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Our Rockfish Future

We’ll soon be dividing shares of a diminished striped bass pie

Annapolitan Michael Fiore can barely hold the 60-pound cobia he caught on light tackle with an orange bucktail jig at Fenwick Shoals, Fenwick Island.
     Once again our rockfish are in trouble. They have been overfished, commercially and recreationally for some time. The overall Atlantic population, including in the Chesapeake, has become depleted and the larger fish of the species seriously so. That is an accepted fact, based on thorough studies by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
     When I call them “our rockfish,” I am not merely being possessive. Most rockfish, including those migrating along the North Atlantic littoral, were born in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Without the Bay’s contribution, there would scarcely be any rockfish at all.
      This is not the first time that our rockfish have been in trouble. A striped bass moratorium prohibiting the harvest of all rockfish in Maryland waters was instituted in 1985 because of severe overharvest and was not completely lifted until 1995.
     It took 10 years for the species to recover. Almost immediately afterward, it’s now apparent, we began to institute policies that have again led us astray. Twenty-four years after recovering from the last species management disaster, we are back in trouble.
     Circle hooks, minimum sizes, modified seasons, stricter controls on commercial harvest, conservation research and educational efforts: All have been tried. But striped bass is the most popular gamefish on the northeastern seaboard, including the Chesapeake, and a seafood gourmet’s favorite. There is just not enough to go around.
     Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately, depending on one’s perspective — the overall plight of our rockfish is not under Maryland’s control. Because stripers are considered a multi-state migratory species, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has jurisdiction over their management. Maryland has to abide by the decisions made by this federal organization.
     The Commission was formed to promote commercial fishing and to ensure stable populations in the various fisheries. The recreational fishery was of secondary interest.
     In practice, Maryland Department of Natural Resources seems to share the same values.
     Yet DNR’s mission statement, as it appears on its website, is “preserving, protecting, restoring, and enhancing the State’s natural resources.”
     The Department’s objectives are further enumerated as safeguarding the populations of our living natural resources; providing diverse outdoor recreation opportunities for Maryland citizens and visitors; and ensuring healthy Maryland watershed lands, streams and non-tidal rivers.
    Nowhere in copious assurances of the wise management of our natural resources for the enjoyment of our citizens is mentioned DNR’s substantial, longterm commitments to commercial fishing industries.
     Yet over half our allocation of striped bass — our share allowed by the Commission — is reserved for commercial harvest. So are well over half of our general allocated harvests of white perch and almost all of our blue crabs. 
     In these times — with the resource scarce and commercial fisheries contributing less to the economy and taking more from the ecology — does harvesting gamefish commercially for food remain a prudent use of a unique natural resource?
     I don’t say that recreational and ecological interests should override commercial interest. I do argue that in the days to come, when hard decisions are made on how allocations will be modified and what sacrifices endured, that decisions be made under public scrutiny to benefit or burden everyone equally.
 
 
 
Fish Finder
     The heat is finally breaking, and the fish are responding. Cobia are in the news biting at Point Lookout, the Bay Bridge Tunnel and up onto Fenwick Shoals just north of Ocean City. The Spanish mackerel bite is the best in many years, with small schools showing up as high as the Bay Bridge. To score this toothy fish, try trolling Clark spoons briskly (six to eight knots) or throwing Kastmasters or Epoxy Minnows and burning them back to the boat.
      Rockfish remain in sizes barely legal. The top-water bite should be firing up. White perch are getting a bit fatter and gathering in larger schools in preparation for winter. Spot may not be around much longer. Crabs are finally starting to come on strong.