Why Do I Release Stripers?  It’s Complicated, To Be Sure

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Releasing a keeper-sized Chesapeake Bay striped bass. 

Releasing a keeper-sized Chesapeake Bay striped bass. 

My relationship to the fish is far more than just predator-prey, more than a fillet on my plate. Releasing fish is a practical way to contribute to good fishing in my own backyard.  

Back at the dock after a morning fishing trip, it’s the first question I get from my daughter, Lily: “Papa, did you catch anything?” On a good day — and there are lots of good days on the Maine coast in summer — the answer is yes. But since I’m usually empty-handed, it’s hard to pull the reply off with a straight face, even with a 3-year-old.

She asks for proof. I offer none.

I tell her that I let nearly all the striped bass I catch swim free. Then comes the inevitable: “Why?” I tell her that I want them to be with their friends and families. She gazes at me, pondering the thought. Does a fish really have a family? Then she moves on. She wants to see what lures I’m using, inspect the handle on my spinning reel.

Dave Sherwood

Dave Sherwood

In truth, releasing the fish I catch — even those that reach keeper size on the measuring tape I’ve affixed to the gunwale of my 18-foot Maritime Skiff — isn’t just an act of kindness or a nod to a fish’s emotional or physical well-being. In my case, it’s purely selfish. Fishing is my favorite sport. It keeps me going when work drags me down, when responsibility grinds, when bad news strikes or when the doldrums set in. My relationship to the fish is far more than just predator-prey, more than a fillet on my plate or a trendy way to “eat local” and circumvent the evils of overfishing in far-off seas. Releasing fish is simply one practical way to contribute to good fishing in my own backyard.

I can remember when there were no striped bass. In the 1980s, overfishing, together with unfavorable environmental conditions, led to a near total collapse of the fishery. I was a boy when it hit bottom, but I recall those fruitless days standing beside my father on the granite fingers that jut off Bailey Island into lobster-buoy-speckled Casco Bay. Back then, it seemed an empty ocean. It took years of a moratorium on keeping stripers to bring them back. I want something more for my daughter.

Fortunately, things are different now. In 2015, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission estimated there were 180 million striped bass older than 1 year along the Atlantic Seaboard. The majority of them partake in one of the most spectacular of gamefish migrations: from Chesapeake Bay to Maine and back each year.

Admittedly, if I were to keep one fish — or 10, or even 100 a season — I wouldn’t make so much as a dent in a population that large. Not even a ding. Recreational anglers coastwide took home or accidentally released dead approximately 2.1 million fish, according to government surveys. Together with commercial fishermen, just over 3 million fish were “removed” from the population.

But here’s where the story gets complicated. Never mind my 3-year-old; even the scientists don’t always get it right. First, many of the millions of fish we do keep annually are part of the breeding stock — that coveted class of older, larger striped bass that spawn each spring in the Chesapeake and the Hudson River. In other words, our most valuable fish, the most prolific spawners, are the ones we covet, target and kill the most. Fisheries managers confirm that “female spawning stock biomass” — the breeders — have, indeed, declined steadily since 2004, despite decades of stringent government oversight and regulations. Though the fishery has not plummeted to the point of collapse, as it did in the 1980s, that trend is real and alarming.

The numbers don’t lie: Any fisherman knows that keepers are far less abundant today than they were 10 years ago.

When you factor in the weather and the environment, things get even more uncertain. Some years, river conditions around the Chesapeake simply are not conducive to productive spawning. A few bad years in a row — always a risk as the climate becomes less and less predictable — could make that handful of fish you kept (magnified by the multitudes of fishermen along the striper coast) the proverbial last straw.

The writer’s daughter knows the best excuse for being out on the water is fishing for striped bass.

The writer’s daughter knows the best excuse for being out on the water is fishing for striped bass.

Maine finds itself in a particularly vulnerable situation. Think of the striper migration as an accordion stretched along the Eastern Seaboard, centered somewhere around such fabled striper haunts as Montauk, New York, and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. In a good year, the accordion stretches north almost to the Penobscot River along the Maine coast, and south to the Carolinas, with fish abundant throughout. Fewer fish in the population, and the accordion contracts. The music fades. There are only enough fish to reach the Chesapeake to the south, and in the worst of times, they barely reach Maine.

