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Fish Are Born to be Eaten

By Kastking | 23 August 2018 | 0 Comments

I’m neither a tree hugger nor vegetarian. I don’t need either as a reason for me to support movements to shore up the sagging striped bass population. I am however a conservation minded individual with a different point of view.


Once upon a time there were plenty of fish. All of the species were healthy, regenerating, and swimming together happily in their respective places in the food chain. Yes, there probably have been cycles of abundance or lack of certain species since well before man walked the earth. And certainly, the cyclical nature of fish’s availability to their predators or a man with a hook and line or a net hasn’t changed.

As of this writing an organization called ASMFC (Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council) has declared the population of one of the favorite catches in the northeast, for sport and table fare, Morone saxatilis — Atlantic striped bass, striper, rock fish, or linesider, depending on where you are from, as “Rebuilt”.


Indeed Morone had fallen on hard times. Through diligent regulations, including a moratorium a few years ago on catching them, the mighty fish did return to a level that had not been witnessed in decades.


Like everything in life…it all depends on who you listen to. According to many saltwater anglers, depleted would be a better term to describe the health of the herd. “The catch is off by 70%,” they say. What no one could answer was why. Yet many point to overfishing, which I agree has never helped a biomass of any kind.  Oh, and something else.  Not only were less fish being caught, but quite often they have been hooked below the average weight for their size.


Going back to the why for a moment, and employing some arithmetic, let’s look at the “off by 70%” claim. According to ASMFC’s charts, the biomass dropped from a recent high peak Female SSB (Spawning Stock Biomass) of 170 million pounds to a 2013 number of about 125 million pounds. So, yes, it is true and probably more or less so depending on where you fish.


There are many noble efforts afoot by grassroots organizations  such as 1 @ 32 that are loosely formed and without an agenda other than to save the species by giving the striped bass biomass a chance to truly rebuild. Their pledge is to take only one striper of 32 inches (81.3 cm) or more. I can still remember the refrain from back in the 60’s, “save the whales.” It worked.


Returning to the why, there could be a lot of reasons. Overfishing and taking of females of reproducing age? Yes. Pollution and its affect on rivers and estuaries that serve as incubators for stripers? Yes. Climate change that is offering what may be an imperceptible adjustment to humans, affects the breeding habits of many fish? Likely yes, too.


So what’s causing the population decline? How long would you stay in your neighborhood if you couldn’t buy groceries there, or if faced with the only other option… hunting, if there was no prey?


While some are quick to point to the dwindling statistics for striped bass, a scant few will make reference to the downward spiral of their groceries. While the stripers may be classified as rebuilt by ASMFC, they have also kept an eye on forage species in the food chain. Ready?


Let’s look at the ASMFC report and comments on (once) common and popular striper food. Perhaps it’s the more revealing information to the root of the problem and the bigger issue of why, and what is happening to stripers. Here we go — the study’s own words follow each specie: American eels – depleted, Menhaden – the stock is experiencing overfishing, Shad and River Herring – depleted on a coast wide basis, Northern Shrimp – overfished and overfishing is occurring. Lobsters in Southern New England – depleted; Abundance is below reference point limit; Board action is required to rebuild stock.


If the usual diet for Morone is not available, do they turn to other species? Squid, considered good eating by stripers didn’t get surveyed so we can only guess at their availability as forage for striped bass. Fish such as bergalls, a.k.a cunner, and sea robbins, considered junk fish or trash fish by some, don’t seem to be inventoried but their numbers may be affected, too.


Even the bluefish population is in a down trend. “Biomass is above threshold but below target,” the report shows.  I’ve watched stupid, careless fisherman yank snappers out of the river one after another and toss them on the dock to rot. Maybe the birds enjoyed them. Stripers do eat juvenile bluefish.


There are other factors that affect stripers and all fish. Human development and dams block returning fish reproduction routes of river herring and shad. For eels it blocks their return from freshwater to the sea to spawn. Dams block juveniles from entering freshwater to grow before returning to sea. Many migrating eels are killed in hydroelectric turbines. Another problem with eels…they only spawn once. So every eel that is caught for food or bait has never had a chance to reproduce.   For a look at the complex life of eels visit this fact site  http://www.fws.gov/northeast/newsroom/facts.html.


Eelgrass, a vital component in nursery estuaries that hold nourishment for fry has taken a major hit from development, pollution,  and moreover brown tide. And at times from a natural pathogen cellular slime mold, labyrinthula zosterae, which is believed to have wiped out about 90% of the eelgrass in the 1930’s. For more about the state of eelgrass, and how it factors in supporting marine life, see www.seagrassli.org.


Striped bass also die from predation by their own species…cannibalism. When natural forage becomes depleted, and stripers don’t have as many options, where do they turn?


Fish are born into the food chain that supports every other living animal and organism. How they die may be open to debate – but the fact is, fish, whether they are dead or alive in the water, are consumed by other fish. Even enormous whales whose carcasses sink to the ocean floor feed scores of tiny animals that feed off of their remains. If man chooses to eat fish, that too is the fish’s role in the food chain.


Although, because of the good works by organizations that include 1 @ 32, (and Menhaden Defenders who are watchdogs for the welfare of bunker) striped bass are valiantly being caught and released. Once returned to the water, they may however, face death by malnourishment. Stripers may be outright starving to death.


Does anyone ever cry out, “Save the eels! Save the squid, Uhh…save the sea robbins?”


It’s true that trash fish aren’t glamorous. They do not in most cases offer good table fare or sport. But perhaps it is time for everyone to start paying a little more attention to their well-being. No fish of any species should be wasted. Protect the bottom end of the food chain and everything else may take care of itself.


Moratoriums, size and catch limits can be placed on striped bass, but if there are no healthy spawning grounds or forage fish… a comeback becomes even more difficult.


by Tom Gahan, author of Harmony Bay

Special thanks to Chris Paparo, marine biologist, for his assistance with this article.

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