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Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Changes to Recreational Striped Bass Limits in 2020

DMF has adopted new regulations for the recreational striped bass fishery this year. Find out more about these changes and why they were adopted.

Table of Contents

1. What changes have been adopted?

DMF has made three changes to its recreational striped bass regulations for 2020: 

  1. A slot limit has been implemented. This slot limit allows anglers to only retain striped bass measuring at least 28" and less than 35" total length. Striped bass measuring less than 28" or 35" and greater must be immediately released. This slot limit replaces the 28" minimum size limit that was previously in effect.
     
  2. Recreational anglers are now required to use in-line circle hooks when fishing with whole or cut natural baits. An inline circle hook is defined as a fishing hook designed and manufactured so that the point of the hook is not offset from the shank and bend and is turned perpendicularly back towards the shank to form a circular or oval shape. DMF's Circle Hook Brochure has additional information about this gear.

    Exempt from this requirement are recreational anglers fishing aboard a for-hire vessel during a for-hire trip and recreational anglers fishing with a natural bait affixed to an artificial lure that is to be cast and retrieved, trolled, or vertically jigged (e.g., tube and worm).
     
  3. Lastly, recreational anglers are required to remove striped bass from the water using only non-lethal devices (e.g., dip nets) and are prohibited from using any device that may pierce, puncture, or otherwise cause invasive damage to the fish (e.g., gaffs). 

2. Why have these new regulations been adopted?

The most recent coastwide stock assessment for striped bass found that the rate of fishery removals is too high for long-term sustainability of the population at desired levels. Accordingly, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) adopted new compliance measures that are intended to reduce fishery removals coastwide by 18% and thereby end overfishing on the resource. (“Fishery removals” includes harvested fish plus those that die after being caught and released.) For fisheries along the coast, the selected management measures were a 28” to less than 35” recreational slot limit and an 18% reduction to commercial quotas. These measures are expected to stay in place until at least the next stock assessment is completed.

Beginning in 2021, the interstate management plan also mandates the use of circle hooks for all recreational striped bass fishing with natural bait throughout the stock’s range, with limited exceptions. This measure is focused on increasing the survival of fish that are caught and released by anglers. Massachusetts has joined a number of other states in implementing a circle hook requirement prior to the coastwide mandate’s effective date. However, our circle hook rule for 2020 (notably, the exceptions for for-hire vessels and certain gear configurations) may need to be revised for 2021 to meet the coastwide standard.

The Division of Marine Fisheries adopted the non-lethal device requirement to further reduce unnecessary injury to fish destined to be released. Due to striped bass’ great popularity among the angling public, recreational catch and release mortality has become the single biggest source of fishing mortality on the resource. These common-sense measures can help rebuild the resource to a level that provides a high-quality recreational angling experience.

3. Why do some states have a different slot limit for their coastal recreational fisheries?

Most ASMFC interstate fishery management plans, including that for striped bass, allow for some flexibility in how compliance measures are implemented by states through a process called conservation equivalency. While the striped bass management plan established the 28” to less than 35” slot limit for coastal recreational fisheries, some states had alternative slot limits approved that were projected to still achieve the target of reducing recreational fishery removals in their state by 18%. The majority of states in the management unit (including those from Maine through New York, Delaware, coastal Maryland, and North Carolina) will have a uniform 28” to less than 35” slot limit.

4. Is there any allowance for a trophy fish to be kept in the recreational fishery?

No. There are no exceptions to the recreational slot limit in Massachusetts, even for that once-in-a-lifetime catch. Any recreationally-caught striped bass measuring 35” or greater must be released; the same as for any fish measuring less than 28”. Non-compliance with the slot limit will erode its ability to reduce fishing mortality and only serve to delay stock rebuilding.

5. Can striped bass fishing derbies still take place with the new recreational slot limit?

Striped bass fishing derbies will need to adapt to the 28” to less than 35” slot limit. Exemptions for fishing derbies are not being granted. We are aware that the difficult decision has been made to cancel some fishing derbies during this period of striped bass rebuilding, while others are transitioning to a catch-and-release contest. Like you, we look forward to our collective efforts leading to a successful stock recovery in which this famed component of our recreational fishery can resume. 

6. Why is the commercial fishery in Massachusetts allowed to harvest striped bass larger than 35"?

Unlike the recreational fishery, the coastal commercial fishery for striped bass is controlled by an annual quota. The ASMFC mandated 18% cuts to the states’ quotas for 2020; an equivalent reduction to the coastal recreational fishery’s new slot limit.

Massachusetts has had a 34” minimum size limit for its commercial fishery since 1995. With the implementation of the 28” to less than 35” slot limit for the recreational fishery, Massachusetts increased the commercial fishery minimum size limit to 35”, thereby segregating the size of legal harvest between the two fisheries. This is expected to improve compliance and enforcement of recreational and commercial possession limits and closed commercial fishing days. While the Massachusetts commercial fishery will be taking larger fish, it’s worth remembering that the number of fish harvested commercially here is about 10% of the number harvested in the recreational fishery.

