A Rockfish Reckoning

     A handful of vehicles, mostly pickup trucks and SUVs, lined up behind a small steel gate on a warm summer morning. Inside them was the regular 7:30am crowd, striped-bass fishermen patiently waiting for the Thomas Point ranger to arrive to give them access to one of the Bay’s most sought-after fish.

    In opening the gate, the ranger is allowing the men their daily shot at a species that can often grow upward of 50 pounds and offers some delicious eating. Excitement charges the air.

     Those big rockfish, as well as other keeper-sized catches, are becoming increasingly rare. Blasts of searing heat after vast inflows of polluted runoff from heavy rains, combined with summer fishing pressure, have left anglers throughout the Bay wondering what to expect in the usual glorious days of fall fishing.

     The dozen fishermen at Thomas Point that morning hooked only a smattering of stripers, most under the 19-inch minimum. Their catches leave them wondering if Maryland’s state fish is going endangered again.

     The fate of the Bay’s migratory rockfish population and a fishing economy valued at $500 million yearly may well be decided by the management strategy chosen later this year.

     That process will move forward at a meeting of the Striped Bass Management Board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in Annapolis on Sept. 25. The Commission says it will finalize plans in October. By next season, Maryland and other states likely will have adopted new striped bass fishing rules both for anglers and commercial operations.

Ground Zero: Chesapeake Bay

     The Chesapeake is a major habitat for breeding adults and for juveniles along a wide swath of the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to North Carolina. In a year’s time, rockfish add up to more than three-fourths of Chesapeake catches by number.

     So what Maryland does makes a big difference.

     After the disastrous decline in the species four decades ago, Maryland’s five-year moratorium on rockfish restored abundance. In the Maryland Chesapeake, commercial catches reached a low of 361,000 pounds in 1983 and rose to a high of 2,267,000 in 2009. The harvest dropped below two million pounds between 2010 to 2018. but has remained relatively stable from 2015 to 2018 at above 1.4 million pounds.

     Recreational harvests soared from a low of 2,000 pounds in 1982 to almost 11 million pounds in 2016. Then catches dropped by about three million pounds per year for each following year.

     “When there’s a lot of fish, more people go fishing,” says Tony Friedrich, policy director for the American Saltwater Guides Association. Maryland regulators, as he sees it, missed more than one opportunity this decade to impose harvest limits that could have meant lots of fish for years to come.

     Between 2014 and 2017, stock assessment data show rock were overfished by over 200 percent, Friedrich says.

     Maryland Department of Natural Resources tells a different story. 

     “Some people are reacting to this as if the sky is falling,” says Michael Luisi, DNR’s division director of monitoring and assessment. “We do understand the need for change. We have the trend of a decade-long decline we need to turn around.”

     He adds: “We’re not in panic mode. We believe that we’re still okay. We know we have the ability to correct for the problems that we see.”

      One change Luisi, a 20-year DNR veteran, would like to see is up to Mother Nature: making more babies. 

     “One or two strong year classes can drive the biomass on the adult side pretty high for quite a while,” he says. “But year classes have become significantly smaller than in past years.”

     So, he says, “You have to anticipate that you can’t maintain biomass. It’s going to drop because you’ve had few babies in the population.”

      That’s a cause the Department can’t change — though it can regulate with it in mind.

     Another cause for decline — increased catch-and-release mortality — can also be affected by regulation. Luisi estimates that one in 10 fish caught and thrown back don’t survive. During hot summer days, that mortality rate can become as high as 30 percent. That reality is borne out by all the dead and dying fish washing up on mid-Bay beaches last month.

     In the species’ Atlantic range, total mortality — including harvest — was seven million fish in 2017. Forty-eight percent, almost 3.5 million, died because recreational fishermen threw back hooked fish that were too small, whether for legal or their personal size requirements.

     Education is DNR’s answer to catch-and-release mortality. New this summer was a Striped Bass Advisory System, projecting conditions up to seven days in advance. Air temperature for the day’s striper fishing gets one of three status ratings.

      Not good enough, says Friedrich. If DNR really cared, they’d take more profound steps. Plus, he argues, mortality has more to do with the salinity of the water than air temperature.

     “We have buoys that monitor salinity,” he said. “We should not be allowing fishing in freshwater after a certain date.”

‘Bad, Bad’ Trophy Season

      Like advocate Friedrich, Capt. Ken Jeffries, a charter fisherman on the Bay for 30 years, says the problem is overfishing.

     “The way the Department has been making adjustments over the years has not been good for fishing itself, not good for the fish,” Jeffries says.

      Currently Maryland limits take-home stripers to two per day. That’s an incentive regulation, Luisi explained, to attract customers for the charter-fishing industry.

     “Shortsighted,” Friedman counters, noting that fewer fish mean fewer fishing licenses sold — a drop of 50,000 — since the early 2000s, with a bigger impact to the economy.

      “We should have to go to one fish” daily limit, Friedman says. “That’s what we needed to do in 2012 and that’s what we need to do now.”

      As Jeffries, the charter captain, sees it, a limit would not have mattered during the spring trophy striper season. It was the worst trophy season he’d ever seen, he said.

      “When you go a whole entire month and a whole fleet doesn’t catch a fish, that’s not good,” Jeffries lamented. “It was bad, bad.”

      Shore fishermen at Thomas Point hadn’t had a banner year either.

      “Early on it was pretty poor, if not terrible,” said Annapolitan Thomas Guarino. A mechanical engineer who works on NASA telescopes, he tries to get to Thomas Point as often as he can. “I just think the biomass is depleted. There’s a lot of overfishing.”

      At Thomas Point, fishing pressure is high, notes Guarino’s friend and fellow fisherman Ryan Sajot. “In the noontime this place gets flooded, upwards of 50 people,” Sajot said. 

      An elementary school teacher from Clinton, he drives 45 minutes every summer morning to fish. Environmental degradation worries him.

     “We put fertilizers on our lawn, the stuff we use in our house,” he said. “All of those can turn into chemical runoff to the Bay. I think it has an effect on the productivity of the fish.”  

      Sajot said up to one out of three rockfish he’d caught recently have shown signs of disease, sometimes lesions. 

      He credits Maryland Department of Natural Resources with “doing a good job. But I don’t think it’s enough,” he said.

An 18 Percent Solution?

      The fate of the striper is not in just the hands of Mother Nature and Maryland. For eight decades, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has worked with all the Atlantic coastal states to coordinate the conservation and management of 27 near-shore fish species.

     In a planning document last month paving the way for the September meeting, the Commission’s rockfish team summed up where things stand: “The stock is overfished,” they wrote, noting decline in the female spring stock assessment.

       Catch-and-release fishing got part of the blame. “It has been perceived to have a minimal impact on the population,” the rockfish team wrote. “However, a large component of annual striped bass mortality is attributed to release mortality — accounting for roughly 48 percent of total removals in 2017, 49 percent in 2018.

     The rockfish planners have come up with three solutions: 1) Do nothing. 2) An 18 percent reduction in total 2017 harvest both by recreational and commercial fishermen. 3) An 18 percent reduction in harvest with commercial operators taking a smaller hit.

     With the final decision looming, there’s a widespread sense that change is critical. As Friedrich put it: “We can get them to come back, and they can recover quickly. We just have to let them. The other option is a slow descent into darkness.”