Changing Planet

What’s happened to all the striped bass?

Some people jump out of airplanes or go rock climbing for an exhilarating time.

For me, it’s chasing striped bass—big, powerful, and beautiful. I always feel a rush of excitement as my fishing line goes screaming off the reel once a large bass takes my lure, knowing that while adult bass in the ocean typically weigh from 15 to 30 pounds, they can grow up to 6 feet and 125 pounds. They hit the lure with quick force, fight hard, and can, despite an angler’s best efforts, sometimes escape.

The author fishing for striped bass off Montauk, Long Island.
Lee Crockett reels in a striped bass off Montauk, Long Island.

I’m a catch and release fisherman, so the trick is to reel in the fish as quickly as possible so it’s not worn-out and likely to die when—after I admire my catch and maybe take a picture—I return it to the water.

For the past six years I’ve fished for striped bass a few days each fall off Montauk, Long Island, with charter boat Capt. John McMurray, a fellow Coast Guard veteran who is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing policies in federal waters from New York to North Carolina. In the past, McMurray and I caught so many big bass on light tackle—a lightweight rod, reel, and line—that we lost count and returned to the dock exhausted. But in the last couple of years, unfortunately, it’s gotten harder to spot the fish. And on our most recent trip, we could hardly find any. I caught only one.

The author is shown holding a striped bass that he's caught, prior to releasing it.
Lee Crockett poses with his catch—a 15-pound striped bass—before releasing it to swim another day.

This unsettling observation runs parallel to what scientists have found: Striped bass are declining. That’s particularly bad news because this species was once considered the success story for how an acutely depleted fish population could recover from years of overfishing. In the 1980s, the species was in such dire straits that regulators enacted a moratorium on its take along most of the East Coast. Fortunately, the fish rebounded, so that by the mid-1990s, anglers were celebrating a robust population and a return to fishing for a favorite catch.

But we have repeated our past mistakes. Since the mid-2000s, the total amount of striped bass taken exceeded the target catch level, and in six of those years, overfishing occurred—fishing faster than the species could reproduce. The result was predictable.

“There has been a really drastic decline,” McMurray told me on our most recent fishing trip. “Each year it’s gotten a little worse. It’s important to reduce fishing when a fish population gets smaller.”

3 men fish for striped bass in Montauk
Capt. John McMurray (left) and Lee Crockett (right) watch as Aaron Podey, a former Pew fish policy expert, brings in a big striped bass.

Regulating the health of fish populations can fall to more than one agency. Currently, the federal government manages recreationally and commercially important fish in federal waters (generally 3 to 200 miles offshore) under the nation’s fish law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. But in some regions of the country, state-run commissions play a separate role in fish management. These commissions, composed of fishermen, state agency representatives, and regional fishing experts, are authorized to oversee some fishing in state waters, which typically extend 3 miles offshore.

One such commission, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, makes fishing rules, including those for striped bass, in state waters along the Eastern Seaboard. In October, after much debate and over opposition from several commission members, the full commission reduced the amount of striped bass that can be killed by 20 to 25 percent, depending upon the location. The commission should be commended, even though such cuts should have happened sooner to prevent the harmful overfishing that damaged the health of this fish population in the first place. It also remains to be seen whether the reductions will be effectively implemented, because the commission gave state fishery officials a good deal of flexibility in creating regulations.

The differences between some rules made by state commissions and those enacted by the federal government can be stark. This disparity is why I worry when some recreational fishing interests say they would like more fish species to be managed under a system similar to the state-operated one used for striped bass. Congress is likely to hear that request when it considers updating federal fishery law this year. The law rightly states that fishery managers must act to protect a species as soon as scientists recognize it’s in trouble and that there should be consequences for exceeding fishing quotas. Because regional commissions are not bound by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, their rules are typically more lenient.

In the case of striped bass, commissioners knew that catch amounts had exceeded target levels. But the commission’s rules didn’t require taking steps to prevent overfishing, so it delayed action for more than two years. In contrast, federal law would have required a faster response, potentially averting the population decline and the stiffer cuts in quotas that subsequently followed.

A swarm of striped bass feed on baitfish off Montauk.
Thousands of striped bass come to the surface to feed on baitfish off Montauk—a sight less common now, because the striped bass population has declined.

“In the federal system, the law is the law,” McMurray said. “If overfishing occurs, we have to take prompt action.”

Even when commission rules are in place, states are not always required to follow them. The states that make up the Atlantic commission, for example, are legally bound by commission decisions. But in other commissions, individual states can ignore fishing limits that have been set.

