Early life history dynamics of a stocked striped bass (Morone saxatilis) population and assessment of strategies for improving stocking success in Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia
The early life history dynamics of stocked, fingerling striped bass (Morone saxatilis) were evaluated in Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia, from 1994-96 and incorporated into an individual-based model to assess various stocking strategies in terms of their largest percent increases in first-year growth, overwinter survival, and recruitment to age 1. Age-0 striped bass exhibited dissimilar patterns of dispersion and size-dependent spatial distribution as a result of differences in habitat availability between stocking sites and water temperature preferences. Although size increased over the growing season, a bimodal length distribution developed by fall during both 1994 and 1995; this distribution consisted of large-mode juveniles (> 180 mm TL) that weighed several times more than small-mode fish (<140 mm TL). Differential growth was attributed primarily to size-dependent differences in food habits and diet quality: small-mode striped bass maintained a mixed, low quality diet of invertebrates and small, age-0 cyprinids, while large-mode juveniles consumed only larger, energetically more profitable age-0 alewives. This disparity in food habits, largely due to the inability of small-mode striped bass to consume distributionally- and morphologically-invulnerable age-0 alewives, resulted in size-dependent differences in physiological well-being as large-mode juveniles had amassed greater absolute energy stores than small-mode fish by the end of the growing season. Spring sampling revealed that the bimodal length distribution had become unimodal and was comprised almost entirely of large-mode juveniles. Because the few surviving small-mode striped bass collected during spring were extremely emaciated, it appears that this size group exhausted their energy stores and, consequently, starved over the winter.
Individual-based model simulation results indicated that stocking juvenile striped bass at a median total length of 52 mm on 08 June, while maintaining the current stocking density at 300,000 fingerlings, would result in the largest percent increases in first-year growth, survival, and number of age-1 recruits. This strategy was also less sensitive to perturbations in alewife population parameters and water temperature regime, and was more robust to these variations than the existing stocking scheme (300,000 fingerling striped bass with a median total length = 42 mm introduced on 15 June).