Striped bass—also known as rockfish or stripers—have been one of the most sought-after commercial and recreational fish in the Chesapeake Bay since colonial times. After bouncing back from a severe decline in the 1970s and 1980s, the striped bass population is now at its highest level in decades. However, scientists are uncertain about the health of the species because of a high prevalence of disease and possible lack of prey.
Striped bass are a key predator in the Chesapeake Bay food web. They also support one of the Bay's most popular commercial and recreational fisheries.
Striped bass are one of the top predators in the Chesapeake Bay food web. As a result, they must have enough prey—primarily menhaden and bay anchovy—available to them to keep their population healthy and the food web in balance. Strong fluctuations in the number of striped bass in the Bay could cause cascading changes throughout the rest of the food web.
Striped bass is the most important commercial and recreational fish species in the Chesapeake Bay. Its size, fighting ability and delicious taste makes rockfish one of the top sport fish in the Bay and on local restaurant menus.
Striped bass is so acclaimed in the Chesapeake Bay region that the Maryland General Assembly designated it the Maryland state fish in 1965, writing:
“Whereas, The people of Maryland as long time and appreciative residents of the productive Chesapeake Bay area know of it first hand the recreational and gastronomic delights of this wonderful land, and
Whereas, Not the least among the good reasons for living in Maryland is the abundant and unexcelled delicacy of the Chesapeake Bay striped bass or rockfish, and
Whereas, In the judgment of the members of the General Assembly of Maryland, it is a simple act of justice and of equity that this fine old Maryland fish should be honored by being designated as the official fish of the State of Maryland...”
The striped bass fishery experienced record-high catches in the early 1970s; in 1973, the commercial fishery landed 14.7 million pounds. But following that year, reported commercial and recreational catches declined steeply. By 1983, the striped harvest had fallen to just 1.7 million pounds.
The reasons for the sharp decline in striped bass harvest during the 1970s and 1980s were complex. Scientists primarily attributed it to overfishing, which may have made striped bass more susceptible to pollution and other stresses, including:
In response to this downturn, Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act in 1984. Maryland and Delaware imposed fishing moratoria on striped bass from 1985 through 1989, and Virginia imposed a one-year moratorium in 1989.
The Chesapeake fishery reopened in 1990, after three-year average recruitment levels exceeded an established threshold value. Since that time, the striped bass population in the Bay has dramatically increased, likely because of responsible, adaptive management coast-wide and suitable environmental conditions. In 1995, the population had increased to the point where striped bass was considered restored, and catches have remained stable since.
Scientists are concerned about the high prevalence of a disease called mycobacteriosis among Bay striped bass. Since the late 1990s, researchers have documented an increased occurrence of external lesions associated with mycobacteriosis on striped bass. This persistent episode of lesions has led to questions about:
In 2015, Maryland striped bass disease monitoring data was used to investigate the potential connection between mycobateriosis and environmental conditions such as water quality. Findings of the study suggest that the proportion of fish that test positive for the disease is correlated with water quality, and that the prevalence of mycobateriosis seems to increase as nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution increases.
Most theories about the current health of Bay striped bass are associated with the fish's increased abundance since moratoria were lifted in 1990. In particular, researchers are concerned about whether there is enough prey to adequately support the large striped bass population. Prey availability is an important factor in striped bass abundance and growth. Some believe that conservative management of striped bass, in combination with harvest of principle prey species, such as Atlantic menhaden, may be leading to a lack of food and slower growth rates in striped bass.
The recent history of striped bass in the Bay—full population restoration after steep declines in the 1970s and 1980s—represents a management success story. However, the current status of Bay striped bass—high abundance but uncertain health—illustrates the need for fisheries managers to take an ecosystem-based approach for their future existence. Continuing research and restoration efforts remain critically important to the future of the species, as the Bay is the primary spawning and nursery area for 70 to 90 percent of the Atlantic striped bass stock.
A coast-wide fishery management plan (FMP), from Maine to North Carolina, is in effect for striped bass under the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The primary objective of the Bay Program's 1989 striped bass FMP is to follow ASMFC annual guidelines and requirements, including:
Combined commercial landings of striped bass from Maryland and Virginia, as well as reported coast-wide recreational catches, have remained stable since the mid-1990s.
Bay managers are currently developing an ecosystem-based FMP for striped bass. Rather than the current single-species approach, ecosystem-based FMPs take into account a fish species' whole ecosystem, such as interactions with other species and pollution and other stressors.
One benefit of creating an ecosystem-based striped bass FMP is to better understand—and then manage for—predator-prey interactions. Striped bass are recognized as one of the top predators in the Bay, impacting forage species like Atlantic menhaden, an ecologically and commercially important species. Ecosystem-based FMPs will make sure that these two interdependent species have compatible management objectives.
After sharp declines in the 1970s and 80s, striped bass populations rebound
Tracking young-of-the-year helps scientists evaluate the health of the striped bass stock
By connecting chefs with seafood, the state agency emphasizes the importance of buying local.
Young-of-the-year rockfish have rebounded in Maryland and Virginia waters.
Catch rates fall as low-oxygen conditions push bottom-feeding fish out of the Bay’s mainstem.
In 2014, the biomass of adult female striped bass along the Atlantic Coast was estimated to be 141 million pounds. This is above the threshold of 127 million pounds but below the target of 159 million pounds. This indicates the stock is not overfished.
Striped bass are a sought-after commercial and recreational catch and a key predator in the Chesapeake Bay food web. Andrew Turner from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)/Versar explains why the fish is so unique. Learn more about striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay Program’s online Field Guide.
Publication date: November 11, 2001 | Type of document: Fact Sheet
Overview of 1979 Emergency Striped Bass Research Study. The Living Natural Bay/Ecosystems, An Economic Resource: Commerce, Productivity and Transportation
Publication date: December 31, 1995 | Type of document: MOU/MOA | Download: Electronic Version
This Memorandum of Agreement establishes a general framework for cooperation and participation among the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Government of the District of…
Publication date: February 01, 1995 | Type of document: Report
This report is an overview of the background, fishery dependent and independent monitoring of the fisheries, research, regulations, and enforcement of the 1989 Striped Bass FMP during 1993/1994.
Publication date: December 01, 1989 | Type of document: Management Plan
The goal of the Chesapeake Bay Striped Bass Management Plan is to enhance and perpetuate the striped bass stock in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, and throughout its Atlantic coast range, to generate optimum long-term ecological,…