Key Connections Between Estuary Health and Fly Fishing for Striped Bass

What is PREP (Piscataqua Region Estuary Partnership)?

Every 5 years PREP (Piscataqua Region Estuary Partnership) releases a comprehensive report detailing the health of our home waters.  The Piscataqua Region Estuary is made up of 52 communities in New Hampshire and Maine, covering about 1,086 square miles of coastal shoreline, bays, businesses, forests, rivers, streams, roads, lakes, salt marshes, residences, flats, etc.  This area is home to whitetail deer, owls, hawks, bald eagles, countless species of ducks, songbirds and woodpeckers, foxes, racoons, big eastern coyotes, moose and even bear.  Seals, whales, porpoises, striped bass, spearing, herring, sandeels, lampreys, mackerel, smelt, oysters, mussels, clams and menhaden only scratch the surface of the biodiversity that lays beneath the water's surface.  PREP works diligently to protect and improve the system's water quality and has been doing so for the last 22 years.  With over 150 organizations and individuals across 52 communities, PREP helps transform complex scientific data into an actionable plan for protection and restoration of our watershed.

We have an abundance of animals, humans, and marine life all cohabitating together in a very sensitive ecosystem.  Water is the lifeblood that connects every inch of the drainage.  That means each ounce of wastewater, fertilizer, agricultural waste, and other contaminants that permeate into our estuary can have a profound impact on the overall health and resilience of the system.  Health is measured a number of ways and we have lots of indicators in our system that act as the canary in the coal mine.  

 A peaceful recon mission by way of paddleboard in one of our coastal estuaries.  I hopped off the board here to photograph wild turkeys strutting across the marsh.  Photo:  @kylelschaefer

A peaceful recon mission by way of paddleboard in one of our coastal estuaries.  I hopped off the board here to photograph wild turkeys strutting across the marsh.  Photo: @kylelschaefer

Top Stressors to the System

  • Demand for infrastructure including new homes, businesses, roads, etc. New buildings create more impermeable structures in our system which compromises the land's natural ability to filter the water.  The result is more stormwater and sediment runoff causing an increase in nutrient loading and ultimately more pressure on the downstream estuary.  
  • Nutrient loading is a big issue and nitrogen is the major concern.  Nitrogen is a good thing at the right level but too much of this element causes excessive growth of seaweed and phytoplankton.  Too much seaweed and phytoplankton can suffocate the system causing a decrease in dissolved oxygen which affects sediment quality, seagrass, shellfish, benthic invertebrates, and fish. 
 Sight fishing to striped bass on the flats is as challenging as it is rewarding.  Water clarity is key, along with good food sources for striped bass.  The health of this estuary is pivotal for our thriving recreational striped bass fishery.  Soul Fly Outfitters practices catch and release, showing love and respect for every fish.  Photo:  Ben Carmichael /New England On The Fly

Sight fishing to striped bass on the flats is as challenging as it is rewarding.  Water clarity is key, along with good food sources for striped bass.  The health of this estuary is pivotal for our thriving recreational striped bass fishery.  Soul Fly Outfitters practices catch and release, showing love and respect for every fish.  Photo: Ben Carmichael/New England On The Fly

How Does Our Estuary Respond to Stress? 

The Piscataqua Estuary DOES NOT like the pressure we are putting on her.  High nutrient levels, stormwater runoff, sediment erosion and wastewater in our system all add up to a bad thing.  Our estuary is being affected deeply.  We can observe the health of our estuary through several important indicators:

  • Oyster populations have fallen from 25 million in 1999 to 1.2 million in 2000.  Oysters in Great Bay filter around 20 gallons of water a day. A decrease in our natural filters has far reaching implications.  Oysters have been on the rise the past couple years in Great Bay and currently numbers hover just under 2 million.  More oysters means more filtered water in our system, reducing TSS (total suspended solids).  
  • Eelgrass in Great Bay is on the decline and has shown a lack of recovery after high stress events.  Eelgrass is a key health indicator. It allows suspended solids to settle, absorbs nutrients from the estuaries soil, creates habitat for fish and shellfish, and provides key organic matter for the bottom of the food chain.  
  • Clams are in rough shape in the Hampton-Seabrook Estuary.  They have been on the decline for most years since 1997.  Clams have become more susceptible to disease as water quality deteriorates.  
 Calm mornings on great bay are absolutely breathtaking.  Even though all appears to be peaceful and well, this estuary is at risk.  Beneath the waters, eelgrass populations continue to decline and oyster numbers have plummeted.  Photo:  @kylelschaefer

