Young anglers with an Atlantic striped bass. Photo credit: Captain John Brackett of the Queen Mary.
Atlantic striped bass (Morone saxatilis) are an estuarine species that can be found from Florida to Canada, although the stocks that the Commission manages range from Maine to North Carolina. A long-lived species (at least up to 30 years of age), striped bass typically spend the majority of their adult life in coastal estuaries or the ocean, migrating north and south seasonally and ascending to rivers to spawn in the spring.
Mature females (age six and older) produce large quantities of eggs, which are fertilized by mature males (age two and older) as they are released into riverine spawning areas. While developing, the fertilized eggs drift with the downstream currents and eventually hatch into larvae. After their arrival in the nursery areas, located in river deltas and the inland portions of coastal sounds and estuaries, they mature into juveniles. They remain in coastal sounds and estuaries for two to four years and then join the coastal migratory population in the Atlantic Ocean. In the ocean, fish tend to move north during the summer and south during the winter. Important wintering grounds for the mixed stocks are located from offshore New Jersey to North Carolina. With warming water temperatures in the spring, the mature adult fish migrate to riverine spawning areas to complete their life cycle. The majority of the coastal migratory stock originates in the Chesapeake Bay spawning areas, with significant contributions from the spawning grounds of the Hudson and Delaware Rivers.
In 2021, total Atlantic striped bass removals (commercial and recreational, including harvest, commercial discards and recreational release mortality) was estimated at 5.1 million fish, which is about the same as removals in 2020. The recreational sector accounted for 86% of total removals by number. It should be noted that the recreational catch estimates reported here reflect the new, improved MRIP mail-based survey and are not directly comparable to FMP Review reports published prior to 2019.
The commercial fishery is managed by a quota system resulting in relatively stable landings since 2004. There are two regional quotas; one for Chesapeake Bay and one for the ocean, which includes bays, inland rivers, and estuaries. The ocean quota is based on average landings during the 1970s and the Chesapeake Bay quota changed annually under a harvest control rule until implementation of a static quota in 2015 through Addendum IV. From 2004 to 2014, commercial landings averaged 6.8 million pounds (about 943,000 fish) per year. From 2015-2019, commercial landings decreased to an average of 4.7 million pounds (about 619,000 fish) due to implementation of Addendum IV. The commercial fishery harvested 3.62 million pounds (about 583,000 fish) in 2020, and 4.29 million pounds (about 634,000 fish) in 2021 under Addendum VI. Overall, average commercial harvest in 2020-2021 was 16% lower than the average commercial harvest from 2015-2019, which aligns with the 18% reduction in commercial quotas implemented through Addendum VI. Commercial landings are consistently dominated by Chesapeake Bay fisheries, accounting for approximately 60% of total commercial landings by weight since 1990 (80% in terms of numbers of fish).
The recreational fishery is managed by bag limits, minimum size or slot size limits, and closed seasons (in some states) to restrict harvest. From 2004 to 2014, recreational harvest averaged 4.6 million fish per year. From 2015-2019, annual harvest decreased to an estimated 2.8 million fish due to the implementation of more restrictive regulations via Addendum IV, changes in effort and changes in size and distribution of the population through time. In 2020, total recreational harvest was estimated at 1.71 million fish, and in 2021, total recreational harvest was estimated at 1.82 million fish. In 2021, New Jersey landed the largest proportion of recreational harvest in number of fish7 (42%), followed by Maryland (32%), Massachusetts (10%), and New York (8%). However, the fishery is predominantly prosecuted as catch and release, meaning the majority of striped bass caught are released alive either due to angler preference or regulation (e.g., undersized, or the angler already harvested the daily bag limit). Since 1990, roughly 90% of total annual striped bass catch is released alive of which 9% are estimated to die as result of the fishing interaction (referred to as “release mortality” or “discard mortality"). In 2021, total recreational catch (harvest and live releases) was estimated at 30.4 million fish. Of that total, recreational anglers released alive an estimated 28.6 million fish, of which 2.6 million are assumed to have died.
Please refer to the 2021 FMP Review for more details on annual fishery performance by state and sector.
On a regular basis, female spawning stock biomass (SSB) and fishing mortality rate (F) are estimated and compared to target and threshold levels (i.e., biological reference points) in order to assess the status of the stock. The 1995 estimate of female SSB is currently used as the SSB threshold because many stock characteristics, such as an expanded age structure, were reached by this year, and this is also the year the stock was declared recovered. The female SSB target is equal to 125% female SSB threshold. The associated F threshold and target are calculated to achieve the respective SSB reference points in the long term.
