where almost all the big females spend the entire winter. No reason is cited in the report for this ludicrous idea.

The ASMFC states that they are working with the (C.O.E.) to study the effects of this huge hole and what impact if any it will have on the stripers wintering there. What do they think the effects will be? Why even waste money studying it. It should be a no brainer, unfortunately brains has nothing to do with modern day fisheries management. This answer should have been- NO. You can’t dig a big hole right here in the middle of the wintering grounds that hold almost all of the Atlantic coastal population of spawning size females.

Then, for the very first time that I’ve seen in print, the ASMFC has finally acknowledged the presents of mycobacterium. The report states that 43-percent of the stock is infected with this disease. They claim that number is down slightly, however, Rutgers University and the Virginia Marine Institute (VMI) report in 2003 that as many as 75-percent of the striped bass were infected and that most of those would succumb and die before reaching 24-inches. Following this come an even more bazaar statement. The commission states and I quote,” We have NO IDEA of the long term effects from this disease or what the impact will be on the stock. Put simply in human terms, if 43-percent of all Americans were infected with an unknown and totally understood disease, the resulting up roar would be catastrophic to our government and the CDC would be working twenty-four hours a day trying to solve the problem. Remember this 43-percent infection rate as it will become important later on with the decision process.

They also found that the young of the year (YOY) menhaden are now also showing signs of this disease and it was found in (0-20-percent) of the surveyed juveniles.

Now comes the good stuff and I still can’t understand how all this just slipped by everyone. After presenting and reporting all those facts and figures that we just covered, they concluded that the stock can still be managed for Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY). In layman’s terms that translates to “kill-em all and then let God sort it out. We hope we just don’t kill too many. What a scientific conclusion that one is. Why not just roll dice and toss Voodoo bones, it may be more accurate.

Next conclusion: Open the EEZ-Zone to commercial fishing even after the total sum of all public comment on this issue was totally against such a move, let alone what’s contained in this report.

So lets’ see if we have this in proper perspective: 43-percent of the stock is infected with a disease that you don’t understand and have no idea of what it will bring in the future so you naturally conclude that opening up more area so more stripers can be harvested is the way to go-given all the good science that went into this of course. Maybe I’ve lost all my reasoning ability or common sense but I need someone to explain that decision to me for I don’t understand it.

They then state further that there may be cause for concern if the current increase in fishing mortality continues to rise from the level of the 2000 figures on into 2006. Cause for concern? Fishing mortality is rising, 43-percent of the stock is infected with a totally yet understood disease, and you then conclude you can open the EEZ-Zone and continue with maximum sustainable yield! This stuff should be an episode on the new TV program HUSTLE.

Again they state or guess which ever you believe or prefer that the stock APPEARS TO BE ABUNDANT. What does that mean? Appears to be? Might be? Could be? Should be? Maybe? Hopefully? What kind of science is that? I wish this theory was around when I was still in college, I could have answered all my term papers by stating, “I believe I might be close to the answer but I also could be wrong”, I would have graduated with a 4.0 average. Millions of dollars on studies, surveys, meetings, hearings, data collections, public comment and more and the best they can come up with is; “IT APPEARS TO BE ABUNDANT”. Wow, how science has changed in the modern study of fishery management. This must be the reason the rest of the oceans’ species are doing so well.

The following statements made up the ending of the document. New York’s Hudson River’s young-of-the-year showed it was down in 2000, up in 2001 down slightly in 2003, (gotcha- go back to paragraph and look again where they state the 2003 YOY was one of the highest. (Well which is it up or down or do you really know) it could be a misprint or legitimate mistake but I don’t think so. It then in dropped considerably in 2004. Connecticut trawl surveys were down for three consecutive years in a row.

Catch rates had been rising from 1992 to 1997, and since 1998 the over catch rate has been dropping.

CONCLUSIONS:

Now let’s see if we have all this straight. Catch rates are dropping or have been for seven consecutive years; Hudson River (YOY) show an up and down movement but dramatically in 2004; there’s a cause for concern if the fishing mortality rates continue to rise into 2006; 43-percent of the stock is infected with a disease that no one understands and they have no clue as to the long term effects; they’re going to dig a seven square mile-20-foot deep hole in the middle of the wintering grounds where all the East Coast females go for the winter; an increase in both commercial and recreational discard rates; a drop in landings by recreational effort of 154,000 fish and a 5.3 million pound decrease in available female spawners in two years.

You then conclude that opening the EEZ-Zone to more commercial pressure is a good idea, state that the stock should be managed for maximum sustainable yield, and finally state the striper stock appears to be abundant. This must be Seinfeld's Superman Bizzaro World or One Flew Over the Coo-Coo Nest. The again, maybe the cow did jump over the moon and we just all missed it.

How this report was translated into Striper Nirvana and Alice in Wonderland by every major magazine and newspaper on the Eastern Seaboard is far beyond my present ability of comprehension. You can cite good recruitment all you want to, if the fish are dying as Rutgers and VMI studies indicate, it makes little difference.

From interviews with anglers in the Chesapeake region, the spring time fishing on the Susquehanna Flats is just a shadow of what it once was just four or five years ago. Most every angler everywhere is seeing some signs of big holes in the fishery, either lack of smaller to medium size fish or lack of big fish. All that points to verifying what’s contained in this report and not everything is just hunky dory.

We’ve shut down the herring fishery in a three state region, eels are teetering on the brink of being placed on the Endangered Species List, Pair Trawling has been curtailed on herring at sea, menhaden are at an all time low and almost non-existent in the Chesapeake, and we are supposed to believe that everything is OK with the striped bass stock. There is no mention of what all these vast numbers of mysterious stripers are supposed to eat to survive and no mention of the illegal harvest and selling of striped bass that has been reported in every major newspaper along the Atlantic. Countless examples exist where guys were caught selling THOSUANDS of pounds of illegal stripers.

Support Stripers Forever Game fish Status, for that was and is the only answer to bring this ridiculous management practice to an end. If not, we may all be looking for new hobbies before too long. The bubble will burst at some point; it’s just a matter of when and how long before it happens.



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