Told You So
by Bob Humphrey
The spectacle that now lay before me was a natural phenomenon I hadn’t witnessed for nearly two decades, and wondered if I’d ever see again. Yet there it was, acre upon acre of schoolie stripers smashing bait on the surface. It brought back memories of the mid 90s when, on any given day, you could go out on the Kennebec River or Casco Bay and sight-fish, searching for birds or nervous surface water, then casting spoons, Slug-Gos or flies and reeling in schoolies until your arms ached. And live bait would reliably and consistently produce a keeper, then a 36-inch minimum.
While this recent bounty offered a tremendous recreational opportunity, it was also frustrating. Prior to 2016, Maine had a slot limit – allowing anglers to keep one fish a day between 20 and 26 inches – that was widely regarded as one of the most progressive and practical programs on the east coast, for several reasons.
First, it’s sound management. Most fish populations have a much higher proportion of younger individuals, and removing younger fish has less impact on the population. All fish populations experience a certain amount of natural mortality, which is proportionately higher for younger fish, because they are more abundant and less capable of avoiding mortality sources like predators. A certain number of fish will die, but if the resource is properly managed, fishing related mortality is compensatory, not additive. In other words, a number of fish caught and kept by anglers would have died anyway. Fishing related mortality becomes less compensatory and more additive as anglers target larger fish. Furthermore, fish that survive to a larger size have a much greater probability of reaching breeding age and status and thus replenishing the population. So removing larger fish has a greater long-term negative impact on the resource.
Second, smaller fish occur in greater abundance throughout the geographical range of Maine’s striped bass fishery. Therefore, a slot limit allows anglers a greater opportunity to catch and, if they so choose, keep fish. This is particularly true in northern areas where fish tend to be smaller. Increasing the minimum size limit decreases recreational opportunity and participation, which can also have an economic impact on local, fishing-based businesses like guides and tackle shops, to name a few.
Third, keeping smaller fish is better for the consumer. A slot fish makes a nice meal for one to four individuals, depending on their appetite. Larger fish mean leftovers that, if not properly cared for, may go to waste. More importantly, smaller fish are healthier to eat. Several states – particularly those with larger minimum length limits – have issued health advisories recommending anglers not eat striped bass more than once a month due to the presence of PCBs and heavy metals like mercury. The older a fish is, the more toxins it accumulates in its flesh. Thus, older, larger fish present a greater health risk.
In 2015, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) recommended states implement regulations to achieve a 25 percent reduction in removals by fishing. The Maine Department of Marine Resources explored several options, including trimming the slot limit. Ultimately, they chose to go with a 28-inch minium, largely to be consistent with other states in the region. At the time, 28-inch fish were present, but not in any great numbers.
This recent glut of smaller fish offered reason for optimism. Data showed this was one of several very healthy age classes or cohorts that experienced strong survival rates. In 2018, most of those fish were in the 15-20 inch range with a healthy share of what formerly would have been slot fish. While we were still a year or two away from a strong, healthy supply of keeper fish under the new regulations, it certainly looked like conservative management efforts were about to pay off. But the 2016 reductions triggered my cynicism and I cautioned friends and colleagues, “Just wait, they’ll find a way to take this opportunity away from us.” I’d seen it before.
In 2019, the fish arrived bigger and more abundant. When tide and weather conditions were favorable, anglers could catch 20-25 inch fish until they wore themselves and their tackle out. One more year and Maine would be able to experience striped bass fishing that rivaled or even exceeded the heyday of the 90s. Still, I tempered my optimism. “Somehow, they (the fishery managers) will find a way to screw this up,” I insisted, based largely on past experience.
My skepticism was validated when, earlier this year, ASMFC began proposing further reductions in removal. Sure, it makes sense to apply protective measures, when warranted. But the science behind these recent proposals is flawed. It is based on spawning stock biomass – the number of fish of breeding age/size, which typically occurs around 28 inches. It fails to take into account the glut of fish that will achieve that size over the next two years, and beyond.
Clearly, our striped bass resource needs protection. Those of us who have been around long enough have witnessed the boom and bust cycles, the latter often a result of short-sighted or less than adequate protective measures in the breeding and year-round range of the species (the mid Atlantic states). Federal regulations prohibit the taking of any striped bass in federal waters. Meanwhile, individual states set their own regulations for their respective waters, several of which still allow commercial striped bass fishing, which targets exclusively breeding-age fish. For example, commercial fishermen in Massachusetts are allowed to keep 15 fish of 34 inches or greater, while recreational anglers can only keep one fish of 28 inches or greater. Commercial catch limits are even higher in mid Atlantic states, where many of the fish that eventually make their way to Maine are born. Fishery assessments cite high levels of recreational release mortality as a contributing factor, but has anyone looked at commercial release mortality?
Once again, New England in general and Maine in particular get short shrift. Management decisions about groundfish, highly migratory species like sharks and tuna, striped bass and even lobsters tend to favor other states, particularly those that with greater political influence.
Public comment on the Atlantic Striped Bass Draft Addendum VI for Public Comment will be accepted until 5 PM on October 7 via firstname.lastname@example.org – Subject line: Striped Bass Draft Addendum VI. Please make your voice heard.