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Is This a Make-or-Break Year for the Atlantic's Striped Bass?

Is This a Make-or-Break Year for the Atlantic's Striped Bass?

Striped bass populations are showing definite signs of declining numbers. What, if anything, can anglers do to reverse the trend?

From southern Virginia to the beaches of Maine, saltwater anglers are counting down the days until the action heats up for striped bass. But anglers and biologists all along the Atlantic coast are approaching the 2024 striped bass season with a sense of nervous trepidation.

The annual striper spawn is about to begin in earnest in the Chesapeake Bay area, and it's hard to overstate how important what happens in those coastal tributaries this spring could be for East Coast stripers in the years to come. The Chesapeake and its tributaries are the primary spawning and nursery area for an estimated 70-90 % of the Atlantic stocks of striped bass. What has happened there in recent years has been far from ideal—and anglers have certainly felt the effects.

The worst may be yet to come.

"The current status of striped bass in the bay is not great," said Allison Colden, the Maryland Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in a video her group posted last fall. "They are considered overfished, even though overfishing is not occurring. What that means is that the number of striped bass that we're seeing in the bay and along the Atlantic coast is lower than levels we would consider sustainable in the long term."

Rebounds And Crashes

It might seem inconceivable that the Atlantic Ocean's striper population is being discussed as no longer sustainable. Once the poster child for successful fishery restoration programs, stripers and their subsequent comeback fueled feel-good conservation stories for years.

striped bass with angler holding it
Striper populations are in decline, but what can be done to curb dropping populations. Angler responsibiltiy is at the top of the list.

In the late 1970s, striper stocks had plummeted through the eastern seaboard, and by the time Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act in 1984 striped bass were in serious trouble. But Maryland and Delaware banned striped bass fishing from 1985-1989, and Virginia imposed a one-year moratorium in 1989. The Chesapeake Bay fishery reopened in 1990 after 3-year average recruitment levels exceeded an established threshold value. The population continued to recover. By 1995, stripers were officially declared restored.

But that success has proved to be fleeting.

In addition to high mortality from recreational anglers up and down the coast, deteriorating environmental conditions in the uber-important Chesapeake Bay area have again pushed the fishery to the brink of failure. A recent trend of warm, dry springs has affected the salinity levels in habitats where larval striped bass begin life, driving mortality rates of young fish well past acceptable levels.

“It’s been declining for over 10 years now,” said Michael Armstrong, deputy director of the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries in an interview with the Vineyard Gazette earlier this year. “Recently, there’s been some, really horrendous, worrisome spawning out of Chesapeake Bay.”




How worrisome? Consider this: Maryland's striped bass young-of-year index for 2023 was the second lowest in 66 years of reporting. The disastrous 2023 spawning data joins results from the prior four years (2019-2022) in being well below average.

Surveys last year in another striped bass nursery area—New York's Hudson River—showed juvenile striped bass numbers near an all-time low since the survey began in the mid-1980s.

“I’m worried, very worried, about our ability to even maintain the stock, even if we went to catch and release only,” Armstrong told the Martha's Vineyard newspaper. “The whole system has changed because of climate change.”

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What It Means To Anglers

Late last spring, fisheries agencies from North Carolina to Maine took emergency action under direction from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission by enacting a major change in the keeper-sized slot limit for striped bass caught recreationally along the Atlantic coast. The slot size was reduced from 28-35 inches down to 28-31 inches. Anglers are allowed to keep just one fish, and it has to be within the slot.

man and young boy holding a nice striped bass
Striped bass offer a tremendous amount of fun for all ages, and anglers need to collectively work to preserve fishable populations.

In January of this year, those regulations were made permanent through much of striped bass range. Coastal anglers will likely have to deal with the restrictive slot limit for the foreseeable future. New laws restrict the harvest for commercial striped bass fishermen, too. reducing each state’s commercial harvest quota by 7% this year.

But the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has gone a step further in the Chesapeake Bay. There, a one-fish limit goes into effect May 1, 2024, that allows only fish between 19 and 24 inches to be kept. The new slot limits were chosen to conserve two groups of fish: Smaller, younger fish that have yet to spawn and larger ones that are in prime breeding ages.

The size regulations come in the wake of a 2021 law that mandated the use of circle hooks for coastal anglers using any kind of live or natural dead bait.

What Can You Do?

Anglers who feel strongly about protecting the Atlantic's striped bass resource sit in an unenviable position. Is it OK to fish for stripers this upcoming season?

For now, the answer is yes, particularly those who are strict practitioners of catch-and-release. Additionally, although an estimated 90% of all stripers released by anglers survive, take extra care in handling stripers and reviving them. Consider using other tactics besides live bait, which can inflict a higher mortality rate on fish. And should you see anglers flaunting the new rules, don't hesitate to call game wardens.

Most importantly, pay attention. New striped bass regulations can be enacted quickly if additional assessments indicate a new for additional restrictions. And given the events of the recent past, that might happen again this summer.

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