This column, which is regularly published in Oceana magazine, spotlights a recovering fishery. Oceana’s winter 2015 magazine focused on Chesapeake Bay Striped Bass, which faced near-collapse in the 1980s but recovered from effective fisheries management Click here to view the original article in Oceana magazine.
Chesapeake Bay Striped Bass
Species: Morone saxatilis
Location: Primarily spawns in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, but ranges from Canada to Florida
Gear Type: Gillnets by commercial fishermen and hook-and-lines by recreational fishermen
As Maryland’s state fish, striped bass is highly prized by recreational and commercial fishermen alike along the Atlantic coast, and is the top sport fish in the Chesapeake Bay. These long-lived fish are anadromous — meaning that they swim in the Atlantic but return to freshwater areas to spawn, primarily in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Prior to the 1980s, most fishermen in Maryland and Virginia were catching young, sexually immature fish — patterns not in line with good fisheries management. By the 1980s, scientists became increasingly concerned this fishery was at risk of collapse when strong year classes, or abundances of baby fish, were declining.
In 1985, Maryland made a rare move and declared a fishing moratorium on striped bass, banning all fishing from 1985 to 1990 — the time when a three-year spawning running average exceeded previous levels. Virginia soon followed suit and issued a moratorium from 1989 to 1990, while other Atlantic states restricted their catches. Not only was the moratorium effective, but Maryland’s moratorium was unique in that their Department of Natural Resources spent that five-year period discussing how was the fishery was to be managed when it reopened. The crisis resulted in strengthened federal law, requiring all states to comply with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) decisions, or to face their own fishing moratorium. This type of fisheries management forced East Coast states to stay within healthy catch quotas and effectively manage striped bass together.
Though Maryland’s moratorium was highly controversial, it was successful in rebuilding an iconic fishery. From 1995 to its peak in 2003, the commercial harvest steadily grew from 3.4 million pounds to 7 million pounds. Female spawning stock biomass — the number of females that are older than four years, or of reproductive age — has declined since 2004, but the ASMFC says striped bass are not yet overfished. Today, the striped bass fishery is one of the most tightly controlled and effectively-managed fisheries.
Oceana works on two broad issues that affect Chesapeake Bay striped bass, as well as other commercial fish species in the Atlantic: reducing bycatch and maintaining forage fish populations. Oceana believes that it’s important to maintain low bycatch numbers for commercial fish species to help prevent overfishing. Additionally, Oceana advocates for sustaining stable populations of forage fish to maintain healthy ecosystems.