Zachary Whitener of Gulf of Maine Research Institute and an Atlantic striped bass he landed in August (Photo Courtesty Zachary Whitener)
Zachary Whitener of Gulf of Maine Research Institute and an Atlantic striped bass he landed in August (Photo Courtesty Zachary Whitener)
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Stripers are experiencing a resurgence in Maine, to the delight of anglers and conservationists.

“When they’re around, they’re plentiful,” said Terry Walsh, who owns The Flyfisherman’s Place in Warren. “It’s been steadily improving for the past two years. This year is probably the best year we’ve had in the past eight.”

The Atlantic striped bass population had dropped to alarming levels over recent decades — sparking a temporary moratorium and changes in fishing laws — but their numbers are climbing again, according to state officials, marine regulators and a group of scientists who want fishermen to aid the recovery effort by carrying cameras along with their poles and bait.

“The fish will move with the tide,” Walsh said, explaining that stripers travel in schools and are popular due to the challenge they present to anglers. “They’re a very hard-fighting fish. They’re quite large,” he said.

Stripers can be found along the Eastern Seaboard and usually remain off the coast of Maine until October, when they head south for the Chesapeake Bay area in the mid-Atlantic. The catch — those long enough to be legally kept rather than thrown back — also offers culinary rewards as “a very good table food,” Walsh said.

Maine changed its striper regulations in 2015 to allow each angler to keep one fish longer than 28 inches per day. The previous rule had permitted one fish between 20 and 26 inches or one longer than 40 inches, according to Jeff Nichols, director of communications for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Maine anglers are helping the effort to renew the striper population through Snap-a-Striper, a partnership between Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) of Maine. The “citizen science initiative” encourages anyone catching a striper to submit a photo to GMRI, in an effort to compile more accurate statistics on the fish and their habitats.

Through data obtained from Snap-a-Striper photos and data cards noting the location and date of the catch, GMRI researchers compile useful information that may improve conservation efforts. Anglers who catch stripers of any size are asked to take photos of their catch along with the cards and email them to the institute at stripers@gmri.org.

“The program has been very successful so far with data collection, especially as it is an all-volunteer effort both on the part of the fishermen and the scientists,” said GMRI Research Associate Zachary Whitener.

The program has collected more than 1,800 photos since 2013, when CCA-Maine approached the institute about working on an initiative to examine the state’s stripers following a number of poor seasons. “The questions we decided to tackle were: Where are the fish we catch in Maine coming from and how important is the contribution of local spawning in the Kennebec?” Whitener said.

The researchers decided to ask the public to take photos as an easy method of studying striper ear bones, called otoliths, and the overall shape of the fish, known as body morphometrics. Through 27 different measurements, the data can help determine a striper’s origin story. “We hypothesize that Kennebec fish will have a more robust shape —football shaped — than migratory fish that swim up here each summer from the Chesapeake,” Whitener said. “Oftentimes the shape of an individual fish can be significantly affected by life history, rather than just genetics.”

The researchers are interested in more than photos. Anglers who keep rather than throw back their fish can help by cutting off and freezing the head with its data card. The head can then be dropped off at GMRI’s Portland office or picked up; chemical analysis scheduled to begin this fall will provide additional data, Whitener said.

Nichols of the Marine Resources Department said its Sea Run Fisheries Division found an increase this year in juvenile stripers caught in an annual beach seine, a method of deploying a net from the shore to collect fish.

“Sea Run staff have been observing more fish in the past two years than previous years, primarily younger fish,” he said, explaining that less mature catch is in the range of 14 to 18 inches.

“In addition to the rule change, the restoration of river herring and the presence of menhaden in Maine waters in recent years is a possible contributor to the increase in stripers, since both are food sources,” Nichols said.

The change followed an addendum to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) approved in 2014.

Max Appelman, the ASMFC fishery management plan coordinator for Atlantic striped bass, said fishing mortality and spawning stock figures in a 2013 assessment triggered the changes. The regulation addendum required fisheries operating along the coast to reduce harvest by 25 percent relative to 2013 levels, and fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay to reduce harvest by 20.5 percent relative to 2012 levels,” he said, explaining the overall goal was to stabilize the population.

Appelman said the regulations, which remain in effect, have had mixed results depending on location and timing. “I too have heard reports of improved striped bass fishing, beginning with last season, from anglers in and around New England, and the northern reaches of the Mid-Atlantic,” he said. “Meanwhile, some anglers fishing in the Chesapeake Bay have had less than ideal experiences; catching a lot of undersized fish that they aren’t allowed to keep.”

ASMFC, based in Arlington, Virginia, is conducting a new striped bass assessment to be completed at the end of 2018. A review is scheduled for February 2019, when the regulatory body could make further adjustments. “However, whether managers will tighten or relax regulations is yet to be seen,” Appelman said.

Duncan Barnes, state chairman of CCA-Maine, said there does appear to be a striper comeback, especially since the late 1970s and early 1980s when regulators imposed a fishing moratorium to prevent the elimination of the species.

Yet, Barnes said, obtaining exact population figures is difficult because most are compiled sporadically by word of mouth. “Statistics are hard to pin down,” he said, noting striped bass may be spotted in an area for a day or two and then move elsewhere along the coast.

The problem of data collection is compounded by competing agendas, Barnes said. Commercial fishermen along the East Coast — commercial fishing of stripers is prohibited in Maine — may complain that recreational anglers have taken too many in order to increase restrictions on them, while fishing guides might report greater-than-realistic numbers in order to convince potential customers there are plenty of stripers in the sea.

This is why CCA promotes Snap-a-Striper on its own website, hoping the additional information will help conservation scientists track the spawning areas and movements of the fish to better protect them.

Barnes is also a board member of Stripers Forever, a group promoting the classification of striped bass as game fish only. He said the organization believes “there need to be a lot more” striped bass in the water and wants to reduce the amount sold without hurting the livelihoods of legitimate fishermen.

An inordinate number of stripers are sold by “guys trying to make a little extra money to pay for boat gas,” Barnes said. “They’re doing this just to make a couple bucks on the side and what they’re doing is killing a lot of fish.”

Flyfisherman’s Place owner Walsh agreed there is a push among many fishermen to have stripers declared solely a game fish so the species will not be decimated. Yet regulations vary from state to state, with some offering more protection than others.

The debate continues over how many fish can be caught, for both food and fun. Getting the numbers wrong, Walsh said, could mean the extinction of the stripers.

“The problem is that these are all natural resources that could be fished out,” he said.