Striped Bass (Rockfish)

striped-bass-rockfish-BlairSeltzCBFStaff_458x232Photo by Blair M. Seltz/CBF Staff

Maintaining Our "Restored" Striped Bass Population

Striped bass are often seen as the greatest success story of the Chesapeake Bay. Populations of this iconic sport fish plummeted in the 1970s and early 1980s, but then rebounded because of tightened catch restrictions in a dozen states from 1985 to 1990, including a moratorium on catching them in Maryland, Virginia and other states.

A New Decline

Today, we face a new decline, albeit one that has not taken "stripers" anywhere near as low as last time. According to the latest science developed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission—a regional fisheries management board—the Atlantic striped bass stock (which includes populations from the Bay and Delaware and Hudson Rivers) has been declining since 2004 when it was at an all-time peak. Concurrently, recreational catches have dropped steadily, especially at the edges of the range of the species in New England and North Carolina—shrinking of a fish's range is a sure sign of decline in the population. To protect this important species and reverse the decline, the commission recently voted to consider a reduction in the allowable catch of striped bass by up to 25 percent beginning in 2015.

CBF Senior Fisheries Scientist Bill Goldsborough, who serves on the commission, said that cutbacks would be a wise move. He said the Atlantic states need to move beyond the "wait-for-a-crisis" style of fisheries management that allowed the rockfish crash in the early 1980s and instead adopt a preventative style.

Water Pollution and Poor Diet

Goldsborough explained that water pollution and poor diet may be partly to blame for the recent decline in striped bass. "Their favorite food, menhaden, is at an all-time low, and that appears to be causing problems that we see in the Chesapeake's resident striped bass," Goldsborough said. "They’re skinny, they're diseased, and they're dying at a faster rate, in part because they are not getting enough good nutritious food to eat."

So where is the striped bass' food—these smaller fish, the menhaden—going? Many are being caught by an industrial fishing fleet out of Virginia, which processes them to make livestock and fish feed, fish oil pills, and other products. Virginia is the only state on the coast that still allows this industrial fishing.

Without enough nutrients from menhaden, and stressed by poor water quality, some scientists believe the immune systems of striped bass are becoming suppressed. The theory is that weakened disease-fighting systems make stripers more likely to become ill with a chronic wasting disease called mycobacteriosis, which infects as much as 70 percent of the Bay's striped bass.

The disease is caused by bacteria that are found nearly everywhere in the water and sediment, said Dr. Wolfgang Vogelbein of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "We feel that these environmental bacteria…are opportunists, and that disease outbreaks are stress-related," said Dr. Vogelbein, who discovered mycobacteriosis in striped bass in 1997. His lab is now studying the possible link between mycobacteriosis, stress in fish, and low-oxygen "dead zones," often caused by pollution.

Preventing Another Crash

Tom O'Connell, Fisheries Director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, noted that the Atlantic states are also considering limits on catching menhaden as a way to prevent another striper population crash.

"The last thing we want to do is get back into a situation where we are faced with a moratorium. Nobody wants to do that," O'Connell said. "Some modest adjustments today would help avoid future significant actions."

In other words, an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of sustainable fishing.

Disappearing at an Alarming Rate

Striped bass (rockfish) eating menhaden.  Courtesy The Pew Charitable Trusts

Seventy percent of an adult rockfish's diet historically has been filled by menhaden. Today that's down to eight percent. What is causing the menhaden population to plummet and what can we do about it? Read More

In the News

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04.20.17 - Video Survey finds increase in adult female blue crabs in Chesapeake Bay

04.20.17 - Females up, males down in blue crab dredge survey

04.19.17 - Survey: Chesapeake Bay blue crab numbers down

04.19.17 - The Bay has a lot more female blue crabs this year, and they're ready to spawn

04.19.17 - DNR survey shows dip in blue crab population

04.19.17 - Chesapeake Bay blue crab population remains 'steady,' spawning-age female numbers surge 

04.19.17 - Chesapeake Bay female crabs at their most plentiful since at least 1990

04.16.17 - Rural pollutants that impact the Chesapeake region affect Pennsylvania trout streams

04.13.17 - Video Results of oyster restoration efforts in Chesapeake tributaries seem promising

03.25.17 - As crab season beckons, some watermen hope for new rules to bolster their harvest

03.19.17 - Chesapeake Bay's booming oysters industry is alarmed by Trump's EPA budget cuts

03.19.17 - Bay group, public oppose cut to oyster sanctuaries

03.17.17 - MD House votes to keep current oyster sanctuaries

03.16.17 - Chance to see Mill on the fly April 1

03.04.17 - Fired crab manager was not at war with watermen

02.06.17 - Goldsborough skillfully navigated Bay fisheries' troubled waters

01.05.17 - Delegate moves to roll back penalties for commercial fishing violations

12.31.16 - Year end Right Ons and Boos for the Outdoors

12.24.16 - Bay foundation reports more grasses, crabs, and oysters

12.11.16 - Goldsborough has been the calm in the storm of fisheries management

12.07.16 - Commission seeking public input on menhaden management plan

12.03.16 - Big changes in the air over little menhaden

12.03.16 - The more menhaden the better

11.29.16 - Two meetings on menhaden will put a big spotlight on a little fish

11.07.16 - Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Goldsborough to retire next month

11.06.16 - Bass anglers can still experience rewarding days on Susquehanna River

10.28.16 - Fisheries Commission raises menhaden catch limits

10.28.16 - Video Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Votes to Increase Menhaden Quotas

10.27.16 - Fisheries panel, after failed last try, agrees on increase in menhaden harvest

10.27.16 - Regulators increase menhaden quota, which could help ease bait fish shortage

10.26.16 - Menhaden catch cap eased, pleasing no one

10.25.16 - A waypoint towards Atlantic fisheries recovery

10.18.16 - Video Chasing gulls chasing the Chesapeake Bay anchovy

10.13.16 - Chesapeake Bay has its own king crab: Giant blue is caught in Harford County

10.13.16 - High school students on Maryland boat tour encounter massive blue crab

10.12.16 - Giant blue crab caught by Maryland high school students

10.11.16 - Giant Blue Crab in the Chesapeake Bay

10.11.16 - Check out this giant crab found near Havre de Grace

The Bay’s Top Commercial Fisheries in 1960

#1 Menhaden
#2 Blue Crab
#3 Oyster
#4 River Herring
#5 Striped Bass
#6 Soft Clam
#7 Croaker
#8 Spot
#9 Summer Flounder
#10 Catfish

The Bay's Top Commercial Fisheries in 2012*

#1 Menhaden
#2 Blue Crab
#3 Croaker
#4 Striped Bass
#5 Spot
#6 Catfish
#7 Summer Flounder
#8 White Perch
#9 Oyster (Shucked Meats(
#10 Bluefish

* Find out more about today's top fisheries.

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