By the late 1940s and the 1950s, these fish almost had vanished, leaving only remnant populations of this strain of striped bass in coastal waters.
"We believe that one of the reasons the stripers vanished from the Gulf of Mexico is that several environmental factors came together at the same time," says Larry Nicholson, senior research scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs. "Dams were built on many of the streams that the stripers once went up to spawn, and also, probably several environmental and habitat changes came together at the same time to cause the stripers to vanish."
The National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many freshwater and saltwater state fishery agencies believed that the saltwater striper should be brought back in the rivers flowing into salt water, because the striper played a major role in both freshwater and saltwater fishing for all the Gulf of Mexico states. The federal agencies started funding programs to restore the striper back to its home range in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The first striper-restoration program began in 1985, and the Gulf Coast Research Lab became involved in trying to help bring the striper back to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the rivers feeding the Gulf of Mexico," Nicholson explains.
The first fish used for restocking Mississippi's rivers flowing into the Gulf came from the East Coast and the Santee Cooper Reservoir in South Carolina. These fish actually were the Atlantic strain of stripers and not the native Gulf Coast strain. Later research indicated that the Gulf Coast strain of stripers seemed to be more heat-resistant and would fare better in coastal waters and fresh waters in the Deep South than the Atlantic striper strain.
"Not until the early 1990s could we even get the Gulf Coast strain of saltwater stripers to begin to stock in Mississippi waters and the rivers of other Gulf Coast states," Nicholson said. "The first stock that we received here in Mississippi came from the Apalachicola River in north Florida. "We built up our own brood stock and had our own hatchery to restock the stripers, but Katrina wiped out our hatchery and all of our brood stock."
However, Nicholson and his team refused to give up and immediately began to work with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, which had acquired the Lyman Fish Hatchery located north of Gulfport.
"Marine Resources had ponds and had started raising the Gulf Coast strain there," Nicholson said. "After Katrina, all the marine-resource departments along the Gulf Coast cooperated to raise and restock saltwater stripers.
"We've also gotten fry from the Marion Fish Hatchery in Alabama. For the last two or three years, the state of Florida has given us fry to restock Mississippi's coastal rivers. Since the beginning of the restocking efforts, biologists have released over 3 million Gulf Coast strain of saltwater stripers in Mississippi waters. Prior to Katrina, in a good year, we'd get more than 300 tagged stripers returned. But, since Katrina, we've had a difficult time letting the fishermen of Mississippi know to look for tagged stripers along the coast and in the coastal rivers."
Quite a few fishermen have told Nicholson and his team that they've caught tagged saltwater stripers, but that they haven't called in and told the scientists when and where they've caught the fish. Every tag has a phone number - 1-866-244-6420 - on it that a fisherman can call and report where he caught the fish. About 20,000 saltwater stripers have been tagged every year since Katrina. Even more untagged fish also have been stocked for a total of 1/4 million saltwater stripers in Mississippi waters each year. The biggest Gulf Coast strain of saltwater striper caught so far, as a result of this ongoing program, weighed just under 38 pounds.
"And the biggest tagged saltwater striper caught was a 24-pounder that was 13 years old," Nicholson said.
One of the major problems with restoring the saltwater striper back to its native range in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Gulf's coastal rivers is that none of these fish have shown any signs of natural reproduction.
"The fish are sexually mature, and the females have fertile eggs," Nicholson said, "but so far we haven't been able to identify any natural reproduction. Some of the streams where these fish once spawned are now blocked off by dams, like the Pearl River. The Pascagoula River is the only river in Mississippi that hasn't been impounded, but it's been impacted in other ways.
"In years past, no pine forests existed along this river, but today pine forests are there. That pine-tree culture changes the water quality of the river. Probably some other man-made influences may have degraded the water in the river, so that it's not conducive for the stripers to spawn there."
Current saltwater striper program
Right now, Mississippi's restocking program is strictly a put-and-take fishery. Very few of this Gulf Coast strain of saltwater stripers are being caught in the Gulf of Mexico, and most of them are holding in the lower ends of the coastal rivers.
"We think, however, that more of these stripers are being caught out in the Gulf of Mexico than our reports indicate," Nicholson said.
The current limit on these fish is that they have to be a minimum of 15 inches, and an angler can keep up to three fish per day.
Nicholson estimates that Gulf Coast states are stocking about 1 million saltwater stripers a year. The dream is that one day the Gulf Coast strain will once again move out of the Gulf of Mexico, spawn in the Gulf's coastal rivers and return to the Gulf, creating a fishery that hasn't been seen along Mississippi's coast in more than seven decades.