Despite finding healthy numbers of adult stripers, however, the quest for true native fish remains as elusive as ever.
“It’s a habitat issue – always has been,” said Tim Barrett, regional fisheries management supervisor for Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division.
Stripers once reproduced prolifically in the Savannah, but began to disappear in the 1970s, when a tidal gate and diversion canal were installed in their ancestral spawning grounds in the Back River.
Scientists believe the changes boosted salinity in freshwater estuaries, making them unsuitable for striper reproduction. By 1989, there were so few fish left that all striped fishing was banned.
Since then, efforts to restore the population have centered upon annual stockings of fish hatched in Richmond Hill, Ga., and other facilities. Those programs have helped restore the population to a level that will support limited angler harvest, but the fish still can’t sustain themselves.
Georgia officials typically release 15,000 to 40,000 stripers into the river each year. The fish are 6 to 8 inches when released, giving them a greater chance of survival than the 1-inch fingerlings stocked in upstate reservoirs.
The fish are tagged with a marking agent called oxytetracycline, whcih allows biologists to identify them with an ultraviolet light.
“If we sample 100 fish, we expect the level of unmarked fish to be only 5 to 7 percent,” Barrett said. “We attribute that to missing the marks on some fish and fish that had been stocked by South Carolina.”
Although there are adequate numbers of stripers in the river, they can be sustained only by releasing hatchery-raised fish, he said. “By and large, based on our surveys, that tells us we’re putting in everything that’s in the river.”
Under new rules adopted in October 2005, anglers are allowed to harvest two fish per day from the lower Savannah that must be at least 27 inches in length.
With size and creel limits in place, and supplemental stockings conducted each year, the river’s striped bass population is healthy, even if it is artificial, Barrett said.
“We’re stocking as much as we can to try to get the adult population to look like it used to,” he said. “At this point, I think we are about back to where we used to be, and even maintaining it now.”
In the meantime, studies aimed at learning more about the stripers are continuing.
Currently, there a striped bass tagging and telemetry study under way, said senior fisheries biologist Joel Fleming.
“We currently have 15 striped bass tagged with acoustic transmitters that are being tracked by over 50 stationary receivers throughout the river,” he said. “This study is being done in cooperation with SC DNR as they are using these same receivers to track sturgeon species.”
The future of the Savannah’s striper population has plenty of variables, with the main one being the impacts of the planned deepening of Savannah Harbor.
Although the project will compromise some habitat, it also includes mitigation projects that could increase the flow of fresh water into the Back River, which could further benefit striper sustainability.
The harbor project’s mitigation package also has a silver lining of sorts for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, which relies on limited annual funding to stock stripers each year: under the current plan, the harbor project will provide money to pay for 50 more years of striper stockings.
CYCLIST AMBUSHED BY ‘HUNTERS’? There was a very curious report made last weekend to McCormick County deputies in which a mountain biker was ambushed and attacked, before exchanging gunfire and escaping from three camo-clad assailants.
The cyclist, whose name was redacted from the incident report, told police he was knocked unconscious after being thrown from his bike by a rope stretched across the Modoc/Stevens Creek trail in Sumter National Forest. He awakened to find the men trying to sexually assault him, but escaped and fled on foot after elbowing one of the attackers.
The South Carolina man later called police from a nearby highway and said his assailants told him the area “was for hunters only” and shot at him as he ran. The man also told deputies he returned fire with a .40-caliber Glock he was carrying. He also stated he could not describe the men because their faces were partially covered, Officers returned to the area the next day to retrieve the victim’s bicycle and other belongings, but found little evidence of the ambush and no arrests were made.