Written by: Tony Friedrich, American Saltwater Guides Association
A jumping tarpon is the iconic image of saltwater fly fishing. However, striped bass is the species that put saltwater fly fishing on the map. Stripers are the everyman’s fish. You don’t need to invest $100,000 in a boat and gear to catch them. They can be caught from shore, a boat, or a kayak.
Fly anglers from North Carolina to Maine base their year on the striper migration. At this point in the game, you probably know that stripers are in trouble again. The population was decimated in the 70’s and 80’s. It wasn’t a water-quality problem, and it wasn’t a “cycle.” We simply killed too many of them. And, as humans tend to do, we let it happen again. Striped-bass stocks are measured on Spawning Stock Biomass (SSB). In layman’s terms, the stock is measured on how many spawning-age females are in the system. Male fish don’t count. The SSB is currently at a 25-year low and is falling off a cliff.
The saddest part of this story is that we knew this was coming. In 2012, an update to the stock assessment showed that the stock would be overfished in a few short years. It was recommended that we take a 33% reduction in harvest. However, the Atlantic States marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) bowed to pressure and used science against us. The 2011-year class was the 4th best of all time. Then, Maryland suggested their fishery was primarily for male fish. As noted before, males don’t count. Fisheries managers bet that the robust 2011-year class would surely save the stock. When the dust settled, the reduction was set at 25% for the ocean and 20.5% for the Chesapeake.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I told the managers in Maryland that they would regret whittling down the reductions and that we would pay for it later. Believe me; I didn’t want to be right.
We have all known that the writing was on the wall since 2008 when the stock really started declining. This time it is different, though. Weakfish and bluefish are also over-fished. The announcement for bluefish will be coming shortly. We have nothing left to fall back on. To make matters worse, the once robust 2011-year class was utterly decimated in their nursery by Maryland anglers, who caught 218% of their projected harvest.
This situation was the impetus for starting the American Saltwater Guides Association (ASGA). The voice of fly-fishing guides has been completely absent from the conservation discussion in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. We had to let the managers know that there is value to fish left in the water and not just dead on a dock. There is a model for “Better Business Through Marine Conservation” and “If you take care of the fish, the fish take care of you.”
Our business model is focused on the experience, not filling the cooler. It is about abundant fish populations, not managing to the edge of uncertainty.
We couldn’t have started at a better time because the benchmark stock assessment came out earlier in the year and proved what we all know. Striped bass are being overfished. That means that the SSB is below the threshold (dotted line in chart) and fishing mortality (harvest rate) is above the maximum allowed. We have overfished the stock for 11 out of the last 13 years. Again, we did this. Now we have to fix it, and that’s a big problem.
This isn’t a stream or a river. It is the Atlantic Ocean and a very migratory species that is shared by many user groups. It is also managed by the ASMFC, an inter-state compact that is in charge of many of the inshore species fly anglers pursue. Their record is abysmal. 17 of the 27 managed stocks are either overfished, depleted, or the status is unknown. Now that striped bass are overfished again, ASMFC has never recovered a single stock.
We will do a deep dive on the “why” in part two of this blog. For now, we just want you to know that the deck is stacked against us.
ASMFC has scheduled hearings in each state as part of the public process. They have also initiated an Addendum VI to Amendment 6 for striped-bass management that details the harvest reductions needed to bring the SSB back to target levels. ASGA has attended almost every single hearing. Our voice is resonating.
I’ll be honest though:We need your help. If you love stripers, if you’ve never caught one but dream of it, or if you just respect the battle we face, we need you. At this point, I just want to be able to take my 10-year-old out for good striper fishing before he heads off to college. That’s how bad it is.
Maybe I’m an idealist, but I believe in the fly-fishing community, especially the readers of this blog. Orvis has built quite an audience, and we are deeply appreciative for this opportunity to share our message. We can do this. We can stem the tide. We can provide a better future for our children and grandchildren. It will take all of us.
ASGA has created an action alert that walks you through the process of submitting comments. Take a look and send in your thoughts. If you can do that for stripers, we’d be forever grateful. We love this species. It deserves better than we have given it.
Please stay tuned for Part II of this series on striped bass. We will do a technical deep dive of the dumpster fire that is striped bass management. You can make a difference with that as well.
The guides, business owners, and marine recreational fishermen of ASGA thank you for your attention. We are all in this together. Let’s win this one. The most iconic fish of the East Coast deserves it.
Tony Friedrich is VP/Policy Director of the American Saltwater Guides Association.