Striped bass management for the next decade or more hangs in the balance. Photo: Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program

Public Hearings Planned for Coastwide Striped Bass Changes

This month the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) published the schedule for public hearings Draft Amendment 7 to the Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass. This amendment will form the basis for coastwide management of our beloved rockfish for the next ten years or more. Some hearings will take place in person (like one in Annapolis and several further up the East Coast), others via webinar (like Virginia’s).

This new amendment comes at a worrisome time for stripers/rockfish, as ASMFC’s most recent assessment in 2018 found they are overfished—the stock is perilously low and we are killing too many of them, through both legitimate harvest and unintentional dead discards. In addition, successful spawning has been low for several years.

Despite rumors often repeated, there is no harvest moratorium on the table. The fish are not in as much trouble as they were in the early 1980s. The science and the management system are much stronger than they were when fishing closed down in the late ‘80s to prevent stock collapse. The Atlantic states have put these programs into place over the past 30 years specifically to prevent needing another moratorium.

Now the fish are telling us clearly, though, that it’s time to pay close attention to scientific warning signs, to take vigorous action to rebuild the stock. The Draft Amendment’s proposed options consider changes to the management triggers, which determine when to make management adjustments. And it would consider changes to the use of conservation equivalency, which gives the states limited flexibility to tailor their own management measures. It is required by law to rebuild the stock by 2029. A new stock assessment will be coming later this year, so managers must consider the impact of low spawning numbers, both past and possibly future.

The commercial harvest is tightly controlled by catch quotas and, in recent years, tight enforcement. Coastwide, the recreational fishery, both for harvest and for catch-and-release, is a larger source of fishing mortality that must be managed by bag limits and seasonal closures, rather than direct quotas. Since recreational release mortality has proven surprisingly large, the Draft Amendment considers options to increase rockfish survival after release.

The hearing for the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and the District of Columbia Dept. of Energy and Environment will be in person on Tuesday, March 8, 4–6 p.m. at PRFC headquarters in Colonial Beach, Va. Virginia’s hearing will be a webinar on Wednesday, March 9, 6–8 p.m., conducted by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Maryland’s hearing will be in-person on Monday, March 28, 6-8 p.m. at Calvary United Methodist Church in Annapolis, conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Hearings for other Atlantic states from Delaware to Maine will also occur in March.

The Draft Amendment is available via the Commission’s website. In addition to the hearings, the public may submit comments until 11:59 PM (EST) on April 15 to Emilie Franke, FMP Coordinator, at 1050 N. Highland St., Suite 200 A-N, Arlington, Virginia 22201; 703.842.0741 (fax) or at [email protected] (Subject line: Draft Amendment 7).

-John Page Williams