Bugged by Stripers

Two years ago, N.C. anglers had no trouble landing striped bass in the ocean from December through February. Often N.C. boats would reach a limit of striped bass within 30 minutes. During 2007, some N.C. boats headed to Chesapeake Bay to find the fish.

Theories are rampant as to what caused a major decline in N.C.’s winter striped bass fishery. North Carolina Sportsman asks some experts in this story.

“This was the worst striped bass fishing ever.”

“The water was too warm.”

“It’s because of global warming.”

“The menhaden boats took all the baitfish.”

“The stocks are collapsing.”

“Pfiesteria’s to blame.”

Take a deep breath. Yes, this year was unusual for striped bass and North Carolina’s ocean rockfish anglers.

The main concentrations of coastal stripers stayed to the north, with just dribs and drabs going south to Cape Point at Hatteras.

What happened? Who said what? How reliable are the reports? Who has the facts? Do those facts provide answers?

Here’s what North Carolina Sportsman found when we asked some experts.

Bruce Franklin

Author of “The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America,“ Franklin had strong words about stripers and menhaden.

He has said Omega Protein, which trawls and processes menhaden (pogies) for agricultural feed and industrial extracts, have decimated pogies off the mid-to-northern Atlantic coast and will move to North Carolina after its boats deplete the menhaden of the Chesapeake Bay area.

“Here are the facts,“ he said. “Menhaden are the only fish under the jurisdiction of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for which there is no coastwide quota.

“What kind of regulatory responsibility is that? Omega has been given a license to do anything they want. The only limit — if you can call it that — is a cap on how much they can harvest from the Chesapeake Bay, but everyplace else is whatever they want to do.”

Franklin bemoaned that states haven’t recognized how their economies are tied to the health of menhaden stocks from the first settlers to now.

“It’s not a food fishery,“ he said. “This is a reduction fishery, taking an important part of the coastal ecosystem production and rending it for non-edible (unless you’re a chicken) purposes without regard for how much take might be too much.

“The average catch for the past several years is 109,000 metric tons. Yet the ASMFC set a cap in Chesapeake Bay (the only restricted grounds) at 114 MT, way over what they could possibly catch. “

It gets worse, Franklin said.

The ASMFC allows carryover of unused allotment into the following year, so while Omega can’t fill its current quota in the Chesapeake, the remainder is added to the allowable quota for the following year.

The menhaden fishery is powerful, Franklin said, and always has been.

“New Jersey first banned reduction fisheries from their waters in 1882,“ he said, “but they were repeatedly overruled. The ban didn’t become law until 2002.”

Combined with low recruitment in the Chesapeake and the spread of a Pfiesteria-like disease, Franklin said, menhaden stocks are in deep trouble and striped bass, which depend on them, likely will suffer.

Claude Bain

Claude Bain of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission is a fishery biologist and heads the Virginia saltwater tournament.

He knew most of the oceanic striped bass had remained north but said Chesapeake Bay striper fishing was different.

“I knew how hard it was for North Carolina after three Oregon Inlet charterboats arrived to operate out of Virginia Beach because they couldn’t reach the schools of stripers otherwise,“ he said. “The major migratory group in the ocean was spread out from above the Bay north to New Jersey, but we also had a great season inside the Bay.”

By early December, Bain said, fishing usually quiets down as stripers and spotted seatrout mostly move toward Cape Hatteras. But not this year.

“We continued to have lots of stripers, mostly to the north but in range, and a lot more in the Bay,” Bain said. “Even into the second week in January, we had great speck fishing at Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.

“In one day, two guys got over a hundred specks, mostly 17 to 19 inches or a pound and a half to 2 pounds but up to 5 pounds. Normally these fish would have been long gone.”

It was, Bain said, probably caused by torrid temperatures.

“On January 1 it was 52 degrees at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, 9 or 10 degrees warmer than a normal year, when it would have been 43,“ he said. “We had a December 1 temperature on January 1. We also had no wind, allowing fishermen out almost daily.

“Boats were able to reach the 15- to 50-foot ledge for limits of tautog and flounder, atypical in midwinter. This was the most benign December I could think of.

“I could have fished all but five or six days 80 percent of December. And it lasted though the first half of January.”

Stripers were in two groups. There were lots in Chesapeake Bay and plenty to the north through January and February.

It was only when the winds returned after mid-January that things got worse. Then the winds returned with a vengeance by the third week, and we began to have one of our worst winters yet.

There were abundant stripers to the north in January and February, and only the wind prevented more fishing. So although the winds put the kibosh on ocean fishing, by the third week of February a lot of fish moved into Chesapeake Bay in preparation for the upstream spring spawning migrations.

