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Where Are All the Rockfish?

Recreational anglers share the blame

Andres shows the channel catfish he caught shoreside at Sandy Point State Park.
      Now that most federal, state and associated conservation organizations are agreeing that the striped bass population is again in crisis, the finger pointing has started. Some are laying the blame on the recreational fisheries, some on commercial entities and others on over-harvest of the forage species on which rockfish rely. All play a role.
      Recreational catch-and-release in particular is getting a new hard look, and deservedly so.
     Not so long ago, light-tackle anglers argued that if we let the fish go after we’d enjoyed catching them, little harm would be done to the species. Under ideal conditions (low water temperatures, high salinity, careful handling) the mortality of catch and-release was estimated, based on controlled experiments, at two percent. Minimal to be sure, but conditions are rarely perfect. It is now estimated that more fish are dying after release than are being harvested by anglers.
      Early spring pre-spawn catch and release is a different scenario entirely and a sore point for many, myself included. Biologists insist the mortality rate of released fish this time of year is low. Yet the scientists I have asked how catch and release affects the spawning success of gravid females replied that there is no way to monitor that scenario. I sincerely doubt the effect of their capture and release is positive, nor is the presence of sometimes hundreds of boats in pursuit during a particularly critical time of year.
     Pre-spawn catch-and-release efforts are concentrated in two general areas. First and most important is Chesapeake’s largest shallow-water spawning site, the Susquehanna Flats. This fishery has been advertised by Maryland Department of Natural Resources as the Jewel in the Crown of Chesapeake Angling.
    Fly- and light-tackle anglers flock to the area in the early spring to battle the migratory giants. Incidentally the bigger fish are females gravid with roe and most apt to suffer injury by being caught. There has never been a study to determine the effects of these pre-spawn releases.
     Subsequently, catch and release on the Flats was also expanded to include live-bait and cut-bait anglers. Bait fishing inevitably increases the chance of deep-hooking (throat and internal stomach area). Deep-hooked rockfish suffer a 50 percent mortality rate within two hours of release. 
     The second major area of catch and release in pre-spawn times are the warm water discharge areas of Bayside public utilities. This fishing has become increasingly popular during the winter and early spring with light-tackle jig anglers. Again, the biggest fish caught are females generally swollen with roe. Not the best of situations, especially with light tackle, which tends to exhaust fish more completely in their struggle to escape. Neither the mortality rate nor the success of the subsequent spawn of these released fish is known. But a safe guess is that the effect is not anywhere in the positive category.
      It gets worse as the season wears on. Under the poorest summertime conditions, 90-degree water and air temperatures and low salinity, release mortality can exceed 90 percent. Fish may appear to swim off, but they may also die unseen in minutes, an hour or days later.
     Anglers are warned by DNR of the danger to the fish at these times of year, yet many simply do not get the word, particularly during a hot chum or live-lining bite. At those times, deep-hooking also becomes a more frequent problem. The temptation to continue to fish after the limit is in the box is almost irresistible, particularly as it is entirely legal if the fish are released.
      The recently mandated use of circle hooks, which are designed to avoid deep-hooking fish, does affect mortality. But my belief is that at best it is largely ephemeral. Temperatures and stress will kill a lot of released fish no matter how careful the angler or where the fish is hooked.
     All of these issues should be taken into account when making plans for once again rebuilding rockfish stocks from years of overharvest and poor conservation policy decisions. This season is not too early.
Fish Finder
     Heavy winds and the scarcity of migratory rockfish have kept the trophy season a largely non-event. Channel catfish at Sandy Point and Matapeake have been biting.
     Tributary action is decent for white perch and hickory shad, particularly in the Choptank. Snakeheads remain hot along the Blackwater River drainage in Dorchester County as the spawning fish are slashing at anything that comes near.