Why was an Emergency Action taken?
The basis for taking emergency action was that striped bass recreational harvest coastwide nearly doubled in 2022. This unexpectedly high harvest greatly reduced the probability of rebuilding the currently overfished striped bass stock by 2029, which is the goal of the interstate management plan. Put another way, so many more striped bass were caught in 2022 than were expected that the current plan to ensure striped bass will remain plentiful for years to come no longer appeared effective. The main reason for the increase in harvest was that some striped bass from the abundant 2015 year-class, those fish born in 2015, had grown enough to be harvested under the 2022 slot limit (28" to <35"). Like people, fish grow at different rates and this year, the 2015 year-class will be entirely recruited into this size range. This means they would all be available for harvest if the slot remained 28" to <35", suggesting the potential for even greater recreational harvest in 2023 without swift action to amend the slot limit.
The 2015 year-class is important to the future of striped bass because it is one of the few large year-classes that has been produced in the past 20 years. Striped bass can survive more than 30 years and spawn more than 20 times, and this capability evolved in stripers (and many other fish) to compensate for years when the weather or other factors would lead to bad survival of their young. Since 2005, survival of newborn striped bass has been mostly below average, including the past 4 years which are among the lowest recorded (see figure). With fewer surviving striped bass born in the years before and after 2015, it is important for as many bass from the 2015 year-class to grow to spawning size and have as many opportunities to reproduce (and hopefully create additional strong year-classes) as possible if we hope to recover striped bass stocks and maintain strong striped bass fisheries in our coastal waters.
What is the rationale for a 31" maximum size limit?
The 2015 year-class is 8 years old in 2023, with an average size of about 31 ½" in length. DMF age data from recreational samples suggest that the new 28" to less than 31" slot along the coast will protect more than half of the 2015 year-class from recreational harvest in 2023 (compared to zero protection with the 28" to <35" slot). This level of protection will increase in future years as these striped bass continue to grow.
The Board maintained a slot limit approach for several reasons, as opposed to transitioning to a higher minimum size (35" for example). When the Board originally went to a slot limit, the 28" minimum was maintained to make sure that shore-based anglers had opportunities to harvest striped bass, and this remains important. The application of a maximum size has had a lot of support among anglers as a way to protect the largest and most fecund female fish. Finally, beginning next year the 2015 year-class will begin to shift into the greater than 34" grouping, meaning a higher minimum size alone would not be a good way to protect the 2015 year-class moving forward.
If striped bass are at risk of not rebuilding, why was fishing so good last year?
Many anglers in Massachusetts enjoyed great success catching fish in the 28" to less than 35" slot last year, especially as compared to the first years it was in effect. This was directly tied to the highly abundant 2015 year-class, compared to the prior 3 years’ poor year classes. Last year, a little more than half of the 2015 year-class had grown large enough to be harvested in the slot. DMF recreational sampling data from last year indicate that the 2015-year class made up 55% of harvested fish.
Fishing can also be very dependent on how much and how consistently bait is in state waters. The extended presence of very large and predictable schools of menhaden in Massachusetts Bay last year led to great fishing, but high harvests and catches. With the coastal resurgence of menhaden, anglers in many other states enjoyed similar great fishing, contributing to the surge in coastwide recreational harvest.
Are recreational catch estimates reliable enough to justify this type of action?
Estimates of recreational harvest and catch of striped bass are regarded as very reliable because of a large sample size. For instance, Massachusetts DMF alone collects striped bass catch data from over 4,000 anglers each year. Whereas recreational catch estimates may have precision issues when evaluated at finer levels (i.e., by state, by season, or by angler fishing mode), the coastwide annual estimate of recreational striped bass catch used to justify this action are considered very precise. The measurement of uncertainty in the estimate is the lowest of all managed species and we have complete confidence that the large increase in harvest in 2022 compared to 2021 was real.
Why was this decision made without formal public input?
The information regarding the great increase in 2022 harvest only became available in March of this year. The only way for the Striped Bass Board to react quickly to decrease the harvest for 2023 was to implement an Emergency Action. All other avenues of rulemaking would have taken many more months and the opportunity to protect the 2015 year-class at its peak vulnerability would have been lost. Prior to the May 2 meeting, the Striped Bass Board received thousands of public comments urging the Board to take swift and significant action to put the stock back on track to rebuild. There will be several opportunities over the coming months to provide public input (see What happens after 2023?).
What are the current regulations and when will they change?
On May 26, 2023, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries enacted emergency recreational regulations to change the maximum length limit for keeping striped bass in Massachusetts. The new recreational slot size is 28" to less than 31", and anglers will still be permitted to keep one fish per day.
Other New England states may change their regulations either before or after Massachusetts. If you're outside of Massachusetts, please check your local recreational regulations before fishing for striped bass.
Why didn’t the Emergency Action reduce the commercial quota?