Some fishermen, especially near the heart of the striper’s range, still have good fishing in bad years. They tend to fight against more stringent regulation. Those in states with poor fishing get skunked more often and see things differently. And therein lies the challenge. Fisheries management remains a fundamentally political process, not one based solely on science and sustainability. Letting your appointees know how you feel is yet another way of contributing to our favorite pastime.

All of this ruminating is far too much information for my daughter, who has found the freshwater hose on the dock and has it aimed at me. But later in the season, she will ask me again, and I will give her the short answer: I love to be out on the water, and there is no finer excuse to do so than to fish for striped bass. This much, I know she understands. 

 This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue.



Striper Season

Striped bass are on the move up East Coast tributaries with romance on their minds, so start trolling.

Chesapeake Light Tackle author Shawn Kimbro with a summer striped bass double- header photo

Sizzling Summer Stripers  On Chesapeake Bay

A dead calm settles across Chesapeake Bay, and a blazing September sun hangs low in the sky as we motor slowly around the grass-lined fringes of Goose Island. The location may be only a short cruise from Tangier Island, Virginia, but it feels as if we’re a million miles from nowhere.


Why Go It Alone?

Self-reliance is one thing many boat owners embrace, but that ethos could get you into trouble, writes Mario Vittone. p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 39.5px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p3 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; text-indent: 8.0px; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} span.s1 {letter-spacing: 0.6px} span.s2 {letter-spacing: 0.1px} T here was a time when leaving sight of land came with a good chance of never seeing it again. Before the invention of the marine chronometer to determine longitude, going over the horizon was a risky move. Even with accurate charts and a watch, the sea remained deadly; so deadly that the raised platforms known as widow’s walks on New England homes got their name from the sea captains’ wives, who would pace their rooftops, looking seaward for ships that never returned. Without VHF radios or radar, anyone who sailed offshore was truly on his own. Self-reliance wasn’t a romantic, Emersonian notion; it was a condition. Sailors had only themselves. I’ve met countless sailors who do their best to hold on to the traditional notion of being on their own out there. They speak of self-reliance as part of the appeal of being far offshore, alone in the world with only their skill and wits to protect them. They speak of it as a decision they made to be independent. When I was working in search and rescue, these sailors were the ones who always called at the last possible minute; but they always called. These are the guys who often say silly things like, “Never step off until you have to step up.” They were the first ones to send hate mail when I suggested that being alone in a life raft without having made a distress call meant a sailor had screwed up (“The Truth About Survival Training,” August 2019). “What about a lighting strike that causes a fire?” one man complained. “I guess you’ve never heard of anyone hitting a deadhead in the middle of the night,” another offered. Those who fancy themselves to be like the sailors of yore said I was wrong. Self-reliance, they wanted; blame, not so much. Now, I’m no sailor. While I do love boats and have spent a few years working on them, the bulk of my exposure to modern boating has been through search and rescue. For a long time, I was only on boats that were in distress following a call for help. Perhaps that skews me to one side of this argument, but given that experience, I believe this: The idea that you are self-reliant out there can get you killed, while the idea that everything is your fault is vital to your safety. We are connected in ways our great-great-grandfathers could never have imagined. Our radios can talk to each other. Our boats have alarms and pumps connected to apps on phones. We do not watch from rooftops for sails on the horizon; we log on to websites for real-time information. We are not alone out there anymore. But, make mistakes at sea, and you will, one way or another, invite people ashore to join you in your “self-reliant” adventure. We must never lose the sense of absolute personal responsibility for our own safety. There are rare situations where lightning strikes and submerged containers cause unforeseeable situations, but they are no reason to abandon modern tools and procedures. We don’t take off our seat belts just because there is only a slim chance that oncoming traffic may swerve into our lane. The answer to the rare disaster we can’t predict in boating is a float plan and communication prior to the mishap. I think the last great gains to be made in boating safety are in how we think about being on the water. If you still believe in self-reliance, then Godspeed, but keep your VHF radio on, if only so that your loved ones aren’t walking the rooftops, hoping for your return.