In November 2022, the Board reviewed the results of the 2022 Atlantic Striped Bass Stock Assessment Update, which uses the same model from the approved, peer-reviewed 2018 Benchmark Stock Assessment. The accepted model is a forward projecting statistical catch-at-age model, which uses catch-at-age data and fishery-dependent data and fishery-independent survey indices to estimate annual population size, fishing mortality, and recruitment. The 2022 assessment indicated the resource is still overfished but no longer experiencing overfishing relative to the updated reference points. Female SSB in the terminal year (2021) was estimated at 143 million pounds, which is below the SSB threshold of 188 million pounds and below the SSB target of 235 million pounds. F in 2021 was estimated at 0.14, which is below the F threshold of 0.20 and below the F target of 0.17. The updated fishing mortality reference points took into account the period of low recruitment the stock has experienced in recent years.
The assessment also indicated a period of strong recruitment (numbers of age-1 fish entering the population) from 1994-2004, followed by a period of lower recruitment from 2005-2011 (although not as low as the early 1980s, which likely contributed to the decline in SSB in recent years. Recruitment of age-1 fish was high in 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2019 (corresponding to strong 2011, 2014, 2015, and 2018 year classes), but estimates of age-1 striped bass were below the long-term average in 2018, 2020, and 2021. Recruitment in 2021 was estimated at 116 million age-1 fish, below the time series average of 135.7 million fish.
Stock rebuilding projections using 2021 data (from 2022 assessment update) and 2022 data.
In May 2023, the Board approved an emergency action to change the recreational size limit, effective immediately for 180 days from May 2, 2023 through October 28, 2023. This action responds to the unprecedented magnitude of 2022 recreational harvest, which was nearly double that of 2021, and new stock rebuilding projections, which estimate the probability of the spawning stock rebuilding to its biomass target by 2029 drops from 97% under the lower 2021 fishing mortality rate to less than 15% if the higher 2022 fishing mortality rate continues each year.
The Board implemented the emergency 31-inch maximum size limit for 2023 to reduce harvest of the strong 2015-year class. The 31-inch maximum size limit applies to all existing recreational fishery regulations where a higher (or no) maximum size applies, excluding the May Chesapeake Bay trophy fisheries which already prohibit harvest of fish less than 35 inches. All bag limits, seasons, and gear restrictions will remain the same. Jurisdictions are required to implement the required measure as soon as possible but no later than July 2, 2023. If it deems necessary, the Board may extend the emergency action for two additional periods of up to one year each at a future Board meeting. The Commission is conducting four virtual public hearings between May 17 and May 31, 2023 to inform the public about the emergency action and identify next steps for management.
Currently, Atlantic striped bass is managed under Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP, 2022), which consolidates Amendment 6 and its associated addenda into a single document. Amendment 7 establishes new requirements for the following components of the FMP: management triggers, conservation equivalency, additional measures to address recreational release mortality, and the stock rebuilding plan. This Amendment builds upon the Addendum VI to Amendment 6 action to address overfishing and initiate rebuilding in response to the overfished finding from the last stock assessment, requiring the Board to rebuild the stock by 2029. Amendment 7 strengthens the Commission’s ability to reach the rebuilding goal by implementing a more conservative recruitment trigger, providing more formal guidance around uncertainty in the conservation equivalency process, and implementing measures intended to increase the chance of survival after a striped bass is released alive in the recreational fishery. All provisions of Amendment 7 are effective May 5, 2022 except for gear restrictions. States must implement new gear restrictions by January 1, 2023.
Amendment 7 also maintains the same recreational and commercial measures specified in Addendum VI to Amendment 6, which were implemented in 2020. As such, all approved Addendum VI conservation equivalency programs and state implementation plans are maintained until such measures are changed in the future.
Addendum I to Amendment 7 was approved in May 2023 to allow for voluntary ocean commercial quota transfers contingent on stock status. When the stock is overfished, no quota transfers will be allowed. When the stock is not overfished, the Board can decide every one to two years whether it will allow voluntary transfers of ocean commercial quota. The Board can also set criteria for allowable transfers, including a limit on how much and when quota can be transferred in a given year, and the eligibility of state to request a transfer based on its landings.
The Board initiated Addendum II to Amendment 7 in May 2023 to address the concerns about increased removals and stock rebuilding beyond 2023. The Draft Addendum is intended to follow the 2023 emergency action, and will consider 2024 management measures designed to reduce fishing mortality to the target. Specifically, the Draft Addendum will propose options for the ocean recreational fishery, including modifications to the slot limit with harvest season closures as a secondary non-preferred option. It will also propose options for the Chesapeake Bay recreational fisheries, as well all commercial fisheries, including maximum size limits. Board members emphasized the importance of soliciting public input through the addendum process for 2024 measures following the 2023 emergency action.
For measures beyond 2024, the Board intends to consider the results of the upcoming 2024 stock assessment update to inform subsequent management action. To enable an expedited management response to the 2024 stock assessment update, the Draft Addendum will propose a provision that would enable the Board to respond to the results of the stock assessment updates via Board action if the stock is projected to not rebuild by 2029.
The Board will consider the Draft Addendum at the Summer Meeting, when it will either approve the document for public comment, or provide feedback for further development of the document.
Atlantic striped bass has an extensive management history. For more information, go here.