Author: NCWRC blogger/Wednesday, February 23, 2022/Categories: Blog, Conservation, Fishing, Regulations, Wildlife Management
In February, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission issued a proclamation and distributed a press release stating that the 2022 striped bass harvest season in the Roanoke River Management Area would be reduced to four days in April: Saturday and Sunday, April 23 - 24, and Thursday and Friday, April 28 - 29. The daily creel is one fish per day. The entire Roanoke River Management area will be open for striped bass harvest on these days. The Roanoke River Management Area includes the Roanoke River and tributaries from the Roanoke Rapids Lake Dam downstream to the Albemarle Sound, including the Cashie, Middle and Eastmost rivers.
The Roanoke River Striped Bass season was reduced in 2021 for both the commercial and recreational sections, and now again in 2022. This is concerning to some anglers. We consulted with Ben Ricks, the Wildlife Commission’s coastal fisheries supervisor to help us sort through the history, science and facts that led the Wildlife Commission to make the 2022 proclamation. Below is our interview with Ben as he dives deep into backstory about the striped bass that swim the Roanoke River Management Area and the Albemarle Sound.
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?
Ben Ricks (BR): The striped bass in the Roanoke River are migratory. The young adults (two- to eight-year-old fish) spend most of their year in the Albemarle Sound. Once they reach 15 to 20 pounds (eight- to 10-years-old) they begin to migrate out into 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 where they join the younger adult striped bass, and journey across the Albemarle Sound to the mouth of the Roanoke River near Plymouth. As water temperatures climb into the 60’s, the striped bass 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 beds to lay their eggs? How are the eggs fertilized?
BR: Striped bass don’t lay eggs on beds like largemouth bass or sunfish. 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 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?
BR: 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 was 51,200 pounds of which 25,600 was 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. In 2021 the quota was exceeded in the Roanoke River Management Area, and payback of the overage is required in 2022 as outlined in the N.C. Estuarine Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan. The payback means a further reduction of the 2022 quota to 6,578 pounds.
NB: Why did the quota drop so much in 2021 and then again in 2022?
BR: The initial 2021 reductions are a result of population declines. The number of larger, older fish in the population continues to sharply decline, and the annual production of juvenile 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. The 2022 reductions are a result of a one-time payback. Harvest in 2021 was about double of what was expected which resulted in a significant payback. We are trying to ensure that a payback of this magnitude is not necessary for the 2023 Roanoke River Striped Bass season.
NB: What caused the drop in the number of adult striped bass in the population?
BR: 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, low recruitment was observed in 2009, 2013, and, more troubling, over the last subsequent spawning seasons (2017–2021). For years we thought that 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. Now that the population has decreased to “pre-recovery levels” low annual recruitment is attributed to two factors working in concert, river flows and decreased egg production. The losses in female abundance and size over the last few years has also likely resulted in decreased egg production. This was most evident in 2021 when flows were within the ideal range for spawning success and recruitment was still low. Recruitment has occurred in recent years but not at levels that support population growth.
NB: Why did the Commission pick four days for striped bass harvest?
BR: Multiple scenarios were considered when determining how to manage the 6,578-pound harvest allowance for the Roanoke River harvest season for 2022. Ultimately the desire was to provide harvest opportunities for anglers throughout the Roanoke River Management Area. The four harvest days outlined in the proclamation were selected using past angler creel data with the goal of anglers having an opportunity to harvest fish throughout the river.
NB: Are there any changes to the size limits or the daily creel limit in 2022?
BR: Yes, the daily creel limit has been changed one fish per person. There are no changes to the size limits for 2022. 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.
NB: How do river flows impact the spawn?
BR: 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 riverbanks across the floodplain and into the back swamps, survival is minimal at best. 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?
BR: 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 increases 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 who enjoy the striped bass season. Thanks, Ben, 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.
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