ASMFC says rockfish harvests need to be cut 17 percent

Karl Blankenship, BayJournal.com

East Coast fishery managers last week took the first steps toward cutting the striped bass harvest 17 percent next year to help end overfishing of the popular species, which has been in decline for years.

A decline in striped bass has triggered a requirement that fishing restrictions be enacted to curtail harvests within a year. (Dave Harp)
A decline in striped bass has triggered a requirement that fishing restrictions be enacted to curtail harvests within a year. (Dave Harp)

Options about how the harvest should be reduced will be presented to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission at its August meeting, after which proposals would go out for public comment. Final measures could be approved in October.

A few states, including Virginia, have taken action to curb catches this year, though the ASMFC — which is responsible for coastwide management — will not require reductions until next year.

Although it was known that the population has been declining for years, concern was heightened when a new stock assessment, using updated information, found the population was in worse shape than previously thought.

The population is still significantly higher than the depleted levels of the early 1980s that ultimately led to a coastwide fishing moratorium. But the overfishing finding by the assessment triggers a requirement that fishing restrictions be enacted to curtail harvests within a year.

An analysis by the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee released at the commission’s April 30 meeting showed that coastwide catches needed to be reduced from a bit more than 7 million fish in 2017 to about 5.9 million fish next year. That is equivalent to a 17 percent reduction in the Bay and along the coast.

The commission will develop a range of options to achieve that reduction between now and August. Proposals under consideration include a range of size limits as well as other changes, such as a requirement that recreational anglers use a circle hook when fishing with bait. Maryland has imposed such a requirement in recent years, and fishery officials say it has improved the survival of striped bass released after being caught.

The issue of such “dead discards” — fish that die after being released by anglers — has gained more attention from fishery managers because the new assessment found the number of fish that die after being released in recent years actually exceeded the number of fish that recreational anglers catch and keep.

Citing a need for speedy action, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted April 23 to close its spring trophy season, which targets the largest fish in the population. These fish are capable of producing the most young and are therefore important for the future of the population.

Nature, though, appeared to have already provided a boost to conservation of the species. The technical committee’s preliminary analysis of 2018 data showed that fishing pressure last year — when bad weather pummeled the region — reduced recreational catches below the proposed new targets.