If you’re worried about the future of striper stocks, now’s your time to make a difference…
H ere, as we move through the infant stages of a new season, we hear one nagging, uncomfortable question in the wind. It whispers from the back of our collective skull, and we do our damnedest to ignore it. We generate whole ornate theories of fish behavior and climate and coastal ecology to perpetuate this denial: The water’s still cold, we reason, and it’s only natural that things are running a couple weeks behind normal. There’s no bait—nothing to pull fish into our waters. Or there’s too much bait elsewhere and the fish won’t leave it. Or there’s too much bait here—fish are out there, just won’t chew.
Whatever the reason or reasons it’s not happening yet, we find an odd solace in the enormity —and the enormous complexity — of the ecosystem in our watery fore. Mother Nature, this season like every other, is boss. We might take an optimistic shot at explaining the immediate lack of fish in semi-scientific terms, or lay out a very bleak explanation—but know enough to qualify it with some version of the old refrain, “But what the hell do I know anyway?” Ultimately, the matter is out of our hands.
Still, the question flits in and out of our peripheral vision: Are the fishing coming at all?
With all the concern these last four or five seasons over long-range problems bearing down on striped bass, we’re all staring down the unthinkable — a future in which we’ve crashed striper stocks for the second time in just over 30 years. Those of us who are most wrapped up in the ongoing dialogue over striped bass exploitation and/or conservation are worried that by the time we get regulators to rein the fishery in, we will already have fallen into a steep dive.
Every year there are fewer survivors from the massive year-classes (late 1990s to around 2004) that made it into the biomass pipeline before recruitment in the Chesapeake failed. And every year, we watch as huge bodies of big bass gather on predictable grounds, followed by veritable armadas of efficient anglers; we watch slaughters ensue. Every year, the fish get bigger— or, more accurately, the gulf between the spring schoolies and the cookie-cutter “keepers” widens. We know, in backs of our minds, that one of these years the keepers are going to weigh 30 pounds and the schoolies will be foot-longs. A year or two after that, the fishery could well be cooked. In a phrase I have often quoted, my friend and fellow fish nut, John Lee, sums it up: “The fish come back ever year—until they don’t….”
The question, with June on the doorstep, is at what point does “running a couple weeks behind” become “fish aren’t coming?” The scary thing is how many places along the Striper Coast have already crossed this tipping point (relatively speaking) sometime over the last five years: outer Cape Cod, Nantucket, Devil’s Bridge, Squibnocket, Cuttyhunk and much of the Elizabeth Island chain, Fishers Island, the Sluiceway, dozens of inshore reefs and rips around LI Sound, LI’s western south shore, the Raritan, The CBBT, Virginia Beach. Differences in seasonal timing and underlying bass biology aside, these one-time striper strongholds have lost their fish—or lost the explosive fisheries that once made them legend.
STOCK DYNAMICS SIMPLIFIED
Regulators and fishery scientists view the future of our striper stocks in terms of spawning stock biomass—total estimated tonnage of sexually mature striped bass at large — and manage slippery mortality calculations against annual estimates of recruitment success (the latter a rough calculation of how many newly spawned fish make it into the population in a given place and year). In simplest terms, they manage to ensure a self-sustaining population, determine how many reproductive-age stripers are required to maintain a static population, given additions (recruitment) and subtractions (mortality).
As we try to get regulators off their collective duff to act before we cross some unseen point-of-no-return, a primary frustration is that there’s no mechanism that can accept so-called “anecdotal information” (observations from fishermen, who lack the necessary credentials to correctly observe trends or patterns in fish populations).
That’s the big deal? Consider: In their historical efforts to calculate fishing mortality, scientists have overlooked the massive volume of fish that slip through the cracks into the black market, the fish caught and killed as bycatch in federal waters, or the dead discards in other directed fisheries. And if you underestimate mortality by, say, 25%, you inadvertently overestimate actual stock size (by not subtracting sufficient weight off the top). Regulators have agreed to address black market fishing.
The trouble is, before there can be action, fisheries policy demands science. Science takes time—time measured, more often than not, in years. Before managers can react to a problem, there must be science to verify that the problem is, indeed, a problem. From a data standpoint, the average wait time for a problem to become a problem is 2-3 years. Once that three-year lag is up, look out: Regulators can move like greased lightning…
HOLES IN THE FISHERY
A major fear many of my contacts share relates to the age composition of the overall stock, the dominance of certain year classes in certain key grounds up and down the coast (i.e. the “cookie-cutter” effect), and the unusual vulnerability of specific subsets of the greater spawning stock biomass in seasonal hot-bed areas like Block Island or the Monomoy Rips off Chatham, MA, where huge bodies of large stripers go into cordwood mode and large, dense fleets remove serious quantities of spawning stock meat with frightening efficiency.
Consider the likelihood that regulatory stock-assessment work has underestimated fishing mortality by a significant margin, and may well have painted an overly optimistic picture of the spawning stock at our disposal. Consider, too, what the protracted failure of Chesapeake-stock recruitment means for the future—the fact that when the last of the early-2000s year-classes have trickled out of the pipeline, there’s going to be precious little behind it. It doesn’t take any major cranial gymnastics to see the real possibility of doing an absolute number on the very fish managers are counting on to offset every other complex problem facing striped bass as we roll into Stripermania 2014.
Naturally, a rant like this could go on and on, turn into a 25-page laundry list of reasons you should probably have a panic attack every time you hear the word, “striper.” But by now, you’re probably wondering why we’d want to gunk up a perfectly good June issue with the Concentrate Misery that is fisheries management: Striper problems are what fishermen talk about in the winter when there are no fish around and nothing better to do.
The latter is the exact reason this landed here, at the head of our local section at the top of the order, the point when the fishing stops bubbling aimlessly along in a kind of seasonal no-wake zone and all at once explodes up on plane and rockets forward into the endless potential of a fresh start. Whatever talk there was of cold water and late-breaking fisheries has a way of evaporating in a nanosecond in month six. One day it’s a cold, dull-green void, nary a fish for miles; the next—like someone hit a switch—stripers are all over the surface, your bucktail keeps coming back hidden in the mouths of 4- and 8-pound fluke, here’s a weakfish, there’s a long, lean 10-pound bluefish, and when you scan the VHF, a buddy hails you and confirms that a mutual friend just got in from the Fishtails with a load of 60-pound yellows.
The trick, if you want to do your part to keep our striper stocks going into the longer-range future, is to maintain a clear personal sense of the view from 10,000 feet. It’s easy to forget that lights-out fishing one place—your back yard, ideally— doesn’t guarantee similar results elsewhere. Neither do a few consecutive days when you can’t seem to keep 30-pound bass out of the boat rule out a whole galaxy of skunkings stinking up every other port in the region.
No need to preach—no one needs another striper sermon, or a lecture about the evils of keeping a fish for the table. Make sound decisions about the fate of what bass you land, handle each one with a bit of respectful care, and you just might be shocked to note that good will spreading right around your marina. For all the unseen and unknowable ills at work on our stripers, for the huge number of humans converging to hunt down their personal trophies at the cost of the striper stocks, one man’s good sense can make a huge difference if there are enough of him.