The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Board decided Wednesday to address the sharply declining numbers of striped bass along the Atlantic seaboard, including the Chesapeake Bay, by requiring an 18 percent harvest reduction relative to 2017 levels.
The decision follows a lengthy process that began last spring when a 2018 Benchmark Stock Assessment of the species determined serious overfishing was occurring. A draft addendum featuring multiple options was developed for the ASMFC striper management plan. Twenty-one hearings were held in the 14 jurisdictions falling under the commission’s purview.
Three options were presented. Option 1, maintaining the status quo, received no support. The recreational fishing community strongly favored option 2, which called for an equal 18 percent reduction between both recreational and commercial sectors. Commercial fishermen favored option 3, which included an 18 percent reduction in total removals with the commercial sector taking a smaller percent reduction than the recreational sector.
 After prolonged discussion, the board eventually voted 11-4 for option 2. Virginia voted yes, while Maryland and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission voted no.
Approved sub-options included allowing, within established seasons, 1 fish per angler per day between 28 and 35 inches in ocean waters. Public comment on this sub-option had supported, by a more than 4-1 ratio, setting a 1 fish limit with a minimum size of 35 inches. In the Chesapeake Bay, the approved sub-option was limiting anglers to 1 fish per day with a minimum size limit of 18 inches. It passed with by a 12-3 vote.
Three other sub-options allowing for two fish meeting either a minimum size or slot limits were not discussed during the meeting. Mike Luisi, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ representative on the board, said during the debate that the 18-inch minimum will pose significant issues. “It goes against the grain…I may have to abstain. Nobody is going to book a charter to catch a single fish over 18 inches,” Luisi said.
The Chesapeake is critical to striped bass, with the majority of the fish spawning in its tributaries. Maryland waters also have seen the greatest catch numbers over the years. The adopted limit could have profound impacts.
There was also a question about whether circle hooks should be mandatory when fishing with bait. Max Appelman, striper fishery management plan coordinator for ASMFC, told commissioners there was “little doubt that circle hooks save fish.” Circle hooks reduce fish mortality from “deep hooking” as the fish swallows the bait. Of the 5,003 comments received by the public related to circle hooks, 4,930 were in favor of their mandatory use.
The board approved unanimously the option requiring states to implement regulations requiring use of circle hooks with the intent of reducing striped bass release mortality in recreational fisheries.
Proponents noted that enforcement could be difficult but said most anglers likely would accept the change and that others, via education and continued enforcement, would eventually come around. The enforcement challenge will be determining what species an angler is fishing for.
The ASMFC board set Nov. 30, 2019 as the due date for draft implementation plans. The board will act on those plans in February 2020 with final regulations in place by April 1, 2020. The circle hook requirements must be in place by January 2021, ostensibly to allow charter outfits and bait and tackle shops to swap out gear and stock assortments.
Devil in the Details
An exhaustive topic of debate was how the concept of “conservation equivalents” would be allowed on a state-by-state basis. Some states, including Maryland, strongly supported the notion of letting the state’s local fisheries managers best figure out how to meet the required 18 percent reduction. Others noted that when the management options were presented to the public, some of the options, especially the adopted Option 2 seemed unambiguous with “equal” meaning “equal.” In other words, managers couldn’t take, for example, different percent reductions from recreational anglers and commercial fishermen with the proviso that all works out because it equals an 18 percent overall reduction.
The ASMFC Striped Bass Technical Committee recommended that any state deviating from a board-selected option for recreational fisheries in the ocean region or Chesapeake Bay needs to submit a state–specific analysis using state–specific data that demonstrates their proposal meets at least the required reduction in total recreational removals.
As the cliché goes, the devil will be in the details.
The issue has attracted widespread attention. Earlier this week, a coalition of recreational fishing and boating organizations wrote to the commission urging implementation of an 18 percent harvest reduction for both the recreational and commercial fisheries. Signatories to that letter included the American Sportfishing Association, BoatU.S., Center for Sportfishing Policy, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Recreational Fishing Alliance.
The impacts associated with the required reductions will differ for the commercial and recreational sectors. The recreational sector dwarfs the commercial sector when it comes to striped bass, according to a 2019 report from Southwick Associates. It indicated that 97 percent of total economic contribution associated with striped bass fishing came from the recreational sector in 2016.
The ASMFC addendum noted that contribution of the commercial sector to the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) when attempting to account for all industries involved in harvesting, processing, distributing, and retailing striped bass to consumers, was $103.2 million and supported 2,664 regional jobs. In comparison, the contribution of the recreational sector to the region’s GDP was $7.7 billion and supported 104,867 jobs.