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Volume 15, Issue 26 ~ June 28 - July 4, 2007

The Bay’s Ghost Fish

Sea trout show up on computer screens, but nobody’s catching them

Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.

–Alexander Pope: Letter to Fortescue, 1725

The above words make sense, but methinks it is easier to write them than to live by them. The fisherman who sails expecting nothing is still disappointed returning to the docks after a long day of trying.

The pessimistic Izaak Walton, returning to the dock with fish he didn’t expect to catch, is elated. That’s fishing.

For five years now in Chesapeake Bay, we haven’t expected much in the way of weakfish, better known hereabouts as sea trout. Our pessimism was on the mark. Traditionally, the second most popular sportsfish of the Bay is in deep doo-doo, and the same holds pretty much true oceanside. Not just hereabouts; it’s the same all along the Atlantic Coast.

Unless the weather is sour, I am never pessimistic. But like all fishermen, I’ve expected little of sea trout’n since the millennium. But also like all fishermen, every time I hear of a nice catch somewhere, there stirs within the hope that trout’n is about to turn around. But it hasn’t. If anything, it’s worse.

What makes the situation difficult to accept is that the woes of these fish have marine scientists as baffled and frustrated as fishermen. There’s no obvious explanation, and not many valid suspects. But no one can question the fact that a sea trout has become a rare catch.

Grasping at Straws

Recently, a fishermen ambled into Warren’s Bait Box in Glen Burnie and told proprietor Rick Warren he would be delivering pictures of five trout up to seven pounds he had caught from shore at Elliott Island in Dorchester County. His news raised hopes.

It’s the nature of anglers to grasp at any straw. But Rick hasn’t seen the photos or the fisherman since. He’s still hoping the customer, a regular, will turn up with the evidence. Five trout a school or run do not make; but just validation of such a report would be heartening.

Fact is, there isn’t to my knowledge anything heartening on the weakfish front — unless one takes computer imaging as truth. Since the sudden drop of trout populations, the screens of computers of coastal fisheries scientists show everything should be hunky-dory. But there’s gotta be a glitch somewhere. No one is catching ’em.

Six or seven years ago, more than a few fishermen were getting their limits most if not all the time from late summer through fall from the Stone Pile at the Bay Bridge all the way down the Chesapeake. The decline wasn’t gradual. There were several good years of great catching, then it stopped like a faucet was turned. A few fish here ’n’ there, nothing more.

In Search of a Smoking Gun

The populations of these fish are only in the computers, puzzled fisheries scientists now admit. The hunt for suspects is most difficult, for there’s no smoking gun. One is the by-catch of young weakfish in the shrimp fisheries in the Carolinas. Another is poor recruitment to the stocks. Mature fish have to turn out new fish to replenish the fishery, but scientists have little if any evidence of what’s happening once the female drops her eggs and the male fertilizes them. They aren’t turning up in the fishery — only on computers. And we can’t catch those on a computer screen.

Recruitment would seem to be among the most valid of possibilities; this dearth of trout has been going on for about six years, and one would think that if trout were turning out more trout that survived, we’d be seeing them by now. But so much can happen between the hatched trout and one of catcheable size.

Which brings up a third possible suspect, and one an increasing number of fisheries scientists are thinking about. Could the astronomical populations of rockfish be eating the sea trout?

We’ve heard suggestions along that line before. In the early stages of big-time crab woes, many commercial fishermen and some recreational crabbers and fishermen laid the blame on hungry rockfish. But there was skepticism; it was figured some or much of that thinking was based on hopes rockfish regulations would be made more liberal to spare crabs.

Methinks the crab situation is more associated with problems with Bay grasses and bad water — though rockfish, like most other species, like few things better than a meal of crabs, softies in particular. Rockfish are among many species that also devour sea trout, especially the smaller ones.

Rockfish like menhaden, too. No easier meal than getting into a big school of menhaden and feeding to heart’s delight. But with the commercial fleet out of Reedville, Va., working the menhaden hard, their numbers are diminishing. With little effective curtailments thus far, one speculates that more pressure is put on other favorites, like the hardhead and sea trout.

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission scientists are about to take a serious look at the striper predation question. No question but that we’re seeing more bigger rockfish; thus sea trout of any size are vulnerable. It hasn’t been suggested, but sea trout are a delicacy to bluefish.

Just think back to trout’n in the Bay at the turn of the century.

The fall jigging for trout in deep waters was exceptional. Drop a jig to the bottom, and the first jig of the rod tip not infrequently brought a strike at places like Brownie’s Hole off Deale. But that was only the beginning of the fight.

The fisherman had to reel the trout in, which wasn’t too difficult in itself. The trouble was the abundance of bluefish. The angler had to get the trout past them and into the boat. At times, as many as a third of the trout hauled in were mutilated; some anglers reeled in only heads. Think what was happening to the free-swimming trout.

Trout were often around blues and rockfish, often at the bottom under them waiting to feast on the baitfish mutilated as the mixed schools went on a feeding binge and their slashings dropped to the floor of the Bay, making easy pickings for trout.

Sacrifices Are in Order

Fisheries scientists have their work cut out for them if sea trout populations are to rebound. What can they do if they find predation is the culprit? They can’t set limits for predators as they do with fishermen. Somewhere the system is out of whack.

One thing is fairly certain. Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will tighten weakfish regulations. The current limit in Maryland is eight fish a day of 14 inches minimum. Don’t look for it to be the same in ’08. Sacrifices are in order when a species is in trouble — though getting past our disappointment in our revered sea trout isn’t going to come easily. Enough said…

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