EASTON — An Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission board approved an order at the end of October for a reduction in the striped bass harvest, with slightly less of a reduction for Bay fisheries than coastal ones.
For Bay commercial fishermen, the ASMFC ordered a 20.5 percent reduction in 2012 harvest levels, since the fishery was reduced by 14 percent in 2013.
Bay recreational fishermen will also see a 20.5 percent reduction in 2012 harvest levels. It will maintain a two-fish catch, but at a 20-inch minimum, up from 18 inches, and one of the two fish must be above 28 inches.
Coastal commercial fisheries are reduced by 25 percent from 2013 harvest levels. Coastal anglers will see that 25 percent reduction in the form of fish and size limits.
The 25 percent reduction includes Maryland’s trophy season, which runs from about the middle of April until May 15. Anglers will be required to catch a 36-inch fish under those harvest reductions, which is up from 28 inches.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is expected to promulgate the regulations before the start of the 2015 fishery, according to ASMFC.
Striped bass, commonly called rockfish, are one of the Bay’s top fisheries.
According to the ASMFC, the Atlantic coast striped bass population has been steadily declining since 2006, but is not yet being overfished. DNR officials and commercial watermen have argued the Bay stock is doing well after a strong reproduction year in 2011.
Bill Goldsborough, director of fisheries at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who sits on the ASMFC striped bass management board, said females from 2011 are starting to migrate this year, being reported as far north as Maine.
The spawning stock is close to intersecting with the threshold level determined by the ASMFC.
Goldsborough said though the spawning stock hasn’t dropped below the threshold level, it was projected to next year.
When the females mature, between 5 and 7 years old, they are spawning fish, and then the spawning stock biomass level will start to turn the trajectory back upward, considering the large 2011 class, Goldsborough said.
“That line will start to go back on its own, but because it was dropping below threshold, and out of an abundance of caution and at a very strong urging of recreational fishermen up and down the coast, especially up north, the ASMFC was ... taking action to protect those fish and try to turn that trajectory up a little sooner,” Goldsborough said.
DNR and commercial groups pushed to have the reduction phased in over the course of three years — 7 percent at a time until the target reduction is met for the Bay fishery — as a way to ease the economic impact to watermen.
The ASMFC’s regulations target spawning females, but most of the fish caught commercially in the Chesapeake Bay are males. Females are caught in the Bay largely during trophy season, a recreational fishery.
The ASMFC’s reference point used to determine how much the Atlantic striped bass harvest should be reduced is not specific to the Chesapeake Bay.
According to the ASMFC, scientists for the commission will continue to work on a Chesapeake Bay-specific reference point, although an ASMFC official said at a public hearing on the striped bass regulations that the Bay reference point might not be ready for a number of years.
The lack of a Bay-specific reference point has some watermen criticizing the decision to implement a 20.5 percent reduction in the Bay.
The commercial regulations won’t help the Bay’s striped bass population, said John Motovidlak, a waterman out of Tilghman Island who sits on a commercial striped bass workshop group.
“There’s no shortage of fish. There’s no science behind (ASMFC regulations). We have more fish in the Bay now than we’ve ever had,” Motovidlak said. “This year’s spawn was real good. All of this is political to cut back on the amount of fish being caught by the sports groups.”
Motovidlak said he and others are seeing all sizes of striped bass in the Bay’s waters, which is a good sign that the stock is doing well.
Both Motovidlak and Capt. Rob Newberry, a charter boat captain and spokesman for the Harvesters Land and Sea Coalition, said the increased minimum size limit in recreational and charter industries will only increase fishing mortality, not reduce it.
Newberry said anglers will now have to “cull” through more smaller fish to find a fish that’s the minimum size, or 36 inches for trophy season anglers.
“If you’ve got to go through 10 fish to get an 18-inch fish, you’re going to have to go through 20 fish to catch a 20-inch fish,” Newberry said.
He said striped bass aren’t going to survive being pulled out of the water, unhooked onboard and thrown back into the water, and that it wrecks females’ ability to spawn, another downside of having to cull through fish to get the legal size.
Instead of the newly approved ASMFC regulations, Newberry said Maryland should cut off two weeks from the trophy season and leave just the first two weeks of May. He said that would achieve the reduction in harvest of spawning stock ASMFC wants.
Another thing to take into consideration is the amount of crabs the striped bass will eat, Motovidlak said. Watermen have said in recent years that striped bass eating blue crabs is one of the factors contributing to the decline of the Bay’s blue crab population.
Poor nutrition encourages a disease found in striped bass, Goldsborough said, and the Bay is experiencing forage-based limitations.
Goldsborough said menhaden are striped bass’ preferred food, but menhaden numbers are down. Blue crabs are also on the list as a food source for striped bass, he said.
“It just puts more emphasis on the need to pay attention to these food web issues,” Goldsborough said. “Next year, when they’re (ASMFC) revisiting that, they’re going to need to keep this in mind and be sure that they put in place strong enough conservation measures to have enough menhaden around for these rockfish to eat.”
Also, when striped bass are in the Bay year-round, they’re exposed to dead zones in the summer.
Normally, fish like striped bass stay in cooler, deeper water, but since there’s no oxygen in some places because of dead zones, they’re forced to go further near the surface, where there’s less food — another factor in striped bass’ poor nutrition, Goldsborough said.
“Fewer rockfish are surviving that four to six years that they’re in the Bay year-round than they used to,” Goldsborough said. “We are recognizing and accounting for higher mortality and therefore getting fewer fish out of the resource because of those problems. That puts a higher priority on dealing with menhaden conservation and the pollution issue that leads to the dead zone.”
According to a statement by DNR Secretary Joe Gill, Maryland will, over the next couple of months, “be working with our fishermen to develop the final rules that need to be in place prior to the beginning of the 2015 fishing season.”