The iconic striped bass, often called rockfish in our region, have dropped to very low numbers in recent years. Last week fisheries managers approved an emergency action setting a 31-inch maximum size limit affecting anglers in all Atlantic Coast states. This was based on data showing recreational fishing pressure on striped bass in 2022 was twice as high as expected, imperiling efforts to return numbers to a healthy level by the 2029 deadline.
Poor environmental conditions for spawning and high losses of fish in the recreational fishery, both from harvest and mortality of fish after they are caught and released, was blamed for the decline.
Since the decline in adult female striped bass numbers was identified in 2019, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and states in the region have implemented new regulations to rebuild the striped bass population. But fishing pressure has increased since then. Even with new limits, fish that are released can die, especially if caught when water temperatures are high. Additionally, last year’s survey of juvenile striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay showed below average numbers in Maryland for the fourth consecutive year.
Under the ASMFC’s action last week, Atlantic Coast states must implement a 31-inch maximum size limit for striped bass as soon as possible, but no later than July 2. These actions will not affect Maryland’s 2023 spring trophy season, which has already started. That is due to logistical challenges in immediately implementing new limits for a season already underway. The ASMFC also voted to start a process to make additional changes to striped bass fishery regulations later this year. Chris Moore, CBF’s Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist, tells us what Bay anglers need to know.
How worried should we be about the current striped bass decline?
We should remain concerned about the decline in striped bass. More than 70 percent of striped bass caught up and down the Atlantic Coast spawn in the Chesapeake Bay. We need to see better numbers of young striped bass surviving in the Bay. Striped bass here are also facing new threats that complicate their long-term recovery, including climate change and predation by blue catfish.
Fortunately, striped bass numbers are nowhere near as bad as in the 80s, when a moratorium on the fishery was needed to rebuild the population. It is really important to address this current population decline early to avoid the need for drastic measures.
Why were more striped bass caught than expected last year?
The new numbers likely reflect what was actually happening on the water in recent years. Catch numbers in 2020 and 2021 were probably underestimated due to COVID-era challenges in collecting data.
Striped bass continue to be one of the most popular fish to catch from the mid-Atlantic through New England. When they are plentiful, they bring a great deal of excitement for all types of anglers. They remain one of the few fish where even shore-based anglers have real opportunities of catching “trophy” fish.
The increased fishing pressure last year was seen most prominently from New Jersey to New England, where striped bass have been more abundant than in the Chesapeake Bay. It’s important to remember that striped bass migrate up and down the coast after spawning in the Bay. Fishing pressure in the Northeast has a real impact on Chesapeake fisheries, and vice versa.
How will a 31-inch maximum size help the fishery recover?
These large striped bass are in their prime spawning years. It’s really important that we conserve big fish so that they can reproduce and help rebuild the population.
2015 was the last time we had a really good year for striped bass reproduction. Based on typical striped bass growth rates, these fish are now reaching sizes available to commercial and recreational fisheries. This new limit protects the fish spawned that year. If anglers avoid catching these large rockfish, we’ll have a much better shot at strong striped bass numbers by the end of the decade.
Will the ASMFC set more limits later this year?
The ASMFC voted last week to update its striped bass management plan for both the recreational and commercial fisheries, which is expected to happen later this year. While we don’t yet know which regulations they may take up, the ASMFC said it will consider changes to recreational size limits, season closures, and maximum size limits.
Is there more Maryland, Virginia, and other states should be doing?
It’s becoming more and more apparent that the higher summer water temperatures in the Chesapeake Bay really stress striped bass, especially when they are caught and released. Maryland’s striped bass season runs all summer, except for a two-week break in late July. Maryland also has a spring trophy season in May. Virginia ended its spring trophy season in 2019 and does not allow anglers to keep striped bass between June 16 and October 3.
Maryland should consider additional protections for striped bass in the summertime when they are most vulnerable to high water temps, as well as revisions to its trophy fishery to protect large fish prior to spawning. Virginia should curtail its early season commercial gill-net fishery, which would also protect spawning fish.
Should we still fish for striped bass? What can anglers do to help ensure the striped bass population rebounds?
Anglers can do a number of things to reduce their impact on the species. First, think about fishing for other species in July and August when air and water temperatures are highest. Invasive blue catfish provide an excellent summer fishery in the upper Bay and tidal rivers, while in the middle and lower Bay you can find cobia, red drum, and many other gamefish. Anglers in Maryland can use the Department of Natural Resources' striped bass fishing advisory, posted daily on Facebook, to plan your trip.
You can spend a lot of time and money trying to catch cobia and redfish in vain. Bluefish, and Spanish Mackerel are a much better bet, but in most cases, you'll find them in the company of a larger school over undersized Striped Bass, meaning catch and release is still an issue.
When using natural or live baits, anglers are required to fish with circle hooks to reduce the chance of gut-hooking striped bass. Anglers should also practice “Careful Catch” safe fish handling measures to help ensure fish that are released have the best chance of survival.