Atlantic striped bass are very popular with recreational anglers, and commercial boats from Maine to Georgia land between 5 million and 8 million pounds per year.
Striped bass suffered a near collapse of their Atlantic population in the 1970s and ‘80s, prompting Congress in 1979 to authorize a study of the causes of their decline. Five years later, armed with the study, the Striped Bass Conservation Act was enacted, giving the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission the power to reduce the striper catch and rebuild its population to a sustainable level.
The plight of striped bass brought widespread attention to overfishing just as ever-larger fleets and increasing recreational fishermen were chasing shrinking numbers of fish.
By the mid-1990s, restrictions on striped bass fishing seemed to be working. Old-timers told The Press then that they hadn’t seen such striper abundance for many years.
The striped bass success story bolstered support for fisheries management and the restrictions that it required. If striped bass could be restored to sustainability relatively quickly, there was hope that many other salt-water species could regain much of their prior abundance with a tolerable reduction in their commercial and recreational landings.
Then the collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery, and its failure to rebound despite many years of severe restrictions, showed that fisheries management would be far more challenging than expected.
And now striped bass are once again in decline. Last month, the fisheries commission said its decade-long assessment of the striper stock showed that its mortality rate would have to be reduced by 17 percent to encourage continued sustainability. By fall, the commission will draft and consider some combination of commercial and recreational catch reductions, perhaps increasing the 28-inch size needed to keep a fish or limiting when fishing for striped bass is allowed.
As with others species, high minimum sizes for keeping fish have resulted in many bass being thrown back and many of those dying from injuries sustained while being caught. The stock assessment estimated that 3.4 million bass died after being returned to the water in 2017. Another possible management strategy is requiring the use of circle hooks that are less likely than the familiar “J” hook to be swallowed, fatally damaging internal organs. Whatever additional regulations are decided, fishing interests should support them.
The new decline in striped bass suggests commission biologists don’t fully understand the factors determining its population. It also raises the question of whether the decline figured in the commission’s 2017 decision to start boosting menhaden stocks above sustainability levels to increase populations of species that feed on it such as striped bass.
Since the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission lacks a functional understanding of what determines even the population of a single fish species, it would risk damaging the coastal ecosystem if it tried to manage the Atlantic as a fish farm for striped bass, however popular that fish may be. The commissioners need to remember that many well-meaning human attempts to manipulate nature have proved disastrous, and to ensure they don’t perpetrate the next overreach.