Striped bass management plan review fast-tracked

Published 7:57 pm Friday, September 16, 2016

A striped bass review is being fast-tracked through state agencies to figure out where the fisheries management plan is heading.

Ben Ricks, a North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission fish biologist, talked about the history of the program, what biologists have discovered through genetic testing and, perhaps, additional limitations on catch size at the September Beaufort County Board of Commissioners meeting. The problem, essentially, is that striped bass in Tar-Pamlico River are not surviving long enough to spawn in the numbers needed to be self-sustaining — they’re being removed before they’ve reached the maturity to make a significant impact on population.

“We need to find out what’s killing the fish,” Ricks said in an interview. “What the causes of mortality are and how to limit the mortality.”

In early to mid-spring, striped bass move up the Tar River to spawn — a spawning supported by the Estuarine Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan, which includes an annual stocking of 100,000 6-inch-to-8-inch juvenile fish. The fish are grown at Edenton National Fish Hatchery, which is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the program is managed by a joint effort between Division of Marine Fisheries and Wildlife Resources Commission. Since the 1980s, approximately 4.3 million striped bass have been stocked, Ricks said. But in 2010, fish biologists began the task of genetic testing of fin clips, and what they’ve discovered is that the naturally occurring population of striped bass is virtually nonexistent.

“Just about all of the fish in this fishery are hatchery fish. A few years ago, we thought we were contributing minimally,” Ricks told commissioners. “The Tar River striped bass population is being sustained by the hatchery. … There’s eggs being produced, there’s larvae begin produced, but there’s not enough.”

The Estuarine Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan is set to be reviewed every five years, but the results of DNA testing revealing approximately 97 percent of striped bass in the river come from the hatchery, as well as the public’s interest in the high mortality rates prompted the review to be moved up a year, Ricks said.

Ricks described the current situation as a “put, grow and take” local striped bass fishery, in which the fish are stocked, they grow and then are caught. Though size limits exist — 18-inch minimum, and no striped bass kept between 22 and 27 inches — there are markedly few larger fish in the river, Ricks said.

“Most of the fish we have are between 14 and 25 inches, but we do have a few and, by a few I mean three, old fish between 25 and 33 inches,” Ricks said.

Those larger fish are paramount to a recovering population, and a more stringent size limit of a 26-inch minimum catch is being considered. If approved, that regulation would go into effect in about two years, Ricks said.

“Striped bass are very resilient fish. We just need to protect them long enough so they can succeed and have successful spawns,” he said.

Ricks said the management program is at a crossroads, and now is the time to reassess. The review is a large process that includes multiple review levels and will take about five years to complete, according to Ricks. He said he doesn’t see the state abandoning the program, though that’s the fear of many recreational fishermen and business owners who support North Carolina’s $2-billion recreational fishing industry.

“Right now, I can’t say anything definitively. It’s an option, but it’s not a popular option. I have a hard time envisioning stopping (the program). I don’t see it being the most likely outcome,” Ricks said. “The intent of this is to preserve the striped bass and promote a self-sustaining striped bass population in the Tar River. … We would love to put ourselves out of business.”