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Striped Bass
  • Striped bass, also referred to as rockfish, are the top recreational sportfish in the Chesapeake Bay. Morone saxatilis is also one of the top predatory species in the Bay. 
  • Striped bass, once heavily overfished, are now at sustainable population levels thanks in part to implementation of a fishing moratorium (in Maryland from 1985-90, in Virginia from 1989-90) and strict science-based, management controls since.
  • Rockfish with lesions associated with the disease mycobacteriosis have been found in the Bay. Researchers are exploring why some rockfish get this disease and others do not.


Status

Biomass: The population of striped bass along the Atlantic coast has increased steadily since 1982 (8.9 million fish) to a peak in 2004 (70.8 million) and then declined slightly through 2007 (51.4 million). In 2008, abundance increased slightly to 52.8 million fish. The spawning stock biomass, which is the population of females that are age 4 and up, has followed the same pattern.

Overfishing: No

Overfished: No

Fishing and habitat: Striped bass are one of the species most sought-after by recreational anglers around the Bay. Hook-and-line is the primary gear used by recreational anglers, which has limited or no effect on habitat. Recreational landings for striped bass make up roughly 75-80% of the coastal landings. Commercial fishermen harvest striped bass with a variety of gear including gill nets, pound nets, haul seines, and hook-and-line.

By-catch: By-catch varies depending upon the gear used. Discard mortality in the recreational sector is also highly variable between years but averages about 8% mortality of released fish.

Aquaculture: Striped bass are grown in many aquaculture operations around the United States. In 2005, almost 60% of all striped bass sold in the United States were grown in aquaculture. Aquaculture for hybrid striped bass (a cross between white bass and striped bass) began in 1986, and production peaked in the early 2000s. In the Chesapeake Bay region, aquaculture has a number of potential benefits for striped bass: more readily available seafood, greater economic development, and reduced pressure on the wild stock of striped bass as well as the species on which they prey.


Science and Management

Striped bass are managed directly by the state jurisdictions—the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Marine Resource Commission, and Potomac River Fisheries Commission—through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).

Historically, the fishery for striped bass was one of the most important on the Atlantic coast. Overfishing and poor environmental conditions led to the collapse of the fishery in the 1980s. Through management coordinated by the ASMFC, and the dedication of commercial and recreational fishermen, the stock was rebuilt and was considered to be restored as of 1995. Total catch (recreational and commercial) was 15,600 metric tons in 2008. 

Currently, striped bass are managed by the states following a fishery management plan set by ASMFC. The stock is managed coastwide, with specific catch quotas for the Chesapeake Bay. While the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office does not have a direct role in the management of striped bass, NOAA provides key research and scientific findings to the management agencies in the states and ASMFC to assist these agencies in making more informed decisions regarding this valuable living resource.

Despite the success of the striped bass management program, concerns about rockfish health still remain. One disease of particular concern is mycobacteriosis, a slowly progressing bacterial infection that results in a variety of external and internal symptoms including skin lesions, stunted growth, inflammation, tissue destruction, and formation of scar tissue in one or more organs. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, more than 70 percent of striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay may have this disease. Recovery and mortality rates from this disease are not yet known, but scientists continue to study this issue and monitor the situation. There is also concern regarding the nutritional needs of striped bass. Studies are being conducted evaluating prey availability and what relation, if any, it might have to the prevalence of disease in the striped bass population.

The most recent update to the stock assessment for striped bass was completed in November 2009. The assessment indicated that striped bass are not overfished. From 1982 to today, the striped bass population has increased from about 7 million fish to an average of 58 million fish during the last five years.


Life History and Habitat

Striped bass in net (Photo: NOAA)Life history, including information on habitat, growth, feeding, and reproduction of a species, is important because it affects how a fishery is managed. Researchers have determined that female striped bass reach sexual maturity between the ages of four and eight. Using this information, managers set the biomass target and threshold for this species based upon female spawning stock biomass—the amount of sexually mature females in the striped bass population.

Geographic range: Along the Atlantic Coast, the striped bass ranges from the St. Lawrence River in Canada to St. John's River in Florida. Striped bass have been successfully introduced in numerous inland lakes and reservoirs and to the Pacific coast.

Habitat: Striped bass larvae and postlarvae drift downstream toward nursery areas located in river deltas and the inland portions of the coastal sounds and estuaries. Juveniles typically remain in estuaries for two to four years and then migrate out to the Atlantic Ocean. Striped bass spend the majority of their adult life in coastal estuaries or the ocean. Important wintering grounds are located from Cape Henry, Virginia, south to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Life Span: Striped bass are a long-lived species; they can live roughly 30 years.

Food: During different stages in their life cycle, striped bass feed on zooplankton, fish larvae, insects, worms, amphipods, Bay anchovy, spot, menhaden, herring, shad, white perch, and yellow perch. The breadth of what they eat highlights their importance in the Chesapeake’s food web.

Growth Rate: Growth rates are variable, depending on a combination of season, location, age, sex, and competition. Growth is more rapid during the second and third years of life, before striped bass reach sexual maturity, than during later years. After age four, growth may be 2.5 to 3 inches a year until age eight. Starting at age four, females grow faster than males. Growth occurs between April and October.

Maximum Size: Striped bass generally grow to lengths of up to 59 inches and weights of 55 to 77 pounds. The largest striped bass on record is a 125-pound female caught off North Carolina in 1891. In the Chesapeake Bay, the largest striped bass is just under 68 pounds.

Reproduction: Striped bass are anadromous, meaning they live in the ocean but return to freshwater to spawn. Males mature between the ages of two and four; females mature between the ages of four and eight. Mature female striped bass produce large quantities of eggs, which are fertilized by mature males in riverine spawning areas. While developing, the fertilized eggs drift with the downstream currents and eventually hatch into larvae. The larvae and post-larvae begin feeding on microscopic animals during their downstream journey. After their arrival in the nursery areas, located in river deltas and the inland portions of coastal sounds and estuaries, they mature into juveniles. Striped bass typically spawn from April to June, as they migrate into fresh or brackish water.

In general, the Chesapeake Bay spawning areas produce the majority of coastal migratory striped bass (70-90%), with significant contributions from the Delaware River and Hudson River stocks.

Migrations: Striped bass migrate north and south seasonally and ascend to rivers to spawn in the spring. Males in the Chesapeake Bay may forego coastal migrations and remain in the Bay.

Predators: Predators of small (juvenile) striped bass include bluefish, weakfish, cod, and silver hake. Adult striped bass have few predators, with the possible exception of seals and sharks.

Commercial and Recreational Fishing Interest: Both

Distinguishing Characteristics: Striped bass have full bodies with long horizontal black lines.


Role in the Ecosystem

Striped bass are important predators in coastal and marine ecosystems. As part of an effort to understand ecosystem functioning, a multispecies model is being developed that incorporates predator-prey and competitor interactions among striped bass, Atlantic menhaden, bluefish, and weakfish to help determine forecast species abundance trends and understand the impacts of each fishery on the ecosystem.


Did You Know?

  • The striped bass is Maryland's official state fish.
  • Striped bass were once so plentiful they were used to fertilize fields. But because of their value to early settlers, such use was banned by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1649.
  • Striped bass were successfully introduced to the Pacific coast by stocking 133 yearling fish in San Francisco Bay in 1879. These fish were seined from the Navesink River, New Jersey, and transported to California by train.