To understand the emergency catch limits being rushed into place for recreational anglers who chase striped bass — by far the most popular saltwater fish in the Northeast and the centerpiece of a multibillion-dollar industry — you have to understand “the slot” and how the “class of 2015″ is swimming right into it.
The slot refers to the size range of fish an angler is allowed to keep. In Massachusetts, where an estimated quarter-million anglers chase “stripers” each year, the slot has been 28 to 35 inches since 2020.
As a management practice, the restrictions allow for the harvest of wild food — licensed anglers can keep one slot fish per day — while protecting the larger fish, which are the most important breeders, requiring they be released back into the ocean to replenish the population.
The problem is that the breeders have been struggling.
Striped bass spawn in fresh water each spring, mostly in Chesapeake Bay, then migrate north, spend their summers along the Northeast coast, then return south again in the fall when the water cools.
In the 1980s, the striper population nearly collapsed from overfishing. But a combination of science and policy initiatives — many states implemented moratoriums on harvesting fish, though not Massachusetts — not only saved the species, but ushered in a boom time. The stated goal today is for the fishery to be as healthy as it was in 1995. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, or ASMFC, a multistate cooperative that manages 27 near-shore species along the East Coast, has for several years been working off a plan to return to, and remain at, that 1995 level by 2029.
All signs were they would achieve that goal. Then the spawn collapsed.
“Beginning in 2019, we’ve had four class years coming out of the Chesapeake where the spawn has been abysmal,” said Michael Armstrong, deputy director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. “This hasn’t happened since the 1980s when the stock collapsed, and it looks like 2023 is going to be another bad spawn.”
Which brings us to the class of 2015. That is the last year stripers had a really strong crop of babies, and after eight years in the ocean, they have grown to the point where they are large enough to be kept.
Like people, fish of the same age can vary widely in size, and last year the larger members of the class of 2015 passed 28 inches and arrived in the slot. Recreational anglers pounced, taking home 3.5 million fish coast-wide, with the 2022 harvest nearly double that of 2021.
“We were gobsmacked when those numbers came out,” Armstrong said. “Suddenly, we went from having about a 97 percent chance of reaching our goal by 2029, to a 15 percent chance. And if the harvest this year stayed the same or went higher than it was in 2022, that chance would drop to zero.”
This year, the average length of a class of 2015 fish would be 31.5 inches, putting them dead center in the slot. Moreover, by age 8, nearly 100 percent of striped bass are sexually mature and able to breed. So in early May, at a meeting of the ASMFC, Armstrong proposed an unprecedented action to protect them: reduce the top end of the slot to 31 inches, coastwide, immediately.
Changes to fishing regulations are never without controversy, thanks to competing stakeholders. On the recreational side of striper fishing, the vast majority of anglers practice catch-and-release, and are in it for the “sport.” They often look down on the “meat fishermen,” who are in it for dinner.
Interestingly, they both kill roughly the same number of stripers each year, as an estimated 9 percent of released fish die of injuries sustained during the catch. And then there are charter boat captains, who want their paying customers to come home with filets if they choose.
Because of the many stakeholders, not to mention the 16 states involved in the conversation, changes often happen at a glacial pace. Not this time. Led by Massachusetts, the emergency measure passed instantly, with only New Jersey voting against it.
“It’s an ad hoc measure, but the ASMFC needs to be applauded for trying to stop the bleeding,” said Charles Witek, a Long Island angler and attorney who writes an influential blog called “One Angler’s Journey.”
“What striped bass need is a cold winter and a wet spring for a successful spawn, and we did not have that again this year,” Witek said. “So if you’re not getting younger fish into the population, you need to make sure there are enough older fish to spur recovery when those conditions come around, and protecting the 2015 class is the smartest thing we can do right now.”
Tony Friedrich, policy director for the influential American Saltwater Guides Association, said that while not all his members support the decision, the organization endorses it.
“We all contributed to this situation, and we need to own that,” Friedrich said. “So our position is that we’d prefer to take a couple inches adjustment now in an attempt to make it right, and try to avoid draconian management decisions in the near future that could include an outright moratorium.”
The emergency measure will remain in place for 180 days, and states have until July 2 to officially implement it. Massachusetts expects to have the restriction in place by the end of this month and will launch a campaign to alert anglers to the changes.
While that goes on, the ASMFC will begin working on a plan for next year, which could include more restrictions, and possibly involve the controversial commercial fishery, which is not affected by the emergency restrictions. Their harvest is controlled by quotas, and did not change from 2021 to 2022. But there is nothing simple about the commercial striped bass fishery.
In Massachusetts, commercial anglers can only keep fish that are over the slot, meaning longer than 35 inches. Those are the exact fish conservationists want to keep in the water. The bigger a fish, the better a breeder it is, and many recreational anglers scream hypocrisy that the commercial fleet gets to decimate the stock of larger females.
The official explanation for this, as posted on the Division of Marine Fisheries website, is that it segregates the size of legal harvest between the two fisheries. “This was expected to improve compliance and enforcement of recreational and commercial possession limits and closed commercial fishing days,” according to the website. “While the Massachusetts commercial fishery targets larger fish, it’s worth remembering that the number of fish harvested commercially here is about 10 percent of the number harvested in the recreational fishery.”
In 2020, the ASMFC mandated 18 percent cuts to state commercial quotas, but as the coastal states begin intense plans on what to do about next year, there is strong demand for the commercial fishery to make more sacrifices.
“For next year, everything is going to be looked at, and if fishing mortality has to be cut, it will need to involve the commercial fishery too. They won’t get a pass on this one,” said Armstrong, the Massachusetts deputy director. “There will be debate, and they will be arguing that they didn’t cause this, but at some point if you’re part of the harvest you need to be part of the solution.”
Fishing is sometimes portrayed as lazy leisure, but it is a blood sport, involving warring interests and living creatures, and fisheries management is always messy and complicated.
But thus far, the recreational community is mostly applauding the measure, especially in Massachusetts, which has long had catch-and-release as the dominant ethos. In a typical year, the state’s anglers will catch 5 million to 10 million striped bass, and keep only about 200,000, according to Armstrong.
For years, many prominent striper fishing organizations in the state have been pleading for action, if not an outright moratorium on killing fish. The Cheeky Schoolie Tournament on Cape Cod, the world’s largest fly-fishing tournament, is catch-and-release, and insists anglers don’t even take their catch out of the water, but instead photograph them next to a ruler in the water, while “keeping them wet.”
Stripers Forever, a Newbury-based organization, has been arguing for years to make stripers a “game fish” only, eliminating the commercial harvest. And, most notably, the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, perhaps the most famous striper fishing competition in the country, removed stripers from the event in 2020. The derby took the same action from 1985 to 1993, during the dark days of the striped bass collapse.
With the 31-inch cap, the ASMFC estimates the fishery will have a 50/50 chance of hitting its 2029 goals. But a lot of it is in the hands of the anglers. Last year, the fishing was good, and when the fishing is good, people fish. The trick, always, is how to keep it that way.
Correction, May 25, 2023: An earlier version of a graphic in this story explaining changes to the slot included an inaccurate depiction of a striped bass. The graphic has been updated. The Globe regrets the error.