Calm mornings on great bay are absolutely breathtaking.  Even though all appears to be peaceful and well, this estuary is at risk.  Beneath the waters, eelgrass populations continue to decline and oyster numbers have plummeted.  Photo: @kylelschaefer

What Are We Doing to Fix the Problem?

  • Increasing the amount of land in conservation is combating the growing rise in impermeable surfaces.  
  • Responsible development of new construction.  Certain geographic locations are much more sensitive than others.  We can plan our communities responsibly and help to minimize our impact. 
  • Municipalities have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to update wastewater treatment systems which has an immediate impact on our water quality and nutrient loading.  We've made great progress with room to improve, particularly in Portsmouth, NH, over the coming years.
  • 30 communities in the system are updating stormwater policies to positively impact the estuary.  
  • Piscataqua region residents are making an impact through their everyday choices.  Here is a great link to explore how you can lower your impact everyday: Citizen's Guide.
 Giving thanks to a schoolie on the oceanfront.  Stripers feed on bait that spawns in the spring and summer months throughout our estuaries.  Without a healthy estuary we won't see strong bait spawning events, and without bait, stripers will crash.  Photo:  @kylelschaefer

Giving thanks to a schoolie on the oceanfront.  Stripers feed on bait that spawns in the spring and summer months throughout our estuaries.  Without a healthy estuary we won't see strong bait spawning events, and without bait, stripers will crash.  Photo: @kylelschaefer

It's Not All Bad News!

  • We have never had a more talented group of organizations and individuals committed to the protection and restoration of our estuaries.  Click here to volunteer.
  • As of 2016, 42% of the historical distribution for river herring has been restored, including the removal of the Great Dam in Exeter, NH.  PREP's goal is 50% of historical distribution which feels attainable.  This is great for our herring populations.  

How Does This Effect Stripers?!

Stripers are intimately weaved into the fabric of our estuaries.  The food chain connects the smallest of organisms to our beloved stripers and everything in between.  Any change in the system affects these fish.  Bass require water within a specific temperature range, toxicity level, dissolved oxygen range, and the list goes on.  Our affect on the estuary, as humans, has put this great fish at risk.  It's imperative that we take care of our estuaries if we want to take care of the striped bass.  

 There is great momentum behind the oyster restoration efforts in Great Bay.  New reefs are being planted throughout the system and there are some indications that our oysters may be developing more resistance to disease... time will tell.  Oysters are the filter for our estuaries and are a key water quality indicator.  Photo:  Joe Klementovich

There is great momentum behind the oyster restoration efforts in Great Bay.  New reefs are being planted throughout the system and there are some indications that our oysters may be developing more resistance to disease... time will tell.  Oysters are the filter for our estuaries and are a key water quality indicator.  Photo: Joe Klementovich

Small Contributions Add Up To BIG Results

If we all continue to care and make small adjustments to living a less impactful life on our natural environment, that's a great start.  Get to know the estuary, take a sunrise walk in the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, explore the trails around Great Bay and tap into the natural rhythms.  Go catch and release a striper or just peacefully watch the kingfishers dive into Chauncey Creek.  Your connection to the estuary to crucial, the more people that love this place the better.  

"In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught." (Baba Dioum, 1968.)

Source & To Learn More: PREP Website  |  Full 2018 Estuary Report

Article by Head Guide and Owner: Kyle Schaefer

 Sunrise at the Squamscott Boat Ramp.  Photo:  @kylelschaefer

Sunrise at the Squamscott Boat Ramp.  Photo: @kylelschaefer

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