The rest of the oceanic stripers, already spread out from Virginia to New Jersey, were ready to pack up for their own spawning rivers to the north.

While Bay fishing was terrific, ocean fishing was sporadic through early January. The fish were to the north, but the winds allowed getting to them. Then things changed.

“Most of December and early January fishing was in the Bay,“ Bain said. “We had 1,100 citation stripers (44 inches released or 40 Twopounds weighed) with 74 fish 50 pounds or larger, most of them from the Bay. And this year, we’ve got 616 citations as of April 13, which is off the charts. It looks like 2007 will be twice as good as last year.”

Questioned why the oceanic striped bass never moved aggressively south, and if it had to do with the numbers of menhaden, Bain was hard pressed and suggested a North Carolina fishery biologist might have a more informed viewpoint.

Sarah Winslow

Based at Elizabeth City, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries fishery biologist Sarah Winslow went on the annual winter tagging cruise of the Oregon, the National Marine Fisheries Service trawler that catches, tags and records numbers and distribution of striped bass and other important fishes.

Winslow said a major temperature difference in coastal waters this winter seemed to be correlated with the southern limit of the ocean striped bass populations.

“At the end of January the water was 48 to 55 degrees off North Carolina, but only 41 off Virginia,” she said. “The stocks shifted a little bit north and a little bit south during our sampling with no major concentrations south of the North Carolina-Virginia line.

“We were getting reports of striped bass off Ocean City, Md., in late January and early February.”

Winslow said he thought water temperature kept menhadens, sea herrings and anchovies to the north of the N.C.-Va. line, and striped bass stayed with the food.

“It was like the winter of 1992, when we didn’t find large numbers of striped bass,“ she said, “until we were north of the Chesapeake Bay.”

Wilson Laney

Probably nobody has done more winter tagging cruises than Wilson Laney of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Laney stays on an offshore boat for a couple of consecutive weeks during mid-winter, trawling, counting, measuring and tagging fish 24 hours a day aboard the Oregon. It’s exhausting work, but Laney takes to it like duck to water.

What was his idea of where the stripers were and why they were there?

“First, you’ve got to understand we can’t sample everywhere,“ he said. “The Oregon operates in water at least 30-feet deep, so if striped bass are inshore of that, like the burst off Corolla last winter, we might not be aware of them. So a lot of fish could have been close to the beach.

“That said, aside from big catches reported inside Chesapeake Bay, we didn’t see any numbers until we were offshore of Hog Island, Va., and it seemed the fish were almost all north of Chesapeake Bay.

“We know the fish were being caught in January in New Jersey when they should have been at Cape Hatteras, so it was an unusual year, but it’s happened before.

“We never did run into big concentrations, again suggesting the fish were north of where we were sampling, although we knew some were close to the beach and didn’t register in our data.

“We were picking up maybe eight or 10 fish in a tow, with our best tow producing only 18 fish. In most years, we average 50 fish per tow, and have had 300 and 400 a tow in years past.”

It was dramatically different from last year (the winter of 2005-06), which produced the third-highest tagging year in sampling history, while 2006-07 was the next-lowest tagging year the scientists had experienced. Again, the Oregon does miss the inshore fish.

“Gill netters were setting on 30- or 40-acre schools of striped bass off the beaches near Corolla January 24,“ he said, “but we didn’t get any out where we were.”

So while the Oregon didn’t trawl through big concentrations of stripers, most of the fish were well north of a normal winter range, and, Laney said, there wasn’t a whole lot of bait in the water.

“We didn’t see many menhaden or anchovies or any other baitfish, “ he said.

And since the pogy boats don’t fish anchovies, he doubted they had anything to do with the lack of menhaden this winter. Laney suggested a menhaden expert, such as the National Marine Fishery Service’s Doug Vaughn, also might have some ideas about the problem.

Doug Vaughn

Based at the NMFS Southeast Fishery Center Laboratory at Beaufort, Vaughn is the NMFS guy who keeps tabs on menhaden stocks for the ASMFC and everyone else.

Vaughn confirmed Franklin’s note the menhaden reduction fishery had been closed in all states, except Virginia and North Carolina. He said once 150 trawlers and several N.C.-based factory boats worked the menhaden reduction fishery, but it’s now down to just 11 boats and one processing (reduction) plant in Virginia.

(Editor’s note: North Carolina’s last pogie boat hung up its nets two years ago when Jule Wheatly of Beaufort Fisheries, Inc., decided to keep his “steamers” (reduction ships), the Coastal Mariner and Gregory Poole, at the dock. Wheatley attended a legislative hearing in Raleigh a year earlier to testify against a bill that would have kept his boats from netting menhaden off the southeastern coastal counties. He won that argument and the bill died in committee).

