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Nov 5, 2019 10:14 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

The Era Of The Striped Bass Slot Limit Is Here

Leif Neubauer and Mark DeCabia pulled a couple of nice codfish off the wrecks south of Hampton Bays while fishing aboard the Hampton Lady last week.  Capt. James Foley
Nov 5, 2019 12:11 PM

Well, a lot of us got what we wished for from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission — now we’ll see how things shake out.

In case you missed it, the federal fisheries commission that manages the striped bass harvest on the East Coast took the historic step of declaring a “slot limit” for one of the most economically important fish species in the country. In 2020, states will have to apply the federal recommendation of regulations that only allow striped bass to be killed by recreational anglers if they are at least 28 inches long and no more than 35 inches. The daily limit will remain one fish per person, per day. Additionally, starting in 2021, the ASMFC will demand that anglers only use circle hooks when fishing with live or dead bait for striped bass.

As anyone who reads this column regularly will know, I was a fan of the slot-limit approach. Personally, I would like to have seen a slightly upward-shifted range, from 30-37 inches or 32-40 inches to protect more fish as they are just starting to enter the spawning stock and allow a slightly larger fish to be kept for the dinner table by those who like, or need, the big fillets to feed their families.

But the reasoning for the 28-35 range is logical. The current 28-inch minimum will maintain optimism among even occasional anglers of catching a “keeper” — especially as the huge numbers of small striped bass that are in the population now grow into that size range — and will better protect what’s left of the large year-classes from a decade or so ago that are now 40- to 60-inch fish and are currently getting slaughtered by the thousands in the New York Bight every spring and late fall.

If the theory that large female striped bass are better at producing huge numbers of babies, then protecting those fish will be a win for the future in some way (there’s so many factors to spawning success that it’s impossible to say that just protecting breeding fish will mean a bee-line to recovery). Protecting the dwindling number of large fish will definitely be a boon to the sportfishing industry, especially surfcasting, a significant allure of which is driven by the goal of catching a truly large fish.

The Instagram culture that has been to blame for certain amount of the overfishing of striped bass in recent years may now be the savior of the industry based on the species, since a photo of a big fish will still be valuable even if the fish has to be released.

The slot limit will, of course, mean that a lot of the young fish that are the foundation that any rebuilding of the stock must stand on will start ending up on dinner tables in a couple years. And many more will die without being put to good use, as nobody has yet figured out a real solution to the plague of “dead discards” from fish mortally injured by anglers, beyond the use of circle hooks in bait fishing (which will help considerably if adhered to by anglers). The same goes for the big fish that will now have to be released, which may see an even higher rate of post-release mortality than smaller fish. Waste is the name of the game whenever human interests are involved and there’s little way around it.

But slot limits have been used by other states to successfully rebuild and protect stocks of important fish species like redfish and snook, which no doubt suffer the same release-mortality complications that striped bass do. With the dual-benefit value of large fish as a lure to the sport and as a potential driver of increased spawning recruitment, it seems to me that a slot limit is, at the very least, worth a shot.

A slot limit would have zero impact on the fishing that most East End anglers are seeing right now. There are huge numbers of small striped bass, mostly well under 28 inches, roaming the beaches and into Block Island Sound, still. Any keeper-sized fish being caught are mostly in the 30- to 34-inch range. It seems likely that the chances for larger fish are dwindling with each passing day, and no signs of bigger fish to the east or north.

So enjoy your last licks while you can get ’em.

Catch ’em up. See you out there.

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