Are we headed for another bass crash? - Soundings Online

Are we headed for another bass crash?

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Five years ago, give or take, when the first rounds of known striper strongholds began to dry up in the Northeast — spots on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, the Elizabeths, Fishers Island, the Sluiceway in eastern Long Island Sound — most motivated stripermen knew the rumors about a diminished fishery but had seen no evidence thereof on “local” grounds they fished. Even the guys fishing in the growing gaps knew better than to write off spots over a year or two of results — change is perpetual in striper fishing. But as two striperless years slid toward three and then four, in places long rotten with bass, “off” years solidified into trouble signs for at least part of the larger striper population.

Stripers such as this heavyweight caught (and released) at Cuttyhunk this spring may well be plentiful for years, thanks to the legacy of some mightly year-classes spawned during the height of the bass rebound.

Meanwhile, Chesapeake young-of-the-year indices (annual estimates of the rate at which hatchling stripers survive and join the total biomass) crashed in 2006 and remained in the dumpster for six of the next seven seasons. Recruitment had failed in the Chesapeake.

In other seasonal striper epicenters — the Monomoy rips off Chatham, Massachusetts, upper Narragansett Bay and Block Island in Rhode Island, certain real estate off Montauk and Fishers, the Race, Raritan Bay and so on — droves of post-moratorium striper sharpies removed linesides from 30 pounds to well north of 50 with great and terrible efficiency.

In the face of initial ridicule, those advocating caution cited increasingly obvious parallels between the monster-bass bonanza fishing of the middle 2000s and similar stretches during the late 1970s and early ’80s — one last furious hit of fish before the end of the line. Each season, dead zones grew, and even in the seemingly decline-proof areas, catch rates began to head the wrong way.

During the last five years, we saw trouble on multiple fronts: growing holes in striper distribution; concentrations of bait, fish and highly efficient anglers crowding big-name bottom, with resulting removals of big breeder bass; and nothing coming in the front end (by way of juveniles) to replace the heavyweight fish pouring out the back. Despite a popular notion that striper history was in the process of repeating itself, there was still no real consensus that striper stocks faced real peril.

Some argued that the seemingly endless supply of trophy bass proved there was more than enough spawning biomass to offset mortality and sustain the fishery into the future. Others argued that, given all the well-known problems with stock assessment data collection, the science lacked credibility; many were clocking the fish night after night with no indication the bite would slow. Guys fishing the hotbeds wondered aloud why so many anglers elsewhere said the sky was falling.

When most anglers think of a “crash,” they think precipitous decline — fish galore one year, not a one to be found the next. Stripermen still in the fish kept hearing about impending collapse but saw no such change. Those sounding the alarm were dealing in a currency of abstract threats: overharvest and then Mycobacteriosis, and extermination of an entire year-class by black-market draggers off North Carolina.

The trick with the ongoing state of striped bass is that, barring acts of God, we won’t plunge off the resource cliff but rather coast down a long, gradual slope, gathering diminishing returns from a relative handful of year-classes that dominate the present stock composition — in the absence of reinforcements coming in at the bottom of the size range à la continued recruitment woes. We’ll see more of the well-publicized precursors to the last crash unfold anew as we drift toward striped bass oblivion.

Ironically, I’ve begun to see that it’s not the parallels to 1982 but the points of sharp contrast that hold the most menace now. Consider the evolution of GPS/plotter and fishfinder technology. In 1982, we fished out stripers on shore ranges with pool-cue rods. In 2014, we can read bottom and fish and bait marks with uncanny accuracy in 20 or 300 feet of water. We have forward- and side-scan sonar and back-track functions on multifunction units. Meanwhile, communications innovation has made the sharing of fishing intel as private as it is instantaneous. Fish just can’t hide anymore. A reasonably savvy angler with access to the latest gear can fish at an exponentially higher level than a skiff fisherman from 1979 could begin to fathom.

Much more troubling is what the last 10 to 20 years have done to the number of viable target species — biologically, politically or in terms of regulations — that might take some of the strain shouldered by striped bass. When the moratorium came down in the early 1980s, charter captains turned their angling focus elsewhere, working on bluefish, pollock, cod, weakfish. They trolled the midrange offshore grounds for school bluefins or steamed a bit farther to scare up yellowfin, albacore, bigeye and mahi mahi. There were reasonable bag limits across the board. Charter men had options.

Nowadays, it’s stripers-or-bust for the sport fleet. Many skippers have spent the last 20 seasons maligning the blues that eat perfectly good “bass” eels. It’s a conundrum for charter and party-boat captains across the Northeast. On one hand, no one’s too eager to confess that the stripers carrying his economic future are in dire straits. On the other, he knows that if striper stocks crash for real, his career heads straight down the hawsehole. Unfortunately, because modern management lives and dies by catch histories (mandatory catch-log reporting), the skipper is in no rush to relinquish anything finned he is currently allowed to retain.

When fishermen face problems of this sort, the finger-pointing can’t be far off. Sport anglers have blamed commercial, and more recently black-market, fishermen. Commercials have blamed the sheer coastwide number of sporties, and all have leveled serious criticisms at fisheries regulators. Of course, there are a host of other groups — polluters, menhaden seiners, herring trawlers that remove staggering amounts of feed for striped bass — but in the end it really doesn’t matter what caused the problem. Our bass are dying a death of 10,000 tiny cuts, and the best thing we can do is be sure our own interactions with these fish fall under the “solutions” column.

The management system lives and dies by science, and science typically plods along about two years behind biological/ecological reality, so it’s time to start pressuring regulators to set the wheels in motion, acting for once on the common sense that has grown so rare in regulatory circles.

Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.

August 2014 issue