If anything, Vaughn said, pressure on menhaden is down, not up, and stocks are up, not down. That’s the short version.

“About 85 percent of menhaden landings are processed for reduction,“ Vaughn said, but almost all states disallow their harvest for this purpose, except North Carolina and Virginia.

Simultaneously, recruitment of juvenile fish to the overall population is down, and that might have more to do with poor water quality in estuaries than with harvesting adults and lowering the spawning stock.

“Fishing mortality on older fish (spawners) is declining (fewer boats), while lowered recruitment is environmental. Combined, we’re still seeing an increase in the spawning stock biomass,” he said.

“The menhaden fleet isn’t overfishing the stock and the stock isn’t declining since the catch per unit effort is constant. In other words, if menhaden were overfished, you’d see the CPUE going down and it’s not going down.

“Right now, the menhaden stock is in good shape, mostly because the effort has been reduced; that’s a bigger factor than the reduced recruitment.”

And things are looking up, Vaughn said. Early returns indicate recruitment is on the upswing based on the 2005 cohort (year class). Menhaden mature in two to three years, so 2007 and 2008 should see a larger group of adult spawners. Because menhaden live up to 10 years, mature fish have a lot of good years to make more little menhaden.

So who is right about menhaden populations and the impacts of the pogy boats, Franklin (an English professor) or Vaughn, a NMFS fishery biologist?

Vaughn’s laboratory assistant has examined 500,000 fish during the years, producing one of the best databases in the world. When it comes to how menhaden are doing, scientific data speak louder than popular books.

Vaughn noted poor recruitment since the 1960s is probably associated with environmental conditions. In an earlier book review, Franklin had remarked on a Pfiesteria-like disease decimating striped bass stocks and likely tied to hog-farm wastes. He thought it was a threat to stripers.

Vaughn said Robert Latour would have more information.

Robert Latour

Robert Latour at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences is familiar with menhaden and Pfiesteria.

The issue of Pfiesteria is controversial. Some scientists doubt the existence of the bug, the diseases it causes and the toxin(s) it may produce, while a few haved published new findings, based on the inability to repeat conditions that create symptoms that also, allegedly, affect humans who come in contact with it.

One national group of scientists attributed menhaden lesions to mixed infections of fungi and bacteria and dismissed Pfiesteria as the cause.

(Editor’s note: The controversy may stem from jealousy because an N.C. State botanist, Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, with no credentials as an icthyologist, first claimed discovery of the organism in N.C. waters and later claimed effects on herself and technicians who handled infected fish. However, despite denials in some scientific circles of its existence, Pfiesteria-like fish problems have been noted from Delaware to Florida).

Latour said irrespective of whether Pfiesteria is real, there is a disease in (mostly) Chesapeake Bay striped bass. He said mycobacteriosis isn’t related to Pfiesteria but is caused by a group of bacterial species related to the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, leprosy, and fish-tank granuloma in people, and diseases in aquacultured fishes.

It appears to be, in part, associated with degraded water quality, but also with age and sex. It’s been well-studied in Chesapeake Bay but also occurs elsewhere.

“This mycobacteriosis has been found in 50 percent of a random sample of 1,400 striped bass spleens examined over three years,“ he said, “so we’re sampling all the fish rather than just sick ones. That’s a high rate of infection.”

The youngest fish don’t have it, but they’re increasingly infected up to age 5 for both sexes. After age 5, the prevalence in females drops off while that in males levels off.

Is this developing immunity, selective mortality? Latour said he didn’t know. But the disease isn’t always fatal, and there are multiple stages of the disease. It doesn’t always kill, but heavily infected fish are clearly stressed and sickly.

The disease occurs in two forms, the first characterized by skin lesions that expand, coalesce and can envelope 75 percent of the body. The second form is not obvious and detected by internal lesions, most visible in the spleen. It’s slow and chronic, and, some claim, doesn’t cause fish kills.

It’s been found other places. The majority of infections occur in fish from tributaries rather than downstream in the bays — which suggests degraded water quality as a contributor.

This is “incredibly different from Pfiesteria,” Latour said.

The sores on menhaden are mostly fungi, producing a condition known as ulcerative necrosis. The disease in Chesapeake Bay striped bass is a chronic mycobacterial infection. Both are natural conditions, but that’s all they have in common.

Whether called Pfiesteria or something else, the name probably is less important to stripers and menhaden than the symptoms.

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