The North American experience

20 years ago, the plight of the striped bass (Morone saxatilis), the North American equivalent of the European Sea Bass, was thought to be beyond recovery.

Striped bass resemble the European sea bass in many ways, not least in the way that they generate intense and passionate affection among anglers. The two major differences are that the striped bass is anadromous (breeds in freshwater) and they grow quicker and much larger than their European counterpart.

The maximum known weight is a 56.8 kilo commercially caught female taken from North Carolina waters in 1981. The all tackle world sport record for striped bass is 35.7 kilos, caught off New Jersey in September 1982. A four year old fish is almost 1.5 kilos and by six years of age over 4.5 kilos. By age eight, striped bass exceed 8 kilos in weight. Most striped bass migrate northwards along the coast towards New England in the spring and summer, returning in the autumn south towards Chesapeake Bay and further south.

The striped bass has been an important commercial and recreational fish for many years and annual commercial landings during the early 1970s exceeded 5,500 tonnes, but had crashed to less than 2,000 tonnes by the early 1980s. This decline was attributed to over harvesting and degradation of the marine environment.

In 1981 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) developed and adopted a fishery management plan for striped bass off the Atlantic coast from Maine to North Carolina. Because of migration patterns, co-operative management between states was necessary and during the 1980s the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act was signed into Federal Law, forcing states to comply with provisions of the ASMFC plan.

In 1985 Maryland and Delaware imposed a moratorium on all striped bass fishing in their state waters. New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut closed their marine waters to striped bass fishing in 1986. Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission closed all their waters in 1989 and North Carolina closed its ocean waters from 1984 until 1990. At the same time, other coastal states with a declared interest in the fishery imposed severe restrictions on striped bass fishing.

By 1989 it became clear that the stocks were beginning to rebuild and a transitional fishery commenced in 1990. Compared to Europe, where fisheries management legislation is routinely disregarded, legislation for striped bass in the US is both severely precautionary and rigorously enforced.

As the stocks of striped bass improved, sport anglers successfully persuaded legislators to take full account of the socio-economic impact of recreational angling and some states, in recognition of the much superior socio-economic returns from recreational angling, have no commercial fishery. These include Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New Jersey. Recreational anglers are limited to retaining only one fish per day in most states and the minimum landing size is 71 centimetres.

Those states that do allow commercial fishing have strict controls with methods, landing sizes and seasonal constraints. In 1988 it was realised that a loophole in the management plan was the commercial fishing that took place in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) which extends from 4.8 kilometres from the coast out to 322 kilometres. The NMFS have enacted a total moratorium on striped bass harvesting in this offshore zone, which is still in effect.

By showing conclusively that the economic benefits to be gained from planned sustainable exploitation through promotion of the species as a recreational sport fish far outweighed those to be derived from commercial netting, fishery authorities, in combination with tourist agencies, have brought the fishery back to life. It now generates millions of dollars each year for coastal communities. An economic impact assessment published by the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission revealed that commercial landings of striped bass contributed $53.6 million to the economy, while over the same period the recreational fishery contributed $269.8 million.

The successful restoration of the striped bass stocks is a testimonial to intelligent and innovative management. The recreational fishing industry has grown at an enormous rate, bringing wealth and jobs to the coastal zones beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. The number of directed striped bass fishing trips increased from about one million in 1981 to over seven million by 1996. This represents an average increase in participation of 38% per year. During this period the inflation adjusted angler expenditures on striped bass trips increased from $85 million to $560 million which equates to 35% annual growth in revenue.

The May 1999 edition of an investment and banking magazine On Cape Business from Massachusetts recently carried an article called, The Angling Economy: Big Bass, Big Bucks. The author, S.Sigelman, writes that the stripers’ comeback demonstrates that strong conservation efforts can generate real economic value, and describes massive trickle down effects for businesses and communities large and small, from the availability of good quality recreational sea fishing.

Fishing is big business in Massachusetts and not just for those who are directly involved. According to the State Division of Marine Fisheries, the total economic activity generated by recreational fishing reached $1 billion annually. This includes money spent on fishing tackle, restaurants, fuel, groceries and accommodation by visitors each season. Mr Tony Tolintino, Chairman of the Marine Fisheries Commission, stated, Massachusetts is a water front state and an important destination for recreational striped bass anglers.

The techniques and procedures used to achieve this recovery are available to us in Europe and are applicable to the European sea bass. Their enviable position is due in large part to pressure by sport fishermen for a conservation approach to fisheries management, and it has paid off. Mr Dave Rimmer, Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association of Massachusetts says that striped bass are far more valuable alive than dead and in Massachusetts 97% of the six million striped bass caught in 1988 were returned to the sea alive.

By far the biggest growth area of striped bass fishing is fishing with fly and lures. Thousands of jobs have been created with guides and charter boat businesses. Increasing numbers of British sea anglers are now visiting the USA during the autumn period, attracted by the real possibilities of catching a twenty or thirty pound bass from the surf or centre console sport boats.

We would like to see a comprehensive study, commissioned by the EU, of the sustainable use of specific marine fish stock resources in the USA for recreational exploitation. The prime objective of such a study would be to consider a similar approach in Europe, and to document the economic impacts of the remarkable restoration of striped bass stocks.