Monday, February 14, 2011

Where are all the winter striped bass?

One of the first blogs I ever did back in the winter of 2005-2006 (http://narragansettbaykeeper.blogspot.com/2006_01_01_archive.html) focused on the hold-over winter populations of striped bass in Narragansett Bay.

That year, a few hardy souls who fish around the Point Street Bridge in Providence, and a few other locations in the Upper Bay and tributary rivers were catching lots of stripers right through the winter when water and ice conditions were favorable.

I have caught bass in the Providence River in the winter dating back to the mid 1990's, when I was introduced to the techniques used to catch them. There is a warm water discharge from a power plant (Dominion's Manchester Street Station) there, which may help to encourage bait fish to stick around and keep some small stripers from migrating south to the Hudson and Mid-Atlantic regions before returning in spring.

With or without power plants, rivers throughout New England have supported winter striped bass populations dating back to the earliest records. I haven't done much winter fishing in the past few of years, thanks to the addition of two babies, but I still pop out from time to time and, until this winter, I always managed a few fish. Last winter, 2009-10, was reported to be very poor for winter bass fishing.

This winter, according to the hardcore anglers, has been the worst in recent memory. Check out my friend and fellow blogger Dave Pickering's blog and perspectives on this at http://ristripedbass.blogspot.com/2011/01/winter-striper-fishingwhats-going-on.html . If Dave isn't catching them, there are probably not many there.

So, what are the reasons for the apparent decline? Naturally, there are many possible explanations, some with better evidence than others. One thing we have observed in Narragansett Bay is the lack of juvenile menhaden, or peanut bunker, that used to be much more abundant through the Fall. These little silver dollar-sized baitfish would bring huge blitzes of bluefish and school-sized striped bass late into the season, and some of the bass may have stuck around for them.

In general, striped bass stocks are off the highs we saw around 2003, but they are still in relatively good shape. Coastwide stock assessments used by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and RIDEM still indicate a healthy and sustainable striped bass population overall (see http://www.dem.ri.gov/programs/bnatres/fishwild/pdf/bassrpt.pdf).

Could it be that they're just not coming into the Bay in the same numbers? Another theory that has been in the news recently is the role of climate. NPR's Christopher Joyce reported on studies by NOAA researchers in Maryland who suggest that a weather pattern known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), a change in ocean currents that brings warmer water to the Northeast, could play a key role. That story is here: http://www.npr.org/2011/01/25/133183300/atlantic-weather-may-be-key-culprit-in-fish-decline

While the evidence for warming and strange weather patterns afffecting life in the Bay is certainly there (remember the blue crabs last summer?), it's irresponsible to suggest that conservation and strict catch limits have not been important to the striped bass fishery. The recovery of stripers is widely-regarded as a conservation success story.

If environmental conditions are working against the stocks, that is all the more reason to be conservative with catch limits, and conservation-minded about striped bass fishing. After all, spring is right around the corner!