7. How do circle hooks improve the survival of released fish?

Circle hooks are proven to reduce the incidence of “deep hooking” a striped bass. Deep hooking is a leading cause of post-release mortality and is particularly prevalent when fishing with natural bait. The orientation of a circle hook’s point—turned back towards the shank—causes the hook to catch on the lip or mouth of the fish instead of the gut or gills. Various studies have shown that using a circle hook instead of a J-hook can reduce an individual fish’ risk of post-release mortality by 50%. An offset hook, in which the point is out of line with the shank, is not a true circle hook, because the offset shape makes it easy to foul hook a fish.

8. How many striped bass will be conserved by this new circle hook requirement?

While discard mortality studies have documented improved post-release survival when a circle hook is used, calculating the number of fish that will be saved in Massachusetts by the circle hook requirement is challenging. This is because data are lacking on the prevalence of each terminal tackle’s current use, so we don’t know how much angler effort will be affected by the requirement (i.e., if every angler were already using circle hooks, the requirement wouldn’t have any effect on striped bass conservation). For certain, not all anglers are using circle hooks now, and the new requirement--provided it is widely complied with--will assist in conserving striped bass for future generations.

Massachusetts’ recreational striped bass fishery is largely a catch and release sport. On average the last five years, 95% of all striped bass recreationally caught off Massachusetts were returned to the water. That’s nearly 7 million fish per year. Based on a study conducted in Massachusetts, and corroborated by research elsewhere, a 9% discard mortality rate is currently used to estimate the number of released fish that die. Using the same data, that’s over 600,000 fish per year dying due to catch and release mortality in Massachusetts alone! For every 1% we can reduce the discard mortality rate (e.g., from 9% to 8%), another 70,000 fish may survive here. For comparison, that’s more striped bass than the Massachusetts commercial fishery harvests in a year.

9. Do I need to modify my angling techniques to make circle hooks work effectively?

Circle hooks are designed to penetrate a fish’s jaw as it turns away from the angler. It is best to let the fish run with the bait and then stop the line (by simply closing the bail or reeling until the line comes tight). The fish will hook itself and it is not necessary to use the rod to set the hook.

10. Where do I purchase circle hooks and are they expensive?

Circle hooks are available at most of the stores where you currently purchase other tackle. DMF is working with retailers to further increase circle hook availability in 2020. The cost of circle hooks is generally about the same as similarly-sized other hook types. While they vary by manufacturer, circle hook sizes of 6/0 to 9/0 are generally well-suited to catching striped bass within the slot limit. You can refer to DMF's Circle Hook Brochure to make sure you are purchasing true inline circle hooks that are non-offset.

11. What if I catch a striped bass on a baited j-hook or treble hook while targeting other species?

We understand that striped bass may be inadvertently caught when other species are being targeted. As with any catch not destined for the cooler, such fish should be returned to the water as quickly and gently as possible. If you are targeting other species but keep catching striped bass, consider switching to a circle hook or moving to a different location to avoid unnecessary catch and release mortality on striped bass. It is the responsibility of anglers to use circle hooks when fishing in a time, place, or manner where catching a striped bass is possible. 

12. Can I still snag menhaden for bait?

Yes, but once you’ve snagged a menhaden (generally using a treble hook), you’ll need to transfer it to a circle hook to be used as bait to target striped bass. Once on a circle hook, you can fish the menhaden by live-lining it or as chunk bait. The technique known as "snag and drop" when you snag a menhaden then immediately live line it on the treble hook is now prohibited.

13. Why are anglers fishing aboard for-hire vessels exempt from the circle hook requirement?

This exemption was granted on behalf of for-hire captains that supported a variance to the requirement given the distinct characteristics of their fishing operations. Specifically, they argued that the fishing activity of their patrons results in a lower discard mortality rate due to the experience and skill of the captain and crew, that their sector’s contribution to the overall recreational catch of striped bass is minor, and that the rate of retention of striped bass caught during their trips is higher than the general angling population. Many for-hire captains indicated that they switch their anglers over to circle hooks after they’ve retained their limit of one fish. Whether this exemption carries forward into 2021, when the ASMFC circle hook mandate becomes effective, will depend on both the ASMFC’s approval and the continued cooperation of for-hire captains to minimize catch and release mortality of striped bass aboard their vessels.

14. How should I handle a striped bass to maximize their survival?

Refer to the Division’s guidance on Responsible Angling Techniques for everything you need to know:

15. How do I get a striped bass out of the water if I can't use a gaff anymore?

We recommend the use of a knotless, rubberized net to remove a hooked striped bass from the water. Other legal gear would include a lip-grip type tool, though care should be given with lifting large striped bass in this manner. Using the proper hook size to catch a legal-sized striped bass for retention or a smaller hook to engage in “schoolie” catch and release fishing will minimize the need to use any device to retrieve a fish from the water.

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