The reopening of Savannah River striper fishing in 2005 marked an important milestone in the recovery of a fish that almost vanished.
Seven years later, however, there are still plenty of stripers – but the quest to recreate a fishery that can survive on its own is as elusive as ever.
“We are still having to stock fish about every year,” said Tim Barrett, coastal region fisheries supervisor for Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division.
The saga of the Savannah River and its striped bass goes back to the 1970s, when the huge sportfish were abundant.
Their numbers declined rapidly when a tidal gate and canal were installed in the Back River. Those changes increased salinity in freshwater estuaries to levels that were lethal to striped bass eggs – all but eliminating them from the river.
In 1987, a moratorium on taking stripers was adopted by Georgia and South Carolina and the controversial gate was removed.
Ever since then, the striper population has gradually increased, but through artificial means such as introducing hatchery-raised fingerlings each year.
In 2005, the river was reopened to fishing, with a strict limit of two fish per day and a minimum size of 27 inches.
Anglers have reported good fishing success, both in coastal waters and upstream near Augusta. Unfortunately, however, almost all the fish being caught and examined have the telltale chemical markings that show they originated in a hatchery, rather than being spawned naturally in a river once known for its pristine habitat.
“The target for what we stocked was 40,000 per year,” Barrett said. “Over last six or eight years, we’ve gotten better at getting more small fish to survive, and we responded by stocking fewer fish, so now we are shooting for about half that.”
The biggest threat to striper sustainability in recent years, he added, has been low flows in the river caused by drought conditions that extend far upstream.
“Over last four or five years we’ve noticed a decrease in the overall condition of these fish,” he said. “What we are missing in this puzzle is water.”
The Savannah River’s low flows have moved salinity levels upstream and away from freshwater coastal estuaries, reducing the habitat stripers need to reproduce and survive.
“Farther upstream there isn’t enough forage for them, but in the estuaries they have cover and food,” he said. “Now that the forage is less, they seem to be more dispersed up and down the river, so the fishery down here in the estuaries has significantly decreased.”
Wildlife authorities plan to leave intact the current regulations, allowing for a limited trophy harvest, based on recent surveys that indicate the river’s striper population is stable.
Over a four-year period, biologists tagged nearly 1,000 striped bass and recorded instances where they were harvested or caught and released. The numbers were adjusted to compensate for unreported mortality and harvest.
“Based on the results of the study, the harvest of striped bass in the Savannah River appears well within the levels necessary to sustain the fishery in the system,” Barrett said.
“The problem now isn’t that we don’t have enough adults. We have plenty of brood fish in the river. The problem now is associated with lack of habitat, which is tied to a lot of things, with drought being one of them.”