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Mar 5, 2019 5:02 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Striped Bass Stock Assessment Reveals Difficult Problems For Future

Larry Cantwell of East Hampton found a lunker of a largemouth lurking in a Florida pond this week.
Mar 5, 2019 5:13 PM

“Drastic” is a word that has been used a lot recently with regard to the extent of reductions in striped bass harvest that are going to be needed to stop the decline of arguably the most economically important fish species on the East Coast.In a sense, nobody was surprised that the recently released stock assessment indicates that the striped bass population is substantially “overfished” and is being depleted faster than it can replenish itself. Anyone who fishes for stripers regularly could tell that the number of striped bass in the ocean has declined substantially in the last seven or eight years, and that the number and size of fish that anglers were killing was not sustainable.

And yet we still, this past year, had states screaming about unfair harvest restrictions and a proposal to increase the striped bass harvest by 10 percent.

Now, with a stinging stock assessment slapping them in the face, fisheries managers will be talking about big harvest cuts in 2020. (No, nothing is going to happen in time to affect the 2019 season, and thousands more 30-, 40- and 50-pound-class striped bass will be killed for the sake of Instagram posts.)

Debate over the next year, you can be sure, will rage about whether that will be achieved through the traditional bump up in minimum size limits or a long-called-for imposition of a slot limit to protect larger striped bass from harvest.

But the most startling and vexing detail to come out of the latest stock assessment is that nearly half the estimated number of striped bass that are dying each year are “dead discards” by recreational anglers—fish that are caught and released but still die from the wounds suffered, or from exhaustion.

(We anglers who rail against commercial harvest of striped bass should take note: Even with estimates of bycatch mortality of striped bass, which is no small factor, the commercial contribution to striper depletion is minuscule compared to the recreational sector’s impact.)

The dead discards issue will certainly prove the most tricky hump for fisheries managers to get over, since it’s one thing to tell anglers they can’t keep as many striped bass as they used to, but something else entirely to tell them they can’t fish for striped bass at all anymore. Thus, if one assumes the number of anglers going fishing will remain about the same, regardless of the restriction placed on harvest, the number of fish that die anyway likely will remain constant, or possibly even increase, as more fish are released thanks to more restrictive size or bag limits. That is a frustrating metric to get past, and it effectively will mean that for each fish that needs to be kept from dying, anglers will have to give up two fish that they would have kept previously.

The dead discards calculation is based on the estimate by fisheries scientists that 10 percent of all fish caught and released by recreational anglers ultimately die. I’m not exactly sure what they base this estimate on, and certainly skeptics will say it’s bullshit, but it doesn’t sound at all unreasonable, from what I’ve witnessed of fish that are not handled or released carefully.

For fishermen who respect the fish they catch, and follow responsible fishing practices—like using circle hooks, not dead-sticking bait rods, and diligently reviving a fish before releasing it rather than just chucking it back—I think that ratio would be much lower. But we all know that not all fishermen will behave that way.

I can think of a few regulatory changes things that could help reduce dead discards:

First of all, ban the use of J-hooks and treble hooks when fishing with bait. With the explosion of bunker in the last 10 years, the old “snag-and-drop” live-lining technique has become a hugely popular form of fishing, especially in the New York Bight in spring and late fall. But this form of fishing also results in lots of fish that are seriously wounded by large treble hooks in their gullets, a higher percentage of which definitely don’t survive.

The same goes for fishing live eels, clam bellies, bunker chunks or any other bait on regular J-hooks. Simply insisting that any bait, live or dead, be fished on a circle hook certainly will reduce a substantial portion of this unintentional mortality.

Barring treble hooks entirely will be difficult, with their ubiquity on artificial lures, but a lot of fishermen are already moving to single hooks on some plugs, so perhaps there is an avenue there. Maybe start by requiring that no artificial lure have more than one treble hook on it—an arrangement that definitely would reduce the number of injuries to fish and barely impact the ability to catch them at all.

Also, the use of gaffs in the catching of striped bass must be banned entirely, everywhere, under all circumstances. It is ridiculous that a gaff would be needed to land a fish under 100 pounds, ever, and when you are talking about a species with size controls and a high rate of catch-and-release, they should not be allowed under any circumstance.

I have seen fishermen gaff striped bass and then throw them back—a disgusting display of apathetic assholery that is far too common among the angling community.

In the long run, I think we are in for a permanent shifting of striped bass harvest limits. There are a lot of reasons to expect that, over the next several decades, striped bass may not be able to reproduce at the levels they used to, on as consistent a basis. There will be great years, when tens of millions of striped bass are added to the population, but those years will be fewer and farther between, as has been the case over the last 15 years. That will mean that the stock will be less resilient to misfires in management like we’ve seen in the last few years, when a lot of people knew we had to stop killing so many striped bass.

But smart, forward-looking management has the power to keep the stock from crashing if we carefully tailor the number of fish we take home and do everything we can to ensure that the ones we throw back live to bite another day.

Catch ’em up. See you out there.

Sag Harbor 
Fishermen’s Flea Market

The Sag Harbor Fire Department Dive Team will hold its annual Fishermen’s Flea Market this coming Saturday, March 9, at the Sag Harbor Fire House on Brick Kiln Road.

More than 20 vendors will be peddling discounted new, collectible or used fishing tackle.

The market will run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and admission will be $5 with kids under 12 welcome free of charge.

Vendors looking to sell their fishing tackle should contact Rich at 631-241-7141.

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Great article. Fishermen and fisheries management rarely react effectively until disaster looms. Mandating circle hooks and instituting a regional slot limit are a start. Can't keep on killing cows intentionally or through discard without dire consequences.
By harbor (415), East Hampton on Mar 6, 19 9:01 AM