In 2022, the commercial fishery, which is managed under a hard quota, had no increase in harvest while the recreational fishery harvest almost doubled. Therefore, the Emergency Action was directed at the sector that was responsible for the great increase from 2021 to 2022. The Board also initiated a new Addendum to the Striped Bass Management Plan to be implemented in 2024 (see What happens after 2023?). Changes to the commercial length limits and other conservation measures will be considered as part of this process over the next several months.
How does the Emergency Action affect the Chesapeake Bay recreational fisheries?
The 31" maximum size limit also applies to the Chesapeake Bay recreational fisheries. The minimum recreational size in the Chesapeake Bay is smaller than the ocean fisheries under a long-standing alternative management regime for this area and varies between 18" and 20" depending on jurisdiction (Maryland, Virginia, District of Columbia, and Potomac River Fisheries Commission). While the resulting slot limit for the Chesapeake Bay will be wider, the 2015 year-class will be afforded the same protection by the 31" maximum size limit. There is a short, seasonal fishery for larger fish in the Chesapeake Bay (dubbed the spring trophy season) that was exempted in the Board’s Emergency Action motion for 2023 because it has a minimum size (35") that already protects the 2015 year-class and the timing of the fishery (5/1 - 5/15) made it irrelevant to any action taken by the Board at the meeting.
Striped bass regulations in the Chesapeake Bay differ from coastal waters because of striped bass life history. The Chesapeake Bay is the main producer of young striped bass, and those fish gradually begin to emigrate from the bay as they grow, with almost all bass becoming coastal migrants by the time they reach 34". This leads to bass larger than 28", and especially bass larger than 34", only being in the bay just before and during the spring spawning season. The remainder of the year the Chesapeake Bay is largely populated by smaller, not-yet migratory striped bass and regulations are tailored to allow anglers to pursue these fish.
Won’t the new slot limit increase discard mortality?
Recreational discard mortality has become the primary component of overall striped bass fishing mortality in recent years so this is an important consideration. The new 28" to less than 31" slot limit will most likely lead to more fish in the 31" to 35" size range being released. However, only a small portion of those fish die as a consequence of being caught and released, whereas all fish die when caught and kept. Using the accepted 9% discard mortality estimate for striped bass, fish that would otherwise have been kept have a 91% reduction in mortality. While discard mortality may increase, it is likely that overall mortality will decrease as a result of less harvest under the reduced slot limit.
Additionally, anglers can—and should—play a part in minimizing discard mortality with proper fish handling and release techniques. DMF encourages anglers to educate themselves on best handling practices to maximize survival of striped bass after the catch. DMF has also been studying the post-release mortality of striped bass and is currently seeking participants for a citizen science project to improve estimates of post-release mortality in the striped bass fishery.
What happens after 2023?
The Striped Bass Board also voted to initiate an Addendum to the management plan for 2024 that will investigate a range of options to reduce mortality so that the stock can stay on track to rebuild by 2029. The complete text can be found at the bottom of this FAQ, but in short, the ASMFC will be considering changes to the recreational and commercial size limits (both in the ocean fisheries and the Chesapeake Bay). If these measures can’t adequately meet the target goals, additional measures such as seasonal harvest closures may also be considered. This more typical regulatory pathway provides for multiple options to be considered and public comment to be solicited and incorporated into decision making.
Upcoming opportunities for anglers and other stakeholders to provide input to managers will include virtual informational meetings hosted by ASMFC in mid-to-late May and a DMF-led public hearing regarding our emergency rulemaking to reduce the slot size in Massachusetts within 90 days of the new slot being implemented. Later in 2023 there will be ASMFC public hearings on the options proposed in the new Addendum for 2024 fishing regulations.
Motions approved by the Board
Motion to implement Emergency Action for 2023 management:
Move that the Striped Bass Board, by emergency action as outlined in the Commission’s ISFMP Charter, implement a 31" maximum size to all existing recreational fishery regulations where a higher (or no) maximum size applies, excluding the Chesapeake Bay trophy fisheries. All other recreational size limits, possession limits, seasons, gear restrictions, and spawning protections remain in place. Jurisdictions are required to implement compliant measures as soon as possible and no later than July 2, 2023.
Motion to initiate Addendum II for 2024 management:
Move to initiate an Addendum to implement commercial and recreational measures for the ocean and Chesapeake Bay fisheries in 2024 that in aggregate are projected to achieve F-target from the 2022 stock assessment update (F = 0.17). Potential measures for the ocean recreational fishery should include modifications to the Addendum VI standard slot limit of 28-35" with harvest season closures as a secondary non-preferred option. Potential measures for Chesapeake Bay recreational fisheries, as well as ocean and Bay commercial fisheries should include maximum size limits. The addendum will include an option for a provision enabling the Board to respond via Board action to the results of the upcoming stock assessment updates (e.g., currently scheduled for 2024, 2026) if the stock is not projected to rebuild by 2029 with a probability greater than or equal to 50%.
|Last updated:||May 9, 2023|