I was in an overcrowded and overheated hotel conference room in St. Louis, Missouri, talking about sage grouse when I started thinking about Chesapeake Bay striped bass.
What do sage grouse have to do with striped bass?
Well, both are iconic species, the very essence of the habitats they occupy. And both are widely sought by American sportsmen. Yet the future of each is uncertain, which should give hunters and anglers of all stripes a reason for pause: Increasingly it seems that the very species that define us as sportsmen find themselves in dire straits.
Just a couple weeks ago, in another hotel conference room in Annapolis, Maryland, the director of the Maryland Fisheries Service assured attendees at a symposium organized by the Coastal Conservation Association-Maryland that there is no striped bass crisis. But that does not mean fishery managers and fishermen aren’t worrying about the state of the Atlantic striper population.
When it comes to managing striped bass, officials care most about two factors: fishing mortality (i.e. the removal of fish from the stock due to fishing activities) and the spawning stock biomass (the number of female fish old enough to reproduce). When the spawning stock biomass drops, fishing mortality needs to drop with it; the arithmetic for a thriving fishery couldn’t be much clearer. For a decade, the striped bass spawning stock biomass has been falling, with a variety of factors, including habitat quality, nutritional issues and disease, all playing a role. But fishing pressure has not followed the downward trend. This means that striped bass may be subject to a fishing pressure that is unsustainable, promising very real problems for the fishery in the not too distant future.
There is no better way to ensure a crisis than by seeing one coming and doing nothing. While perhaps not a crisis today, a problem exists in striped bass country that requires action. Some combination of bigger minimums, reduced creels and/or shorter seasons are all on the table as fishery managers attempt to get out in front of a catastrophe in a major recreational fishery. The most aggressive steps will likely assure the best results, putting the fishery back on track in the shortest order. Of course, in exchange for maintaining the status quo today, some will champion a tepid response that kicks even tougher choices further down the road. Recreational anglers should reject this short-sightedness and support what the science indicates needs to happen.
And that is where we come back to the sage grouse, a species that is truly on the brink. Once widely hunted with long seasons and liberal bag limits, the federal government and 11 Western states are wringing their collective hands over a potential listing of the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. In striper country, we actually have the chance to write a different kind of story for our own iconic species.