Striped bass. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Virginia and Maryland scientists recorded low numbers of baby striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in 2023, leading to calls from an environmental group for stronger conservation measures for the species.
On Thursday, a survey conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources found that the Old Dominion had an average of 4.25 juvenile striped bass per large net haul, while Maryland had an average of one fish per haul. The numbers are below the 7.77 long-term average for Virginia and the 11.3 long-term average for Maryland.
For Virginia, it’s the third time within the last decade that below-average hauls have been recorded, with other low counts occurring in 2021 and 2012. For Maryland, it’s the fifth year in a row there have been below-average numbers.
The Virginia survey was conducted in the Rappahannock, York and James River watersheds, all of which lie within the larger Chesapeake Bay watershed. Scientists measured 1,025 baby striped bass, ranging from 1.5 to 4 inches in length, after sampling each site five times between mid-June and September.
The region’s striped bass population as a whole has recovered since reaching lows in the 1970s and 1980s, which led to fishing bans in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. In 2019, researchers determined that the species was being overfished. While a 2022 Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission stock assessment found overfishing is no longer occurring, the species remains below desired levels.
To increase the likelihood of reaching growth targets in 2029, the ASMFC this August extended an emergency regulation to limit the size of striped bass that could be caught through October 28, 2024.
Following the release of Thursday’s survey results, Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior scientist Chris Moore said in a statement that the five consecutive years of low numbers in Maryland waters mean “there will be fewer spawning adult fish left to help the population recover.”
“In the summer, warm water temperatures and low oxygen levels dramatically increase stress on striped bass, rendering shallow, estuarine nursery habitats, like Chesapeake Bay less hospitable. Climate change is making this problem worse,” Moore said. “To increase survival, states must work with all fishery sectors to limit striped bass mortality through quota modifications, summer season closures, and addressing fisheries that target fish before they spawn.”
VIMS scientists, however, indicated they see Virginia’s 2023 numbers as more of an anomaly linked to an “off year.”
“Striped bass recruitment can vary considerably from year to year. Poor recruitment in 2012 was followed by 10 years of average to above-average recruitment,” scientists with the institute wrote. “In this way, striped bass populations, and the fisheries they support, are stabilized by strong year classes which mitigate the effect of less productive years.”
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