Taking a look at the striped bass problem

We could see tighter rockfish regulations next year. BY ERIC BURNLEY
February 7, 2014

Rockfish have been under discussion quite a bit since several popular fishing locations had poor results in 2012 and 2013. The doom-and-gloom crowd is predicting a complete collapse of the fishery, while the more realistic folks see the current situation as cause for concern, but not panic.

First a little history. In 1976, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Committee formed the State-Federal Striped Bass Advisory Committee to examine the problems with that species. Each state from Maine to North Carolina was included in this group. I was selected to represent Delaware recreational fishermen, and Roy Miller was the representative from Delaware’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.

At our first meeting in Salisbury, Md., I discovered everyone on the panel knew exactly what was wrong with the striped bass. The problem was everyone believed the decline in striped bass had nothing to do with them. Recs blamed commercials, commercials blamed the recs and everyone blamed the government. Sound familiar?

By the time we realized that Pogo was correct when he said, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” the stock had fallen to a point where only a complete moratorium could save the rockfish. Gov. Hughes from Maryland started the moratorium in his state, and Delaware quickly followed suit. It took a while for the other states to join, with the Commonwealth of Virginia kicking and screaming until the last possible second.

There is no question the moratorium worked, and the strict laws that followed have kept the rockfish population at all-time highs. Now we have had two poor reproductive years with one the lowest in history and the other below average. The good news is the class of 2011 was one of the highest ever recorded.

The folks who develop striped bass regulations at the ASMFC have decided to wait until 2015 before making any drastic changes in the law. They are aware that one dominant year class can carry the population for a few years, but without another large year class in a reasonable amount of time, the stock will be in trouble.

Social media has made it possible for anyone and everyone to share their views on anything and everything including striped bass management. One group, Stripers Forever, has been promoting the idea of making striped bass a gamefish. If you are a recreational fisherman, getting rid of commercial fishermen sounds like a good idea. It’s not.

Right now, recreational fishermen catch and retain many more striped bass than commercials. In the state of New Jersey, recreational fishermen were able to convince lawmakers to declare striped bass a gamefish with the idea that this would be a conservation measure. The next thing they did was take the commercial quota and divide it up among the recreational sector. Sort of defeats the conservation argument.

If you make striped bass a gamefish, you take it out of the market and off the menu in restaurants. Only those of us who catch rockfish on rod and reel would be allowed to possess and consume these fish. Sounds kind of selfish to me.

Another problem that has caused some folks to think rockfish are in trouble is their tendency not to run on human time. People, for the most part, like to keep on a set schedule, yet migratory fish movements are regulated by many factors including water temperature, bait, hours of sunlight and spawning urge. They do not pay attention to human expectations.

As an example, the Virginia run of big rockfish every January has not developed the last two years. In 2013, we blamed Hurricane Sandy and when they didn’t show up in 2014 a cry went out to open the EEZ to striper fishing.

A large rockfish tournament held in January out of Rudee Inlet produced one fish in 2013 and none this year. Promoters, charter boat captains and other fishing-related businesses in Virginia Beach are not happy. Unfortunately for them, the rockfish just don’t care. From reports I received, the main body of striped bass traveled down the coast 10 miles or more offshore, well beyond the three-mile limit. No scientific report has confirmed this, but my information indicates the water temperature was several degrees warmer well offshore, and this is the reason the rockfish were out there.

So where does that leave us poor rockfishermen? In pretty much the same place we have always been, at the mercy of the fish. All we can do is hope for a dominant year class in 2014 and if that does not occur, be willing to work with fishery managers to save the spawning-size fish we have until they finally produce the amount of young-of-the-year rock needed to sustain the fishery.

  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age.  Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.  He has been the regional editor for Salt Water Sportsman, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and the Fisherman Magazine.  He was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine.  Eric is the author of three books; Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits.  He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at