You may remember that in the May edition Notes from the Cockpit column I asked readers to chime in with their thoughts on the spring trophy striped bass season. Here are some of the reasoned, well thought out messages I received. No matter who you are or what your position regarding trophy season may be, you are bound to see some items in here which you disagree with — perhaps vociferously. That’s okay. My hope is we can listen to each other with open minds in the interest of maintaining healthier fisheries for us all.

trophy rockfish season
Should the big breeder rockfish like this be targeted in Maryland every spring?

Science Matters

Thanks for raising the issue of whether to catch or release trophy striped bass. I agree it boils down to two main issues: the striped bass fishery is in trouble (note the four previous, extremely poor YOY numbers and ASMFC's overfished status), and the beneficial economic impact of the trophy season. I also appreciate you mentioning the middle ground of a tag system that would limit, possibly with a fee paid, the number of trophy striped bass taken per angler.

I would like to build on your tag system idea. The most significant missing component of Maryland DNR’s striped bass program is the lack of research being done on striped bass in Chesapeake Bay. Knowing that striped bass remain the most popular commercial and recreational finfish in the Bay, generating roughly $500 million in economic activity related to fishing expenditures, travel, lodging, and so on each year (“The Economics of Recreational and Commercial Striped Bass Fishing”), you would think MD DNR would have a robust research program on striped bass. Not.

What are the catch and release impacts on large female striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay? Not just the immediate impact of release, but its longer-term impact on her millions of eggs deposited on the spawning grounds, and the success of those eggs? Also, it has been reported that male striped bass rarely exceed 35 inches. If true, then the trophy season is having an outsized impact on the reproductive success of the fishery. Research in this area would be helpful to determine whether or not a slot limit for the trophy season is appropriate. Beyond the trophy season, there is great need for research specific to the Chesapeake Bay on catch and release mortality that accounts for water and air temperature, salinity levels, and fishing gear type (live-lining, chumming, trolling, topwater, jigging, etc.).

Taking your tag system one step further, should both the striped bass recreational and commercial fishermen/women be required to purchase a “Striped Bass Stamp” to fund an effective Chesapeake Bay Striped Bass Research Program?

As you often write, follow the science!

- Rich K., a concerned striped bass fisherman

Slot for Striped Bass?

Thanks for the thoughtful piece on our striped bass fishery. While we all have our own views I tend to look at what other states and jurisdictions are doing on fish management. With that in mind, the Chesapeake Bay is the ONLY place on the entire Atlantic seaboard that hasn’t had a slot limit. (Editor’s note: this was written and received prior to the ASMFC changes that created the current slot limit). And, not only do we not have a slot limit, but you have not been able to keep any fish under 35 inches during our two-week trophy season at the beginning of May. So, if you catch a 28-inch you have to release it and keep fishing until you catch the big breeder. Everywhere else slot limits have been introduced to protect the species, even the coastal waters of Maryland.

As for the economic impact on charter boats and tackle shops? I have to believe the impact is relatively small since we are talking about only 15 days of trophy season. The regular striped bass season runs from May 15 to the end of December, with a short two-week closure at the end of July. So there are seven months of season for the charter boats and tackle shops to make their money. Seems pretty obvious where we should go on this subject.

Thanks again, I really enjoy your magazine.

- Steve B.

(Editor’s note: Just for the record: the profit margins for tackle shops and charter boats can swing wildly depending on seasonality, and many tell me that a two-week season can have a surprisingly significant impact on their income.)

Seasonal Slot Limits

I would like to share my opinion on your open question in the May edition regarding the striped bass spring trophy season in Maryland. After serving many years as a member of the Tidal and Coastal Recreational Fishing Committee (Advisory Committee for the MD DNR), I have become acutely aware of the troubles facing the striped bass fishery up and down the Atlantic Coast. The two most pressing problems facing the fishery are the decline in the population of the prime breeding size striped bass and the dreadful reproduction success in Maryland waters the past four years as measured by the Young of the Year (YOY) Surveys. To put this in layman terms, we have overfished the coastwide population of large females and their spawning efforts have resulted in paltry reproduction in Maryland’s spawning tributaries. IMHO, it is illogical for Maryland to schedule a spring trophy striped bass season which sets a minimum size of 35 inches. This regulation makes absolutely no sense to me! I support restructuring the spring season to a slot limit season.

- Kevin M. (President, Annapolis Anglers Club)

From a Former Guide

I am a lifelong avid angler and also a retired Rocky Mountain fly fishing guide of 18 years, owned and operated a fly shop and guide service, and my family has owned and operated a bluewater (tuna and marlin) charter boat — I am no stranger to guiding, chartering, and the associated economics. I start with this background because I see a false choice that persists in the debate over striper trophy season.

Most discussions devolve into a biology vs. economics argument — that even if populations are in decline and killing mature breeding females makes it worse, charter captains (and related economics from marinas and stores, etc.) still need trophy season to earn a living. I do not believe this is an either-or choice, it’s not a “save the fish vs. save the jobs” situation. My professional fishing background involved catch and release fishing exclusively. Thousands of clients over the years I personally guided, and thousands more clients from guides working for me, never once kept a fish despite the majority of those trips being on public water where keeping fish is legal. And my business wasn’t unique; other guides in my area also practiced catch and release exclusively, as do most fly fishing guides around the country. There is a proven, sound business model built around catch and release fishing.

People travel all over the world to chase bonefish — a fish that hardly any culture anywhere in the world eats, yet it is a booming guided fishing industry. The tarpon is a lifelong bucket-list trophy catch and another famous catch and release fish coveted by anglers, flocking to Florida and other destinations for the adventure and the experience, but not the meat.

If striper trophy season is about the trophy fish, then taking a photo or taking measurements for a replica mount fulfills the goal just as well as taking the photo of the dead trophy back at the dock. If trophy season is about the superior meat of a 40-inch fish, I’ve not heard that argument. Striper meat is widely available at grocery stores and markets, and catching your own dinner doesn’t require the mature spawning female to be the specific fish on the plate.

The whole larger debate about trophy season is complicated, nuanced, and filled with uncertainty, especially with Mother Nature having her input as well. But I have seen too many examples to accept that killing the fish you depend on to survive is the ONLY way to make a living as a guide or charter boat captain.

- John R.

United Front

I think the recreational fishing community needs a stronger voice. Since the collapse of the MSSA, the only voice of the recreational angler has become the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA). Recently CCA did a planning session and it was mentioned that for a group to have any real input at any government level, the group needs a mass of around 4000 members. Previous MSSA members need to be reached and educated as to the importance of joining CCA, a national organization with many thousands of members from Washington State to California on the Pacific Coast, from Texas to Florida on the Gulf Coast, and from Florida to Maryland on the Atlantic Coast — with even an inland chapter in Kentucky.

As far as Maryland and Virginia go, on the management of the Chesapeake there is a lot of work to be done. If the states won’t act on behalf of the fish, we need to assemble the interested groups in Maryland and Virginia: Commercial fisherman, charter captains, recreational fisherman, guides, fishing clubs, and businesses like tackle shops and boat dealers and manufacturers, with an interest in the Bay need to sit down and see what each will give up, do, or volunteer, to save the striper regardless of what MD DNR or VRMC will or won’t do.

Some ideas of what these groups could do:

  • Commercial: Take a reduction on quota and/or change harvest procedure to minimize bycatch mortality.
  • Charters and guides: Accept one fish per person, limit the number of lines on a boat.
  • Recreational: Give up fishing July 15 through August 31.
  • Tackle Shops, boat dealers or manufacturers, and fishing clubs: quit selling treble hooks on saltwater lures, promote these concepts, contribute to legal campaigns, and promote catch and release information.

- Toby F.

Science Matters (Again!)

I can’t help but think that we sometimes miss the big picture. Often fisheries managers point out that hitting the brakes on angler-caused mortality is the only tool they have available. But as the foot hits the brake pedal, shouldn’t we be thinking about how to drive the bus? The Chesapeake is a unique and changing ecosystem, yet managers are often stuck with using data from studies performed hundreds of miles away and/or decades ago. We desperately need to invest in better science to know the real catch and release mortality rates including how they change with seasonality. We need to know if handling pregnant females affects spawning success. We need to know if there’s a measurable mortality difference with gear and techniques. Most importantly, we need to look at not just how to remove fewer fish from the gene pool, but also how to help nature make more fish — how to “drive the bus” instead of just pumping the brakes. In the long term, the effects of issues like water quality and prey availability may well dwarf the impact of anglers. With the science in-hand we can then work on generating the political will to invest in all of these things if we’re ever going to have the fisheries our kids deserve.

- Charles B.