Author: NCWRC blogger/Monday, February 22, 2021/Categories: Blog, Conservation, Fishing, Regulations, Wildlife Management
In January, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission issued a proclamation and distributed a press release stating that the 2021 striped bass harvest season in the Roanoke River Management Area would be reduced to just two weeks in April – one week in the lower river, and one week in the upper river. This caught a lot of anglers off guard and angered many others.
So, we hooked up with Chad Thomas, the Wildlife Commission’s coastal fisheries supervisor to help us sort through the history, science and facts that led the Wildlife Commission to make this proclamation. Below is our interview with Chad as he dives deep into backstory about the striped bass that swim the Roanoke River Management Area and the Albemarle Sound.
As with most wildlife conservation stories, this one started with a conversation about breeding.
NCWRC Blogger (NB): We know that conservation begins with habitats suitable for mating. Can you tell us about the spawning process for striped bass in the Roanoke River?
Chad Thomas (CT): The striped bass in the Roanoke River are migratory. The adults spend most of their year in the Atlantic Ocean where they mix with other striped bass stocks from areas such as the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware River, and Hudson River. As spring approaches, adult striped bass in the Atlantic Ocean move or “migrate” back to their natal river. They are imprinted to the river where they were born, and they return to their natal river to spawn each year.
The striped bass in the Atlantic Ocean that were originally born in the Roanoke River will generally begin their spawning migrations in March. They swim through the Oregon Inlet and into the Albemarle Sound, and then journey across the Albemarle Sound to the mouth of the Roanoke River near Plymouth. As water temperatures climb into the 60’s, the stripers will enter the river and move upstream toward their native spawning grounds near Weldon in Halifax County. Timing of spawning depends upon water temperatures and flow releases. The optimum spawning range is 64-68 degrees. Males typically arrive before females, and males are present on the spawning grounds for many weeks longer than females.
NB: Do striped bass make nests to lay their eggs? How are the eggs fertilized?
CT: Striped bass don’t lay eggs in nests; instead, their eggs are broadcast in the river. Spawning begins as females swim up toward the surface of the river, releasing eggs. By the time they reach the surface, they are joined by multiple males who are releasing milt and fertilizing the eggs. The eggs are semi-buoyant and must stay suspended in the water column to stay oxygenated. If the eggs sink to the bottom they will die. The fertilized eggs are carried by the currents downriver. The eggs hatch and the fry continue to be carried downriver until they can swim on their own. It is critical that the fry are transported successfully by the currents to the lower river and eventually into Albemarle Sound, their nursery area.
NB: How is the quota determined and how is it allocated among the different fisheries?
CT: The stock assessment model provides estimates of fishing mortality rates (how many fish are removed through harvest and bycatch), spawning stock biomass (the weight of the numbers of spawning females), overall abundance of the population (number of males and females), and recruitment (the number of age-0, young-of-year fish produced each year). Specific target and threshold values are developed for fishing mortality rates and spawning stock biomass that will allow for a healthy (sustainable) population. The model projects the total number of pounds of striped bass that can be landed each year (the quota) that would keep the estimates within the values established to allow for a sustainable population.
Once the quota is determined, 50% of the harvest is directed to the commercial fishery in Albemarle Sound. The remaining 50% is divided between the recreational anglers in the Albemarle Sound Management Area and the Roanoke River Management Area. For 2021, the harvest quota is 51,200 pounds of which 25,600 will be directed to the commercial fishery in Albemarle Sound, 12,800 pounds to the recreational fishery in Albemarle Sound, and 12,800 pounds to the recreational fishery in the Roanoke River.
NB: Why did the quota drop so much?
CT: The number of larger, older fish in the population continues to sharply decline, and the annual production of young-of-year (baby) striped bass has been below average. Results of the most recent stock assessment model conclude that the striped bass population is overfished, and that overfishing is occurring. The determination that the stock is overfished means that the number of spawning females is below both the target and threshold values established for the population. The determination that overfishing is occurring means that the fishing mortality exceeds both the target and threshold fishing mortality rates established for the population. The Fishery Reform Act specifies that an overfished population must be recovered within a 10-year period; it also specifies that when overfishing is occurring, steps must be implemented to end overfishing within a two-year period.
NB: What caused the drop in the number of adult striped bass in the population?
CT: The Roanoke River/Albemarle Sound striped bass population is the only striped bass population in North Carolina that is not dependent on hatchery fish. Successful spawning each season is critical to maintaining a robust population comprised of many different ages of striped bass. After a period of above average recruitment from 1997–2002, recruitment failures were observed in 2009, 2013, and, more troubling, over the last four subsequent spawning seasons (2017–2020). Poor annual recruitment is largely a function of spring flooding events in the upper Roanoke basin that result in inopportune periods of high river flow. Extended periods of flood or high flow releases during the critical spawning period (late April through early June) negatively impact the successful transport and delivery of eggs and fry down the Roanoke River and eventually into the Albemarle Sound estuary.
NB: Why did the Commission pick only two weeks for striped bass harvest?
CT: Multiple scenarios were considered when determining how to manage the 12,800-pound harvest allowance for the Roanoke River. Options included no harvest, limiting harvest to specific days during the week (Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday), and a one-week season for the entire river. Ultimately the desire was to provide separate harvest opportunities for anglers who like to keep fish in the lower river, and for anglers who prefer to keep fish in the upper river zone.
NB: Why were those two specific weeks selected?
