Chesapeake Outdoors By C.D. Dollar
Vol. 9, No. 44
November 1- 7, 2001
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When Menhaden Crash, Can Rockfish Prosper?

I gave up counting when the two gentlemen from Delaware, each tossing flies to breaking fish, caught and released more than 50 small but spunky rockfish, which ranged from 10 inches to just under the state minimum of 18 inches. At the end of the day, we had caught probably more than 70 fish, only six of which were legal. Of the three dinner fish kept, the prize was an ocean-run seven-pounder, replete with sea lice, caught just after first light.

Only after we returned to the dock did I acknowledge what a special day it was; these days must be embraced not only because they are special, but because only a decade earlier, such fishing success was inconceivable.

As we fished, we talked about the return of the Chesapeake Bay striped bass fishery and how anglers travel the world to take part in it. Yet later in the week, when I learned that the 2001 striped bass (rockfish) juvenile index is an incredible 50.8, I was confronted with conflicting feelings of joy and worry. How it is possible that I feel at odds? Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources reports that the index is the second largest ever measured in the 48-year history of the survey; the biggest was 59.3, registered in 1996. The Choptank River produced ratings of 201.9, its highest. One of my favorite tributaries, the Nanticoke River, had an unusually high index, 40.1, marking for the third consecutive year an above-average production.

Add in that DNR biologists discovered that the Potomac River held the highest abundance of juvenile American shad ever measured and you’d think that a card-carrying conservation-minded angler such as I would be ecstatic. What tempers my excitement about the future of the Bay’s rockfish is a troubling problem: lack of menhaden.

These plankton-eating filter-feeders, called bunker locally, are caught in huge numbers by the purse-seine fishery in Virginia and coastal waters. Because bunkers are high in protein, most are processed into fishmeal, a key ingredient in the animal feeds used by industrialized poultry and hog operations nationwide. More than 167,000 metric tons were caught by Atlantic purse-seine fleet, making it one of the largest fisheries in the country. In Maryland waters, menhaden are caught by watermen’s pound nets and sold as bait for crabbers and as chum for fishermen.

Most netted menhaden are only in their first year, which erodes the spawning capacity of the stock at an alarming rate.

That menhaden are an important food for rockfish, other top predators and sea birds is only part of their ecological value to the Chesapeake system. Scientists estimate that a healthy Atlantic menhaden population has the potential to consume up to 25 percent of the Bay’s nitrogen in a single year.

Managing fisheries piecemeal is the wrong approach, particularly for menhaden. Before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is a plan to manage this critical thread in the Bay’s food web in a way consistent with its far-reaching influence. Let’s hope they get it right.

Fish Are Biting
If you had any doubt about fall’s arrival, the brisk winds and chilly air temperatures should have erased them. Cold nights have driven the water temperature to around 60 degrees, making bluefish bug out for warmer water. Sea trout and ocean-run rockfish, on the other hand, are just warming up for area anglers.

Last week, Gordon Kaiser took a seven-pound striper on a modified half-and-half (chartreuse and olive) in Eastern Bay. The chunky rock measured 27 inches and had sea lice near its caudal tail, not unusual. But a much smaller fish, albeit legal, taken in the same area also had sea lice, making me speculate that the lack of menhaden may be pushing rockfish to the ocean earlier than normal.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly