Conservation efforts pay off for striped bass

Years of controversial restrictions on striped bass along the Atlantic seaboard have paid off. This fishery is at record levels as a result of effective fishery management and strong conservation actions, making it a best choice for consumers.

Striped bass hybrid

Striped bass hybrid

Striped bass (Morone saxatitis) is a popular east coast commercial and recreational fish.

Striped bass are caught in recreational fisheries with mainly hook-and-line gear and in commercial fisheries with net gear (pound nets, gillnets, haul seines, trawls). Wild striped bass is also referred to as Rockfish, Striper and Greenhead.

More than 70 per cent of the striped bass population visits the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for spawning and nursery grounds. Striped bass spawn in freshwater, making wetlands habitat a critical element in sustainability.

Striped bass have a very broad species range; they are found from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Lawrence River in Canada. Although life history characteristics vary slightly among populations, in general this species is moderately long-lived (to 30 years) and has a relatively low age at first maturity (four years for females, two years for males). Except for aggregating to spawn, the species does not exhibit behaviors that make it particularly vulnerable to fishing pressure.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, overfishing and habitat degradation (due to pollution) in the Chesapeake Bay devastated the striped bass population.

Commercial landings reached a record high in 1973, and then declined by almost 90 per cent during the following decade. In an effort to reduce this pattern, an Interstate Fishery Management Plan was adopted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 1981 and amended in 1985 to protect females until 95 per cent could spawn at least once, thus increasing age at entry from two to eight years.

This plan was strengthened in 1984 by the Striped Bass Conservation Act, which required states to comply with the plan or submit to federal moratoria. In 1985, states imposed moratoria or began a progressive increase in minimum size limits scheduled to reach 97 cm (38 in) in total length by 1990.

Hatchery-reared striped bass were stocked in the Chesapeake Bay beginning in 1985 and may have accelerated recovery, though the benefits of stocking were far outweighed by the benefits of reducing fishing mortality.

Coast-wide recreational catches increased more than 400 per cent between 1985 and 1989. Regulations were relaxed in 1990 and an adaptive management scheme was adopted to allow limited harvest while the stock continued to recover. Recruitment continued to improve and the Chesapeake Bay stock was declared fully recovered in 1995, 10 years after stringent management measures were implemented.

About two-thirds of the striped bass sold in markets is produced by aquaculture and referred to as hybrid striped bass. This farmed striped bass is actually a hybrid between wild striped bass and white bass. The hybrid bass can be distinguished by its disjointed stripes, different from the smooth, uninterrupted stripes of the wild striped bass. The market size of hybrids is about one to three pounds and has a mild texture and a milder flavor than that of its wild cousin.

The most common commercial systems are ponds and tanks; in California, most striped bass are raised in tanks.

The largest U.S. facility, in the California desert, recycles 85 per cent of the water it uses, and accounts for 30 per cent of the total U.S. supply. Most bass farms are located inland, so ocean pollution from discharge of wastewater is not a factor. Neither is disease or genetic risk to wild populations, since there are no wild hybrid striped bass.

The recovery of the striped bass fishery since the crash of the late 1970s is an example of successful state and federal cooperation and angler support over the last two decades.

By the numbers, the Atlantic striped bass fishery appears to be thriving and healthy, but maintaining these harvests will require continued coordination and careful management.

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