CT: The actual dates were selected based on angler interview data collected by Wildlife Resources Commission staff over the last nine Roanoke River striped bass seasons. Annual angler harvest data showed that on average, the highest harvest rates in the lower river zone occurred between April 10 and April 16. Similarly, in the upper river zone harvest rates were always highest the last week in April. Daily harvest rates during these peak weeks averaged between 700 and 1,300 pounds of striped bass per day. So, we wanted to pick harvest days that historically offered maximum angler opportunity while still allowing us to remain near the harvest quota target.
NB: Are there any changes to the size limits or the daily creel limit in 2021?
CT: No, there are no changes to the size limits or daily creel limits for 2021. The minimum size is 18 inches, and no fish between 22 and 27 inches may be possessed. The protective slot limit (22 to 27 inches) is intended to protect spawning females ages five through eight. Only one fish larger than 27 inches may be possessed. The daily creel limit remains two fish.
NB: What can we expect in 2022?
CT: The harvest quota for the Roanoke River in 2022 is also projected to be 12,800 pounds. Wildlife Resources Commission staff will closely monitor striped bass harvest this spring to estimate how many pounds of striped bass were kept. Adjustments regarding the number of harvest days in 2022 may be considered depending upon how close the 2021 harvest estimates are to the 12,800 pound allowance.
NB: How do river flows impact the spawn?
CT: Flow releases that support striped bass spawning follow a specific, agreed-upon schedule, based on general arrival of fish on the spawning grounds, water temperatures, and transport of eggs and fry downriver. The best flow range for striped bass spawning on the Roanoke is 6,000-8,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) from Roanoke Rapids Dam. Once flows get above 12,000 cfs for extended periods from late April through early June, then the year-class is at risk. When water levels are high or at flood levels (sometimes exceeding 30,000 cfs), then successful transport and delivery of eggs and fry to the lower Roanoke River and ultimately to the nursery grounds in Albemarle Sound is jeopardized. When fertilized eggs and newly-hatched fry are sent over the river banks across the floodplain and into the back swamps, survival is minimal at best. Unfortunately, heavy rainfall events have occurred at inopportune times over the last four spawning seasons, leading to flood releases during critical spawning periods. Fisheries sampling of juvenile fishes in Albemarle Sound in summer continues to show poor year class production, largely a function of high spring flows on the spawning grounds. The resource agencies and operators of the dams coordinate flow management each spring to avoid flooding events; however, unpredictable periods of heavy rain often necessitate high releases despite efforts to the contrary.
NB: What will the shorter harvest season mean for catch-and-release fishing?
CT: Mortality (deaths) of fish caught and released is always a consideration in this popular fishery. Under best-case scenarios, six fish out of 100 will die. As water temperatures approach 70 degrees, this number skyrockets to almost one death out of every four fish. Estimates of the pounds of fish that die from catch-and-release fishing are reported annually and are included within the stock assessment model. When the estimates of the number of pounds of striped bass that die after they are released (from both the recreational and commercial fisheries) are factored into the model, the available harvest quota from all fisheries is adjusted downward. Reducing dead discards is important, not only for conservation, but also to potentially increase the allowable harvest. The single, barbless hook regulation in place after April 1 in the upper river (above the US 258 Bridge) is intended to help reduce hooking mortality. Other tips to help reduce catch-and-release mortality include:
NB: These are great reminders for all anglers on the water enjoying the striped bass season, and beyond. Thanks, Chad, for the in-depth look as to why the Wildlife Commission was faced with such a difficult decision. We look forward to a successful harvest season and we’ll see you on the water!
Number of views (7258)/Comments (6)
3/14/2021 12:03 PM
Great job,the future of Striped bass fishing is dependent on proper game management. Hard times know good times too come!
3/14/2021 5:58 PM
Did not see a checking station at Weldon or 258 landing last season so how do you arrive at number without guessing. The reason the big fish are disappearing is due to net fishing.Been involved in this process since the early 70s and the poor old sportsman get blamed for it all.
3/14/2021 7:59 PM
how bad are the nets down river in the sounds affecting the fish as they moving back to the salt water and out to sea jim
3/15/2021 9:20 AM
Commercial fishing I think is more of a concern that and the area they are allow to fish. Instead for cutting back on recreational angler that is spending the the money to fish and enjoy the outdoors. Once we slow down the interest in our sports like fishing and hunting we will never recover the loss. This is critical to getting new people into the outdoors. I already hear this in my area that it no need to rent land to hunt when only 2 bucks can be harvested and now same with stripper fishing no need to get ready for fishing this year as we have been limited.
3/15/2021 9:55 PM
You folks don't have a clue what you're talking about. I can't even bass fish without being overrun by stripers. Though I enjoy catching them, I can't see how you're so out of touch as to say you need to cut back on the catch. I caught 6 today using a top water bait. From 24 to 28 inches long. Oh was I so tempted to keep one! None of them were hybrid. And this happens all the time for me. You need to listen to the local recreational fishermen. We're not selfish, we just know what we're talking about. We don't sit in rows of law making none fishermen who have no clue. Listen to us and learn.
Albert Chester Daly
3/19/2021 2:25 PM
I know the damn reason y'all limited the season and that is you don't want to get on anybody's boat because y'all are scare that y'all might catch covid-19 !!!!!! that's the only damn reason !!!!
I didn't see a wildlife officer on the river last year !!! I know why !!! COVID-19 When you are on the damn river or anywhere else all you are looking is to write someone a ticket !!! No !! I don't have any violations !! But I get harassed by y'all like everybody else !!!
So, lie all you want to !!!!!