A year on the Tar: Stripes may need to change to bring back stripers

Originally posted on The Daily Reflector Sunday, May 21, 2017 

By Nathan Summers

Sports editor Nathan Summers is taking monthly excursions on the Tar River to explore the river’s character and its characters.

NCWRC Fisheries Biologist Michael Fisk holding a Striped Bass.

When I began this monthly series back in the winter, I intentionally left it wide open in terms of what fish I might target, who I might do it with and where it might take me, the only requirement being that it in some way involved fishing the same Tar River that runs just a stone’s throw from my Greenville home.
Much of my fishing time this year and much of my romanticizing about it has centered on striped bass, one of the river’s inhabitants most traditionally sought-after by anglers.
For me, that romance was based largely on the idea that to battle one of these beasts out of the river and grab it up by its bottom lip was to have conquered an animal that itself had fought its way upriver each year all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to complete its annual spawning cycle.
Because of that belief, I imagined the difficult decision of whether to set free one that big enough to keep — almost exclusively my practice — or to put it on the grill due to its unfortunate characteristic of tasting great.
One local fisherman who is deeply concerned about the striper population in the Tar, to my surprise, recently said, “You might as well eat it.”
How a person like Greenville resident and recreational angler Eb Pesci arrived at such a conclusion is as complex as the millions of tree roots and logjams beneath the often muddied waters of the Tar, a river Pesci says he rarely fishes anymore.
I have caught a small but proud handful of striped bass this season, but I am now almost certain those fish have never seen the ocean. They were born in a hatchery and plopped into the Tar to fend for themselves and, maybe, figure out the life cycle of a true native. I also now know they face much greater obstacles than avoiding my lures and my grill, perhaps the nature of Pesci’s unexpected sentiment.
The river was not only brown in April but for much of the month at hurricane-like flood stages. That nixed any possibility of finding a fishing partner for the month and made it the perfect time to delve into the mystery, and plight, of the Tar River striper more commonly called rockfish in these parts.
“The fish just aren’t there anymore,” said Pesci, a researcher and pathogenic microbiologist at East Carolina University who bought a boat around the year 2000 to fish on the river with his family but who said he now only fishes the Tar “once or twice a year for bluegills.”
The lagging overall numbers of fish with stripes are the result of many problems the species is facing in the Tar and other coastal rivers. One study suggested the number of native stripers in the river is as low as 7 percent, meaning the rest are born in a hatchery and stocked and may or may not sustain themselves before being harvested.
But Pesci, many of his fishing colleagues and some experts fear it is far closer to 100 percent hatchery fish now. Those fish appear to make an abbreviated, perilous migration, but it remains in question whether or not a self-sustained population will ever be re-created using hatchery fish, as has been done to an extent on the neighboring Roanoke River to the north.
Add to the list of striped bass challenges the ongoing, controversial practice of gill-netting in the Pamlico River and Pamlico Sound, which many feel is stunting the population’s growth and numbers, preventing mature fish from completing their natural migration and breeding patterns.
As if another complication were needed, some rockfish researchers say the current size restrictions on the fish fail to give the population its best chance to reproduce, as many of the best potential breeders are ending up in coolers.
I would have guessed pollution to play a role somewhere in all of this. It does not appear to, but there are plenty of other poisons from which to pick.

