The Wild ColonialBy Lenny Rudow
Published: April/May 2014
Photo: Lenny Rudow
Lenny shows off a trophy striper, the most popular game fish on the East Coast.
So, just how important is a fish? For many of us, myself included, a single species can help define who we are. I recall childhood days spent fishing on my father's boat on the Chesapeake Bay, when catching our home state's "official" fish, the striped bass, was more than merely a cause for celebration; it was the high point of an entire summer. Stripers were that rare, back then. Yet today, I can take my own children out on Chesapeake Bay and we catch them by the dozen. Each and every time I get to watch one of my smiling kids swing a striper over the gunwale, I'm thankful for this species' comeback.
We don't get many success stories when it comes to recreational fisheries management, but one clear winner is the striped bass. This species, also known as "rockfish," has been sought after since the Pilgrims first arrived in the New World. Early settlers instituted what may have been one of the first conservation laws in America when the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared in 1639 that striped bass were too valuable to be used as fertilizer.
In the 1960s and 1970s, landings of stripers measured several thousand metric tons. But then a combination of environmental and man-made factors including overfishing, farm and urban runoff, poor pollutant controls, and tropical storm Agnes, caused a precipitous decline in the striped bass' spawning success in the Chesapeake Bay, where, according to NOAA, between 70 and 90 percent of all striped-bass reproduction on the East Coast takes place. By the early 80s, striped bass had become a rarity.
In 1981, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) prepared a far-reaching coast-wide management plan for stripers. In 1984, the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act passed Congress, allowing for comprehensive management. The powers-that-be recognized that a species migrating through a dozen-plus states, as well as federal waters, needs to be managed with the big picture in mind.
The Act allowed the ASMFC to shut down striped-bass harvest altogether in states that did not implement aggressive rebuilding plans. With these teeth, the plan was sure to have a dramatic effect, except that some states went one better. In 1985, Maryland's governor announced a complete moratorium on harvesting stripers both recreationally and commercially; other states soon followed. Through the next several years the population rebounded. By 1995, coastal stocks were declared restored. At that point recreational harvests had increased from under 1,000 metric tons in 1985 to about 5,000 metric tons. By 2004, that harvest would hit 11,874 metric tons.
The speedy recovery in striper stocks benefits anglers all along the East Coast. But population stocks can crash quickly. Recently, signs pointing to a shrinking population of spawning-age stripers combined with two below-average years (2012-2013) of juvenile bass in stock assessments conducted in the Chesapeake have led the Maryland Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) to introduce the "My Limit Is One" campaign. This voluntary call to action asks recreational fishermen to limit their take of legal-sized striped bass to just one fish a day, and to keep only fish from 24 to 36 inches in length (the legal slot starts at 18 inches in Maryland). In doing so, CCA Maryland hopes that more of the "class of 2011," a banner year for juvenile fish, will escape into the spawning stock, speeding up the rebuilding process.
Lenny Rudow is our electronics editor, senior editor at www.Boats.com, and author of Rudow's Guide to Fishing the Chesapeake and Rudow's Guide to Rockfish.
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