Atlantic striped bass populations are in distress. Again.
That could have serious implications for both the ecology of the ocean and the economies that depend on this popular fish.
Since the establishment of the American Littoral Society’s Fish Tagging Program, Atlantic striped bass, commonly referred to as stripers, have been one of the favorite fish for our members to tag and release.
A long-lived, migratory fish that can be found from Maine to Florida in the United States, they spend the majority of each year in brackish, estuarine waters or the ocean, then move into fresh waters to spawn in the spring. This means our taggers are able to catch, tag and release stripers in the ocean in every state on the east coast as well as far up freshwater rivers such as the Hudson.
Typically, striped bass populations are separated into three distinct groups based on their spawning areas, which are the Hudson River, Delaware River, and Chesapeake Bay. In the winter, the populations will mix back together in the ocean off the coast between New Jersey and North Carolina.
Striped bass have been one of the most popular commercial and recreational fish species on the east coast for centuries. Their size and fighting ability make them a top sportfish, and their delicious taste makes them a favorite item on restaurant menus.
They are also among the most economically important finfish on the Atlantic seaboard. A 2005 economic study by Southwick Associates found that fishing for stripers generated more than $6.8 billion in total US economic activity, supporting more than 68,000 jobs.
Striped bass are also critical to the environment of the spawning areas. Because they are among the top predators in these bays, large fluctuations in striped bass abundance could cause cascading ecological changes throughout the rest of the food web.
According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which works with states to cooperatively assess and manage how many stripers can be taken each year, the current Atlantic striped bass population has been overfished and is continuing to be overfished.
An overfished population is a population in which the overall spawning stock biomass (SSB) is below the SSB threshold. Being below that threshold increases the possibility that the population will not be able to sustain itself. A continuingly overfished population is one where more fish are being taken than can be sustained by the population.
Determining fish populations is a difficult process. It’s simple to see if there are five people in a room or seven birds in a tree. But with fish it’s like trying to count people in a pitch-black room, while they are moving in and out of it. You can’t look out at a bay and definitively say there are 7,837 stripers with 3,584 being of reproductive age, which is important information for scientists as they try to understand the health of a fish population.
Evidence of the current decline in stripers comes from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which compiles information from states and agencies on fish caught by recreational anglers and commercial operations, which includes the data from the Littoral Society’s Fish Tagging Program.
Members of the Fish Tagging Program have been tagging and releasing striped bass since 1965. Our current database, which contains about 600,000 data points out of nearly 1 million tags sold, was created by our previous Fish Tagging Director Jeff Dement, during his tenure. The information collected shows that our anglers have tagged 393,807 stripers.
Of these tagged and released stripers, about 6% have been recaptured. Only 5% of the recaptured fish have been reported as kept, with the rest released or their disposition not recorded by the angler who recaptured them.
According to NOAA’s totals, Maryland’s commercial striped bass catch went from 2.3 million pounds in 2005 to 1.2 million in 2019, while the recreational catch fell from 7.6 million pounds to 2.6 million. Massachusetts’ commercial catch declined from 1.1 million pounds to 0.5 million; the recreational catch went from 7.5 million to 2.6 during the same span. Massachusetts’ commercial striped bass fishermen have failed to fill their quota each of the last three years. The fish simply aren’t available.
All of this indicates that the striped bass population is declining to perilously low levels. It isn’t the first time.
Scooped up in commercial nets and hooked by a growing number of recreational anglers throughout the 1970s, stripers were nearly wiped out before a moratorium was enacted in 1985. Left alone to reproduce, the fish spawned in such numbers that by 1995, five years after the moratorium was lifted, the species was declared “fully recovered” by ASMFC.
That recovery led to relaxation of rules on the size of fish that could be kept, the gear that could be used to catch them, and how many fish could be taken by both recreational and commercial anglers.
ASMFC is now working to determine how to change rules and set quotas so that striper populations return to “a self-sustaining spawning stock.”
The community scientists who participate in the Littoral Society Fish Tagging Program play an important role in informing organizations like ASMFC. Each fish we catch, tag and release is a distinct counted individual on our survey list. And with additional information, like length and weight, we are able to estimate how old that fish might be and whether it is of reproductive age.
That data is sent to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution every year – the world's leading, independent non-profit organization dedicated to ocean research, exploration, and education. There it is included in analysis of different fish populations so that decision-makers get a clearer picture of the health of a species population.
Littoral Society tagging members are often anglers who not only love to fish but care about the health and sustainability of fish populations. They want their children and grandchildren to be able to fish and use the same waters that they love to use now.
Many of our anglers believe that the use of circle hooks when striped bass fishing has made a positive difference in the health of the fish population and that changes in size limit will also be beneficial.
As we approach our one millionth tagged fish, the Littoral Society Fish Tagging Program is confident the program and our members will continue to play a role in sustaining healthy fish populations by not only contributing our data to organizations directly involved in setting catch limits, but also by educating others on the importance of fisheries science and management.