The numbers
ECU biology professor Roger Rulifson has studied everything that swims in the Tar and has an impressive campus laboratory containing various samples and extracts of seemingly all of them.
He has focused on other species at risk like the American Shad but has spent a great deal of time examining the ever-challenged rockfish population.
Like anyone who has delved into this dilemma, Rulifson details many factors affecting the fish.
He thinks the practice of stocking the river with hand-fed hatchery fish — at 6 to 8 inches long they are much larger than native fish the same age — is creating near impossible odds for the latter group.
When it comes to the fish that do reach maturity, even a few inches of difference regulating which ones anglers can keep could make miles of difference, according to Rulifson, who specializes in fisheries and fish ecology and has conducted and overseen multiple striped bass studies.
“The hypothesis here of the Neuse and the Tar (striped bass) populations is they never go to sea. Not like the Roanoke,” said Rulifson, who uses, among other things, the information in a fish’s otolith, located in the inner ear, like a microchip to read the history and elemental content of each specimen and know vital details like whether it has been to the ocean and how old it is. “They stay maybe in the (Pamlico) Sound and maybe go upstream to spawn. They’re different. The Neuse and the Tar (populations) pretty much stay right where they are.”
His Tar River studies reveal striped bass that do not encounter high levels of saltwater (measured by reading levels of the element strontium), other than by random chance when they are “grown out” at the Edenton national hatchery, which draws from an aquifer with ancient, salty water.
In terms of raw data, a 2011-12 Tar River study overseen by Rulifson included 251 adult stripers, and 88 percent were determined to be hatchery fish. The normal practice, he said, is to stop stocking any species when the percent of hatchery fish reaches 50, though the Tar is still stocked with them, mostly so fishermen can keep catching them.
Two years later, another study showed the hatchery population to be 93 percent.
“That’s when I wrote to the state agencies and told them, ‘You’ve got to stop stocking right now until we get this figured out,’” Rulifson said, noting that the larger fish are the only ones left that could be wild. “Any fish under 21 inches is, virtually, 100 percent hatchery.”
That data suggests the Tar striper’s potential to someday behave like a true local remains very much in question, and fishermen can take home the large fish that Rulifson thinks are among the most important to protect.

Identity crisis
The idea of stocking fish in a coastal river to help supplement the population against fishing pressure began in the late 1800s, with its roots in North Carolina and on the Roanoke, according to Rulifson.
The first permanent hatchery was in Weldon, and the strain of Roanoke River striped bass hatched there eventually stocked waters up and down the East Coast and as far west as California. Closer to home, those fish also landed in the Roanoke, the Tar, the Neuse and even Lake Mattamuskeet.
In the early 2000s, cross-stocking — the practice in this case of stocking those same Roanoke fish into the Tar — ceased. Instead, fish were taken from the Tar itself and their eggs were spawned in Watha, hatched in Fayettville and transferred to the hatchery in Edenton to be raised before being released to the Tar.
The idea was to create a truly native stock again that begin taking on the characteristics of wild fish in their home rivers, but Rulifson said it is questionable whether hatchery fish or even the wild offspring of hatchery fish can truly become natives again.
“There is a debate about if the progeny (offspring) then truly have the behavior of a wild fish,” he said, adding that young fish in a hatchery don’t face the high mortality rate native fish do and that accordingly, the natural selection process has been removed from the equation in their case. Instead, they are pampered. “All those factors could, potentially, result in fish that survive that shouldn’t have. So it’s no longer Darwin’s survival of the fittest.”
Such debate raises many other questions that don’t all have answers, especially for a fisherman like me. How can striped bass that in many cases eat fish pellets in the hatchery each day — learning in some cases to respond to a Pavlov-esque tone at feeding time — suddenly have the instinct to lurk in the shadows of fallen trees and assault schools of shad to survive in the river when the fish chow is long gone? I have felt the force of that attack on the end of my line and it doesn’t conjure the image of a goldfish eating its pellets. There is no real answer.
One of the critical stages in striper survival and sustainability, Rulifson said, is the process called recruitment. Fish that survive summer mortality — warmer weather accompanied by warmer, less-oxygenated water and poorer food quality — are said to have recruited to that year’s class and have survived into the critical autumn period.
“All these fish right now are in the biggest mortality that they will experience in their lifetime,” Rulifson said of the rockfish in the Tar this spring. “Now you put the hatchery fish in late in the season … they’re artificially enhanced and they have not gone through a mortality process. They dominate, and that’s why we see that.”

