As striped bass season winds down in the Chesapeake Bay, a look back at what we've seen in 2020 is illuminating. We received this unexpected letter from contributor Eric Packard, which we think sums it up nicely:

"Dear FishTalk: While out fishing this past week my frustration with the lack of keeper size and numbers of rockfish has grown. Not so much that I’m not catching but with the fact that anglers seem to have conceded to the fact that the fishery continues to perform so poorly. On October 13 the Maryland DNR published the 2020 young-of-year survey, a pathetic 2.5 index. This is the second year of poor performance, last year’s index coming in at 3.5, with the long-term average of 11.5. What will next year’s numbers be?

As I read the fishing reports, scroll through social media, and look in periodicals I have noticed a trend. Anglers seem to be happy with their catch. What?! Really? I believe we should be outraged and ashamed of the Bay’s poor rockfish performance. I see charter boat captains post on social media spouting that the fall rockfish bite is on. All the while, the photos they post of their catches and customers show small fish and fall short of limits. Talking about limits, you have anglers showing pride in limiting out… Again, really?! Your limit is one fish — UGH.

We, the anglers, need to push for better fisheries management. We need to reach out to our legislators, fishing clubs, and conservation organizations, and demand reform. Believe me, if we don’t take action now, our “trophy” fish photos will be of dink rockfish or a blue catfish. Let us not concede, we need to stand up now before it’s too late."

striped bass on chesapeake bay
Fish in the mid- and upper 20-inch range used to be rather average. Today, they're "really nice" fish.

Here's our response:

"Dear Eric: It hadn’t really hit me until reading your letter, but you’re quite correct. After the moratorium ended, during fall seasons in the 90s fish in the 30- to 36-inch range were the norm and we were calling 28-inch fish little ones. Those who can remember eeling near Pooles Island in this timeframe will recall rarely keeping a fish under the 30-inch mark. And as recently as five or 10 years ago a 30-plus-inch fall fish was nice, but common. The past few years they’ve inarguably been fewer and farther between. This past fall, fish over 30-inches have been a significant catch for anglers lucky enough to find ‘em, and people seem to have begun calling 25- and 26-inchers “big.” Come to think of it, I’m guilty of this myself. It certainly is odd how we’ve adjusted our expectations… and more than a little bit sad."

As the size of the fish we catch on the Bay shrinks, the young-of-year survey Eric references is even more worrying, and the epic flow of bad news that is 2020 continued when the Maryland DNR released its 2020 Young of Year juvenile striped bass survey. As Eric mentions, the historical long-term average index is 11.5. While it’s important to note that there’s tremendous variability from year to year (it’s hit as high as 59 in 1996 and 50 in 2001), and that it never went above 10 between 1973 and 1989, multiple years of low reproduction success in a row will obviously have an impact on future populations. It would seem that now, more than ever, protecting the large spawners that return to the Bay every spring is more critical than ever. However, we also need to remember that the bulk of the trophy-sized fish are harvested north of our region and what we do here in the Mid-Atlantic is only one piece of the puzzle. 

What will 2021 hold in store for striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay? We surely can't say. And we have to put a question-mark next to any management changes, because we don't have modern, solid science on factors like striped bass catch and release mortality. But one thing is for sure: we anglers need to push for better science, so we can make the changes necessary to allow a recovery. 

Learn more about how we can encourage better scientific study of the striped bass and this fishery.

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