Public Radio East is teaming up with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to repopulate the waters of eastern North Carolina with striped bass. This week on the Down East Journal, we discuss the project and how it will promote a healthier fishery and create more opportunities for anglers.
Striped bass is one of the most popular saltwater game fish on the East Coast. Stripers spend most of their time in the ocean, but each year in the spring, they make a journey upstream to spawn. And that’s when local anglers flock to the Neuse and Tar Rivers to test their luck.
“We call them rocks around here. And they pretty strong fish. They will snap a line in a minute, pole too. Yeah, that’s a pretty good fish to fight with.”
Bayboro resident Vance Sawyer is a long time fisher, and striped bass is among his favorites.
“I fish at night for striped bass. We normally fish around the railroad tracks, they pretty lively around the tracks.”
Silver, with black horizontal stripes, most stripers grow to about four feet and weigh up to 30 pounds. They are thought to live up to 30 years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, overfishing and poor environmental conditions led to the collapse of the fishery in the 1980s. Since then, efforts to replenish their populations have helped the species make a comeback. Striper are now found along the Atlantic coast, from the St. Lawrence River in Canada to St. John's River in Florida.
To help repopulate the waters in North Carolina, the State Wildlife Resources Commission stocks rivers with more than 100,000 striped bass annually. There are two hatcheries here to raise them; the Watha Hatchery in Pender County and the Edenton National Fish Hatchery in Chowan county. Coastal Fisheries Supervisor Chad Thomas.
“Striped bass fry are taken from the hatchery building where they were spawned and put into ponds at the hatchery, on hatchery grounds. As those fry grow to one to two inches they’re then removed from the ponds, they’re graded and sorted and then put back into another series of ponds for grow out to eight inches.”
The hatcheries receive the broodstock in April, and the striped bass fry grow throughout the summer and fall. By December or early January, the juvenile fish have reached the appropriate length and are ready to be placed in eastern North Carolina rivers.
In the wild, striped bass fry are eaten by a variety of fish in the Pamlico Sound, including speckled trout and drum. Predators like largemouth bass, crappie, white and yellow perch in freshwater areas will make a meal out of baby striped bass. For that reason, hatcheries tend to have higher survival rates. With 100,000 fry, Thomas says a hatchery can produce about 80,000 eight inch fish.
“Our hatcheries are very efficient. These fish, being eight inches, we’re talking about thousands of pounds of fish being stocked each year.”
Each spring, striped bass make an annual spawning run. The fish in the Tar River swim past Washington and up to Rocky Mount to begin to spawn. In the Neuse, the fish pass by New Bern and Goldsboro where they spawn around Smithfield. Sometimes if the water flow is high, the fish can swim as far as Milburine Dam in Raleigh to lay their eggs. According to Thomas, striper populations in eastern North Carolina rivers are considered stable, but at low levels. Overfishing is one concern. But the most significant limiting factor is slow water flow in the Neuse and Tar Rivers.
“Striped bass eggs themselves have to remain suspended in the water to survive. So if you have good flow, then these striped bass eggs can float. The egg itself has, it’s semi-buoyant it has a little oil droplet in the egg.”
To help replenish the waters of eastern North Carolina, the Wildlife Resources Commission began stocking striped bass in the Neuse, Tar and Cape Fear rivers in 2001.
“We shifted from stocking a small one inch fish to the program which we have now where we stock six to eight inch striped bass that have higher survival and we see a lot higher return by stocking these larger fish.”
Thomas says the goal of the restoration program is to double the current wild population and try to increase the number of older fish.
"The fish that are there are young and we do not see a lot of older fish in the population that would indicate we have a good strong run.”
Mature striped bass help stabilize the fishery because they are more resilient and can reproduce more offspring.
“Those eggs that the older fish have are larger and a lot of times they do better because of that. We want to see more older fish because this keeps the population healthy.”
The Wildlife Resources Commission has an annual goal of placing 100,000 striped bass, 6-8 inches long into eastern North Carolina waterways. Each year, that request is met successfully by the hatchery, and some time surpassed. In fact, last year 200,000 striped bass were delivered to local rivers.
Creating a healthy, self-sustaining striped bass fishery is the main focus of the restoration program, but it also has a positive impact on the economy. Thomas says where there are greater numbers of fish, there will be a greater number of fishermen.
“The anglers spend a lot of money in the local community, you can just ask them. They spend a lot of money on boat gas, they will buy bait wherever they’re fishing, they a lot of times will stay in hotels, a lot of them will actually hire a guide to take them out. So there’s a lot of expenditures in the local community as anglers are pursing striped bass, particularly on these runs in the spring.”
As the numbers of stripers increase, the WRC is monitoring the impact they have on other species, since they are piscivorous, and consume other fish. Eventually, Thomas believes the Wildlife Resources Commission won’t have to stock the local waterways, and one day the striped bass populations will be strong enough to sustain themselves. Until then, we have the opportunity to help this native species thrive in eastern North Carolina again. During this spring fundrive, Public Radio East is providing 100 striped bass babies for each pledge we receive. PRE’s Assistant Manager Jill McGuire.
“If we get anywhere between 600 and 800 pledges during our Spring drive, that’s 60 to 80 thousand fry that we will give to the Wildlife Commission, and we can do that, because during the 25th anniversary when we were hoping to build an oyster reef, we had a little more than 800 pledges.”
If Public Radio East receives 800 pledges during this fundrive, we can provide more than 80,000 striped bass fry for the Wildlife Resources Commission. Coastal Fisheries Supervisor Chad Thomas says that alone would take care of 25 percent of the annual stock requirement.
“Oh yes, it’s a tremendous impact, listeners that make the pledges help support these stocking efforts.”
You can be a part of this striped bass replenishment project by making a pledge today in any amount.
“Now, more than ever your pledge is going to be very important and it’s two fold. It will support Public Radio here in eastern North Carolina, and it will help to restore the striped bass in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico Rivers.”