Fish, fishermen decline
According to Pesci, gone with many of the stripers are a good deal of the fishermen who used to fill the local boat launches for the annual late-winter run.
“Over a 17-year period they’ve just kind of waned off, but about six or seven years ago it got really bad,” said Pesci, who along with some other recreational anglers devotes much of his free time to address the striped bass issue in a way similar to efforts to save and boost southern flounders, gray trout, American shad and other indigenous species affected by various forms of over-fishing in the region. He is a staunch proponent of legislation to help protect the fish and boost the population, though he said it is largely a battle against established commercial fishing.
“It’s reached a point now where you go to places like Blounts Creek or Campbell Creek whenever there should be a lot of boats in the ramp and there aren’t any, because it’s really not worth fishing over there,” Pesci said of two traditional striper hot spots on the Pamlico River, which begins where the Tar ends at the U.S. 17 Business bridge in Washington.
Pesci is a self-described non-expert, but a concerned fisherman who is not alone. He was initially focused on the effects that inshore shrimp trawlers — boats which drag large nets behind them and catch whatever is in their path — had on the gray trout in the inter-coastal system, but he said he became more involved in the striped bass issue about two years ago, or when “the biology started to become a little more obvious.”
Trawlers do not catch or dent the striper population, but traditional gill nets do, and in the eyes of many they are the primary culprit when large numbers of fish simply do not return after being stocked.
“They know how many are stocked, they know how many there should be whenever they come back upstream and they’re not there,” Pesci said. “The number of fish are not there.”
The fish that go missing or unaccounted for in the population, Pesci said, are likely caught in gill nets and go unreported or are harvested illegally out of season, as the nets remain in place for other species even when striped bass are out of season. Even when fish are caught and released from the nets, Pesci said they often have spent as many as 15 hours under stress and often do not survive.

Changing stripes?
All is not lost, at least not yet.
Ben Ricks, a fisheries biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, has seen the studies by Rulifson and others and has done his own and drawn similar conclusions. But he believes it is possible for the Tar and the Neuse to successfully copy striped bass rebirths like on the Roanoke and on a bigger scale in the Chesapeake Bay system.
Two of Ricks’ tenets for a rockfish revolution in the Tar are both scenarios that are easier said than done: Reduce the mortality rate and simultaneously begin creating an older population of fish with better eggs and a mind to migrate longer distances. Both, he said, are possible, and in fact said all it would take for full Atlantic migration is fish old enough to do it.
“Having older aged fish, and in particular older, larger females that produce a lot of eggs and have a lot of biomass are very important in the establishing and allowing for population growth,” Ricks said, explaining larger females produce more and more viable eggs. “In order to get a lot of juveniles, you need a lot of mamas.”
As it stands now, Ricks said there simply are not enough old folks in the coastal striper world, noting that the 20-, 30- and 40-pound fish common in the past are virtually unicorns at this stage in the Tar and the Neuse, and that the numbers of fish in the 15-pound class are also now “very rare.”
Even though hatchery fish grow faster, generally speaking Ricks contends older fish are also similarly scarce.
“Fish in their teens or 20s would be a very good sign,” he said of a potential recovery. He said right now, however, there is a drastic population drop after age 5, and there might be “one or two” fish in the population over the age of 10.
But Ricks said it is up to the state to help identify the cause of death and eliminate “cryptic mortality,” or the ones that are disappearing without a trace.
“We know how many fish were harvested both in the commercial and recreational section and we know what the total mortality is, but right now those numbers, when you add up one side, they’re not matching the other side of the equation,” Ricks said. “We need to as a state document all sources of mortality in all sectors of the fishery so that we can better understand where the problem areas lie.
“The primary problem is the fish in the Tar and the Neuse aren’t living as long as they need to,” he said. “If we reduce the mortality rate, there will be more fish, they will get a little older and maybe we can begin to realize some of those recovery objectives.”
I guess I won’t bring that big fish in my daydreams home and it eat after all.

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