The Downfall of Striped Bass (Again)
The Atlantic striped bass, also known as rockfish and striper, is part of the Moronidae, or temperate bass. Stripers resident in Atlantic waters from the St. Lawrence River in Canada all the way to the St. Johns River in Florida, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Louisiana. They can also be found from British Columbia to Mexico on the West Coast of North America.
Stripers can be green, olive, blue, black, or brown on top and have an iridescent pale silver or white underside. They have large, plump bodies with 7 to 8 black stripes going across their body from gill to tail, hence their name. Their size can depend on where they live, however they can reach lengths of up to 5 feet and weigh up to 77 pounds. Juveniles feed on larvae and small crustaceans, while adults eat mainly other, smaller fish as well as crabs and squids. Due to their size, stripers have very few natural predators besides sharks and seals.
Despite having few natural predators, stripers have been faced with multiple major population declines. In the 1970s & 80s, striped bass had a sudden fall in population. Commercial fisheries brought in a recorded 14.7 million pounds of striped bass. The following years, however, were very different. In 1983 commercial fisheries caught only 1.7 million pounds of stripers. This reduction in population is mainly attributed to overfishing. This could have made the species more vulnerable to changes in water temperatures and chemical contaminants in breeding areas, as well as decreases in water quality due to sewage runoff.
Because of the very noticeable decline in the striper population, the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act was passed in 1984. The purpose of this act states that, “...It is therefore declared to be the purpose of the Congress in this chapter to support and encourage the development, implementation, and enforcement of effective interstate action regarding the conservation and management of the Atlantic striped bass.” Both Maryland and Delaware declared a moratorium on striped bass from 1985 until 1989. Virginia also declared a moratorium lasing from 1989 until 1990. After 1995 the striped bass population was declared restored. Since then, catch levels mostly remained in a healthy range.
Unfortunately, after a 2018 stock assessment of striped bass, it appears the species is facing yet another population decline. Their spawning mass (an indicator of how healthy the stock is) was around 150 million pounds, 50 million pounds below the 202 million pound threshold. Once again, overfishing is the primary culprit for the demise of striped bass.
In addition to overfishing, striped bass also face many other threats. Lack of food is causing stripers to lose population. Manhaden are a staple in the striper diet. Primarily found in the Chesapeake Bay, manhaden are small fish that are caught by commercial fishing fleets for fish feed and fish oil pills. Since manhaden are steadily losing population, so are stripers. Climate change also takes a part in striper population demise. Changes in water temperature and rainfall patterns can lead to a reduction in breeding success and an increase in stress of juveniles that are born. About 9 percent of striped bass that are caught and released by recreational fishermen and women end up dying due to stress.
There are other culprits to the loss of stripers, but still, the main one yet again is commercial fishing. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has begun efforts to reduce the amount of striped bass caught. They implemented an 18 percent reduction in the number of stripers removed from Atlantic waters. Virginia and Maryland have applied regulations that include closing or shortening fishing seasons, increasing the minimum size of fish caught, and reducing the number of stripers fishermen and women can keep. In addition to these measures, the ASMFC also has implemented practices to bring back the menhaden population. In 2020 it was decided that striped bass would be removed as an accepted species in the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.
Stripers Forever called for a 10-year moratorium on both the recreational and commercial catch of striped bass. The group claims that a 10-year population rebuilding plan previously enacted by the ASMFC has failed. Mike Spinney, a member of the national board of directors, said in the press release, “We are 18 years into a 10-year management plan that has utterly failed in its objective to rebuild striped bass stocks. Now the ASMFC is preparing to embark on yet another 10-year plan of compromise and half-measures, and stripers may not survive. Bold, decisive action is needed to prevent a collapse of the fishery like we saw in the late 1970s. An emergency moratorium was adopted in 1984, and is the only approach proven to work.” Stripers Forever is an angling conservation group that rallies to increase the striped bass population so generations to come can experience them.
Dan Feeney, semi-professional angler