Friday, December 9, 2011

A True Story About the Collapse of a Fishery and It's Recovery : Part 4

*Disclaimer* What follows is my own personal experience in a sad situation. I have talked to local biologists about this , but I may not get all the facts absolutely correct. I hope my personal experiences shed light on the severity of a fish kill that hit very close to home for me and serve as a cautionary tale to those who don't follow rules intended to protect our waters from invasive species. Several factors could align and almost any body of water could experience something very similar or even worse.

You may want to read Part 1 , Part 2 and Part 3 first.

Part 4 : The Road to Recovery

As I write this  , it's almost mid December of 2011. Nearly a full decade has passed since the tragedy that left Smith Mountain Lake without a strong population of it's claim to fame , the Striped Bass. Regular readers will recall that I had several decent catches this year , just a month or two back. My son even got in on the action , something I had my doubts about when he was first born just a few years ago. I won't go so far as to say the fishery has recovered , but I will venture that up to this point VDGIF has done a good job at trying to restore a fishery to it's former greatness. It's been a tough journey , this road to recovery , but it's better than I ever expected. We've had to adapt to new regulations that have changed several times , but I don't feel like I'm wasting my time when I teach my son how to target these fish.

After the fish kill , biologists went into overdrive gathering data. They wanted catch reports. They wanted otolith bones. Gill net data and electroshock studies soon assessed the fishery. As did fish journals and anecdotal reports from anglers. The young fish had survived! We did lose multiple generations of fish to the parasites and starvation , but the bread and butter of fisheries management , 3-4 year old fish who have potential to turn into "quality" fish , had survived. Under the circumstances , it was the best news possible. Many of us had assumed that they were all gone.

The majority of fish 24 inches and smaller survived. A certain percentage of bigger fish survived , but not in any quantity. I would estimate our "average" sized catch , at 6-10 pounds survived at a 50/50 rate , with the most heavily infested fish dying. Anything bigger was effectively gone.

Right away , VDGIF ramped up stocking efforts and implemented a slot limit that goes into effect in the Fall and lasts through late Spring. The slot protects fish 26-36 inches during the time they are most likely to survive when released. The slot is removed during the Summer when mortality is very high for released Stripers and VDGIF encourages anglers to quit fishing after catching their 2 fish limit. Many anglers , including myself , don't fish for Stripers in the Summer now to give the fish a chance to recover.

The numbers of fingerlings stocked almost doubled , going from 250,000 in 2003 to 450,000 in 2004. It's been adjusted yearly to account for survival rates , but most years have seen a minimum of somewhere around 300,000 fingerlings stocked. The late 90's and early 2000's produced a survival rate averaged at 53% and in 2004 this jumped to 62% , possibly due to a decrease in predation.

It's an uphill battle for sure. The number of citations turned in each year has steadily increased from a low of 7 in 2004. I heard a report this year of a 37 pound fish caught on the Blackwater side of the lake. So it is possible for a fishery to recover from near devastation , but it takes time.

Smith Mountain Lake is my home water. It is not perfect , but the amount of life it is capable of supporting and VDGIF's commitment to manage it for trophy Stripers has given me something I lost during the fish kill - hope for the future.

Have a great weekend!


  1. Josh, this entire series on your local striper population is EXCELLENT stuff. It is eerily similar to what we experienced around my area (albeit in the salt) back in the 80's. A total collapse of the fishery prompted a moratorium on targetting stripers.
    Even following the lift of the moratorium we had all sorts of different regulations. They did work though as the populations rebounded nicely.

    Good stuff here sir, I have a standing O for you with this series :-)

  2. Thanks Captain! Since you've experienced something very similar I know you are familiar with the sickening feeling you get when you realize the fish are mostly gone.

    I'm afraid we're looking at a similar problem if we don't rein the commercial harvest of Atlantic Menhaden.


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