Big Breeders, Big Problems: Letting East Coast Stripers Do Their Thing
By: Kyle Schaefer
Publish in The FlyFish Journal, Summer 2019
As a Maine striped bass guide a big part of my living revolves around the health of our saltwater fisheries. Well-managed fish stocks bring prosperity to the coast and immeasurable happiness to anglers. Stripers get us outside and help us to integrate into the natural rhythms of the coast; they are a gateway to the wild ocean. However, these migratory fish are in trouble; wild striped bass are currently being harvested faster than they can reproduce.
Striped bass are a special fish for me. I was born on Cape Cod where stripers summer and grew up on the Chesapeake Bay where they return to spawn each spring. It was the first fish I caught as a child and I remember legendary stories from my father about landing 50-pound fish. Although my draw to the coast is magnetic when I graduated college I ventured west to the mountains. After spending 5 years in Steamboat Springs, CO, I was ready to return to my natal grounds on the east coast, I was giving up a world in the mountains that I had meticulously built for myself, complete with some of life’s best ingredients: skiing, trout fishing and wide open spaces. But the cool salt breeze awaited me back home.
I settled into an upstairs room at a friend’s house and committed to my new life. The house sat on top of a hill, overlooking a tidal estuary nestled into the bold, beautiful coast of Maine.
My world began to brighten and expand as I came to realize that these tidal estuaries in my backyard were full of life. Late spring was upon us and wild, Atlantic striped bass had traveled a long way to reach my new home waters.
On a bluebird afternoon with the tide pushing in, I began exploring a new flat by kayak. A couple hundred feet away, nervous ripples organized into a V-wake revealing a tail waving above the water. I sat perfectly still in my bright red kayak, ready to fire. The fish disappeared for a moment and suddenly showed again 40 feet away, almost dead ahead. I laid out a cast, the fish charged the fly and as soon as it felt the hook in the corner of its mouth it tore off, looking for deeper water. It kicked up mud and fins sliced through the surface, translucent in the late spring sun. The fish, a female striper, was about 28 inches long and six or seven years old: a perfect fly rod striper on the flat.
That was the spring of 2012. Striped bass were coming off a banner 2011 spawning year and hopes were high for prosperous years ahead. Today, those 2011 year class fish should be the perfect age and size to chase on the flats. Yet somehow these fish are becoming fewer and farther between. Each season over the past seven years, rather than watching them grow and mature, populations have dwindled. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission admits that our striped bass stocks are overfished and overfishing is occuring. The stock of spawning striped bass has fallen 25% below the level where we consider stripers to be overfished.
Big breeder bass need protection, and younger generations of fish need to be nurtured as they are recruited up through the ranks. As female stripers age and mature their ovaries grow disproportionately larger in size, becoming exponentially more effective at spawning. For every 2.2 pounds that a sexually mature female striper packs on she is able to produce approximately 200,000 more eggs. As egg production increases, so does the size and fat content of each egg, giving the new generation a leg up.
Interestingly, the big stripers that anglers routinely take home contain a level of toxicity that has encouraged every state where these fish swim (except Massachusetts) to publish strict health advisories for human consumption. Maine recommends that pregnant or nursing women, women who are planning to start a family, and children under eight years old avoid eating striped bass all together. Everyone else in Maine is advised to have no more than four meals per year. Most Atlantic states agree, and warn that striped bass can be dangerous for women and children to consume and that men need to be wary of how much they eat.
Given the striped bass’s status at the top of the food chain, they constantly feed and, as they gorge, dangerous levels of mercury and PCBs accumulate in their skin and flesh. The larger the bass, the more potential for elevated levels of PCBs and mercury--the most toxic, non-radioactive element in the world. When these toxins reach dangerous levels in humans, we can expect damage to the brain and nervous system, kidneys, skin and liver.
You’d think going out of our way to protect these wise, old stripers would be intuitive. Not only are they the most prolific breeders in the population, with strong, proven genetics; they are also the most dangerous segment of striper to harvest and consume. What’s more, stripers fuel a vital recreation-based economy, as evidenced by the throngs of obsessed anglers who turn out to pursue them each season. All signs point to the need for tighter regulations protecting striped bass. They are exponentially more valuable swimming free than sitting on dinner plates.
We were in this position just 30 years ago. Yet today, our planet’s climate is more volatile, our estuaries less resilient, our baitfish more ravaged and fishing pressure on the rise. These natural resources provide substantial long-term, economic benefits when correctly managed, but we’re missing the boat again. According to an analysis prepared by Stripers Forever based on data from NOAA, during the last peak of the striped bass population in the early to mid 2000s, Massachusetts boasted an annual economic impact of one billion dollars from recreational striper fishing. Today we are seeing a reduction in returns and businesses are feeling the effects. For New England and the Mid-Atlantic, striped bass are the most accessible recreational fishing opportunity in town. In striped bass, we have a fish that was built to eat flies, top water plugs, and live bait.
With every big, breeding striper taken home for dinner, our chances of protecting the striped bass and ensuring its continued abundance dwindle. These fish helped me feel at home as I returned to the east coast. It’s time to ensure the big ones have a home here as well, and that it doesn’t involve a cooler in the back of a truck.
The American Saltwater Guides Association is working to protect these fish; visit www.americansaltwaterguidesassociation.org for updates and suggestions on how you can get involved.