Wanna step outside? Will stocking of stripers in coastal rivers have unintended consequences?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 3, 2023

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By Dan Kibler

Last week, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and N.C. Division of Marine trumpeted a partnership designed to restore the slumping population of striped bass in the Roanoke River and Albemarle Sound.
For years, the fishery was among the best in North Carolina, shoot, the best along the entire east coast. During the spring spawning run, 100-fish days were not uncommon, so great was the number of fish making their way from the ocean and up the winding river to Roanoke Rapids Dam near Weldon. Dozens of fishing guides flocked to the river in April, and they were booked constantly for weeks at a time.
The peak was in 2000, when recreational fishermen kept 38,206 fish weighing more than 163,000 pounds, even with fairly restrictive creel and size limits. Last year, after a period of very poor spawns, recreational fishermen kept 1,949 fish weighing 6,069 pounds. They released another 123,704 fish because the season for keeping stripers was reduced to four days, and they were allowed to keep only one fish a day, within certain size limits, with a requirement to use a single, barbless hook upstream from the U.S. 258 bridge at Scotland Neck from April 1-June 30 when stripers are in the river.
So the two agencies took dead aim at the problem, working through the commission’s Watha State Fish Hatchery in Pender County. At Jamesville on the Roanoke River, they released 1.5 million fry in May. At Edenton, they released 650,000 fingerlings 2 inches long into the Albemarle Sound in June.
A $10,000 grant from the N.C. Marine & Estuary Foundation helped fund the project, which will involve similar stockings in 2024 and 2025.
 “The objective of the stocking effort is to supplement the natural recruitment that has been lacking over the last several years,” said Chris Smith, a fisheries biologist with the commission. “The intent is for these fish to ultimately contribute to the Roanoke River spawning population naturally when they reach age 3 and 4.”
NCDMF has been sampling Albemarle Sound stripers this summer to get genetic markers that will determine whether stripers sampled in coming years are natives or stocked fish and how well the stocking program works.
A big question regarding the stocking program:
How many of these stocked fish will wind up in the nets of commercial fishermen?
Will the stocking program benefit them more than the recreational sector?
Some numbers point to a possible answer. Last year, Commercial fishermen landed and sold 24,026 pounds of striped bass — basically four times the weight of stripers kept by hook-and-line anglers. They stand to benefit a great deal.
This concern was raised a number of years ago when discussion about NCDMF setting up a fish hatchery along the coast to produce some of the species whose numbers had fallen. Recreational fishermen were generally in favor, but they were also worried that commercial netters would quickly scoop up the products of the hatchery. Whether a valid thought or not, who knows?
What’s up with speckled trout?
Of greater concern to recreational fishermen might be NCDMF’s interesting ideas about the status of spotted seatrout, aka speckled trout, that were first raised in public meetings earlier this year and mentioned in the agency’s 2022 Fishery Management Plan Review, which was released last week.
The document, which was more than 700 pages long, reviews the status of almost every inshore or nearshore fish familiar to North Carolina fishermen.
In its review of spotted seatrout, it classified them as having a huge, healthy stock of breeding-aged fish. But it declared that the species was being “overfished.” So how do “not overfished” and “being overfished” jive?
Apparently, it means there are plenty of fish, with no immediate concerns, but with concerns down the road a ways.
Overfishing is, by the state’s definition, “fishing that causes a level of mortality that prevents a fishery from producing a sustainable harvest.”
Being overfished is, again, by the state’s definition, “the condition of a fishery that occurs when the spawning stock biomass of the fishery is below the level that is adequate for the recruitment class of a fishery to replace the spawning class of the fishery.”
Confused yet? You bet. The bottom line is the agency is worried because fishermen have been catching more speckled trout in North Carolina (and Virginia) waters over the past handful of years than ever before, and more big fish, too.
One reason? North Carolina has gone without a crushing cold-weather event for a handful of years, so the population has largely survived the winters and grown every year, with more fish and more big fish showing up.
A second reason? Since the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission has imposed draconian harvest limits on southern flounder — one of the state’s most popular fish among recreational fishermen — now leaving us with just two weeks in late September to keep flounder and a one-fish daily creel limit, a lot of fishermen are, by necessity, targeting species other than flounder on their trips to the coast. I, for one, have been targeting speckled trout a great deal more since the flounder restrictions have gone into place. This fall, instead of a week on the Outer Banks, my family will be headed to Murrells Inlet, S.C., where there is no flounder closure and the daily creel limit is five fish.
So the NCDMF is worried. They don’t think the kind of harvest the past handful of years has produced can be sustained for a long period of time, so they’re thinking about ways to keep us from catching as many specks. Well, restoring the flounder fishery would be a good first step. With a longer flounder season and larger creel limit, lots of fishermen would turn their attention back to flatfish and away from trout.
But what NCDMF is considering is either setting up a recreational flounder season, lowering creel limits or changing size requirements to further protect a fish that, right now, doesn’t really need further protection. It was just nine years ago that NCDMF dropped the daily creel limit on speckled trout from six to four fish. Coupled with the lack of any cold-stun fish kills, that’s resulting in great trout fishing over the past handful of years.
It’s probably not time to make recreational fishermen even more angry at the agency than they already are.