This year, as Congress considers updates to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, I hope that members can see a lesson in striped bass. We need to continue to protect our valuable ocean fish under federal rules that have already helped dozens of depleted species start on the road to recovery.

There is no sense in deviating from that course now. Whether it’s striped bass, red snapper, or any other type of fish that anglers like to pursue, we must have rules that make fishing sustainable—or there won’t be enough fish left for us to catch.

Lee Crockett joined The Pew Charitable Trusts in June 2007 as director of Federal Fisheries Policy. As Ddirector, U.S. Oceans, he led Pew’s efforts to establish policies to end overfishing and promote ecosystem-based fisheries management in the United States under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the federal law that governs ocean fish management. As director, Crockett oversees all of Pew’s U.S. fisheries campaigns. These include efforts in the Northeast, South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Caribbean, and the Pacific. Before joining Pew, Crockett was executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the largest national coalition dedicated exclusively to promoting the sustainable management of ocean fish. Under his leadership, the campaign helped efforts to reauthorize and strengthen the MSA. Previously, he was a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, leading agency efforts to protect essential fish habitat. He also served as a staff member of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, working on a variety of fisheries, environmental and boating safety issues. Crockett holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biological oceanography from the University of Connecticut. Before college, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He’s also an avid angler who enjoys fishing the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.
  • Mike Dean

    Thanks Lee, really nice read.

  • Out

    Reduce bag limits! Slot limits! Practice catch and release! It is what I am passing on to my kids.

  • harold moody

    for the real answer to what is killing all ocean animals, please check out dr. Helen Caldicotts new book CRISIS without END. She is a dr. & founded the PHY. for social RESP. She will rell you why mass die offs are happening & sadly will continue for generations. We are in an ELE event.The oceans,the land animals,water,soil are all affected every day..Check out the NUKU situation in Japan.3 nuku reactor meltdowns & 1 cooling pond full of nuku spent is also a great source of real TRUTH about all the mass die offs & why they will continue for 1000 years or more. peace to you..

  • Jason DeLand
  • Bruce Peters

    no mention of decline of forage species ? no observers on herring boats ? no observers on draggers fishing in offshore deep waters for cod that catch bass (SE of Chatham and Nantucket MA in fall) herring and menhaden catch too large ? seal predation ? overharvest in producer states ? overharvest in rec sector ?
    easy to write and propose reducing harvest, but its a lot more complicated and without all facets of decline looked at, and addressed we will continue to fail to address overfishing.

  • Jarlath Crowe

    I’ve eaten only 2 Stripers and both have absolutely no taste to them, which is why I don’t kill them. Give me a Blue Fish and I’ll use honey mustard condiment during baking…delicious!

  • Shane Baker

    we had a similar thing happen to our most iconic native fish, the Murray Cod, a freshwater giant. These fish can live for up to 100 years and grow to well over 200lb. These fish were slaughtered for the table by pros using nets and set lines for years. That’s all over now. But the damage was done, almost irreparably. Luckily our various state and federal governments got on side with the cod and instituted a very good breeding program. Also other natives were taken on board as well, Aussie bass, golden perch and a number of others. This has been a success, with big cod now being taken again. Strict bag limits were imposed, along with massive penalties, including jail, confiscation of assets etc. during the time of low numbers of big cod, European carp got a good foothold in many of our inland waterways, causing all sorts of problems, turbidity was a real problem, destroying eggs laid in hollow logs etc, and predation of fingerlings. To name a few. But the mighty cod fought back. Now there are fish in the rivers and dams that could easily eat a 25lb carp. Just recently some mongrel got caught with drum nets in a river and a large number of golden perch. He will get hammered and rightly so. Thing is, once those laws, limits etc are put in place you have to keep them in place, they were removed by the Americans and now they are back to scratch. All in the name of the mighty dollar, that’s all that seems to matter there.

  • Just Some Dude

    This should be a valuable lesson to the radicalized sport fishermen who blamed commercial fishermen for the plight of striped bass in the past. In reality, a dead fish is a dead fish… doesn’t matter who caught it. Now, the greed and arrogance of sporties are to blame for this new decline.

  • Bruno

    Awkward… over the past 5 years the striped bass season has been getting better and better yearly by me. This year the NY DEC reduced the limit from 2 to 1 striper per angler, which is fine. Striped bass only stay in areas where the bait fish are… bunker, sand eels, etc. I heard from friends and on multiple fishing websites and forums that their are no bait fish by Montauk. Get my point?

  • john cherubino

    Wish the author mentioned the slaughter of stripers by gill nets by trawlers as legally sanctioned bycatch and also the practice of highlining.
    Capt Peters is on the money.
    Mr. Crowe, you gotta learn how to cook.

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