Rockfish on the Line

September 10, 1990

The Department of Natural Resources has decided correctly to allow sports fishermen to take rockfish from the Chesapeake Bay, Oct. 5 to Nov. 9. Commercial fishing fleets question the wisdom of lifting the DNR's five-year ban. Their concern is a recent survey of this year's rockfish spawn, which was below average.

Yet the DNR offers appealing reasons for opening Maryland's Chesapeake waters to rockfish anglers. The bay is loaded with rockfish, which are also known as striped bass. Though this year's spawn is undersized, only mature rockfish can be caught. The most practical reason for lifting the ban is that so many rockfish have already been hooked and badly injured by fishermen unable to identify them until they are reeled in. Even when sportsmen discover their mistakes, many of the fish die of stress when released back into the water. Such errors are easily made in the bay, where many other species are fair game throughout much of the year. State conservation officials recognize that fish caught by sportsmen might just as well be kept if their injuries prevent survival.

Those who object to renewed fishing for striped bass are concerned about the disappointing number of new fingerlings counted in this year's spawn. Yet the dip in the 1990 class was expected. William Richkus, a striped bass expert and a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, says, "The fact that we have a low index doesn't mean we have a major crisis, and we have to do something." Such dips in rockfish production frequently have occurred following an abundant spawn the previous year.

Groups monitoring bay conservation are not alarmed about lifting the ban, which is reviewed annually. They see no setback in restocking the species as long as the state continues to keep close tabs on the rockfish counts. After last year's bumper spawn, a restricted rockfish season doesn't seem unreasonable. But next year's season -- if there is one -- will depend on the 1991 count. Another mediocre spawn, or worse, could mean a renewed rockfish ban in the bay.

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