Chesapeake bluefish management plan produces more questions than answers

OUTDOORS

September 16, 1990|By PETER BAKER

ANNAPOLIS -- In the Draft Chesapeake Bay Bluefish Management Plan discussed at a public meeting here the other night, there is a single line under a section called "fishery parameters" that sums up the problem before those charged with preserving and ensuring the propagation of the species -- "Status of exploitation: Fully exploited."

Also within the fishery parameters section of the document is the apparent explanation of the problem: Approximately 90 percent of the bluefish harvested in Maryland waters are caught by sport fishermen.

So, managing the Maryland fishery might seem as simple as clamping down on the recreational hook-and-liners and the charter boat industry by establishing a creel limit, which is proposed at 10 fish per day per recreational fisherman or charter boat customer starting in 1991.

Maryland's 8-inch size limit will remain in effect.

But then the problem is not so simple as it might seem, and one might put the blame for that on the bluefish itself.

The bluefish is a mysterious creature, even in the latter stages of the 20th century, when men have walked on the moon and probes have been sent toward the limits of our solar system -- when we can build an atomic clock, but cannot precisely say what makes a bluefish tick.

The bluefish is a highly migratory fish at the top of its food chain, a voracious feeder and a strong fighter that is highly prized by sport fishermen from Cape Cod south along the coast. But for all its reputation in the sporting world, its value in the commercial industry is limited, and it has not been the subject of intensive study by great numbers of marine biologists.

Under the auspices of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement signed in 1987, the bluefish became a target for a Chesapeake Bay Program fishery management plan to protect the resource against exploitation. At this stage in the development of the plan, there appear to be far more questions about the bluefish than answers.

*What are the annual estimates of catch and effort in the commercial and recreational industries?

*What is the makeup of the annual commercial and recreational catch in terms of age, length and sex?

*What is the proportion of waste, or discarded fish, in the commercial and recreational catches?

*What are the effects of hooking mortality by gear type and fish size in relation to implementation of proposed creel and size limits in the recreational fishery?

*What are the principal environmental factors that affect year class strength?

The answers to those questions are among the information needed to determine why bluefish are abundant in the Chesapeake Bay or along the Atlantic coast one year and less abundant in another, and to determine the effectiveness of creel limits or size restrictions.

Without knowing the answers, the business of managing a fishery becomes a learning process -- for fishermen and fishery managers.

Stabilization of the fishery through a creel limit is the first step in the learning process.

"In the case of bluefish," said William P. Jensen, director of fisheries for the Department of Natural Resources Tidewater Administration, "I think it is sort of a let's-hold-the-line plan.

"It has two elements to it. One is that it is a predominantly recreational fishery, and it has a lot of value that way ....

"The other issue is that since it is a recreational fish, creel limit is probably the most apparent way to try to control or level out the take of recreational people."

If there were any doubt about whether controls are needed, take a look at some of the recreational fishery statistics gathered from federal and state agencies by the management work group that formulated the draft plan.

*Bluefish catches along the coast have ranked first among sport fish in number and weight in almost every year since 1970.

*Inland waters (bays, sounds, estuaries) have accounted for almost half of the catch during the past eight years.

*Since 1979, the bluefish recreational catch has averaged nearly 124 million pounds annually.

*The highest harvest occurred in 1980, with 153 million pounds, and, by 1987, the harvest had dropped to 109 million pounds.

*The recreational catch per angler trip peaked at 1.49 fish per trip in 1981 and dropped to 0.42 fish per trip in 1988.

*A juvenile index generated from a recent National Marine Fisheries Service inshore trawl survey indicated that natural reproduction was highly variable, but not in decline. The survey also indicated that no strong year class has been produced since 1984.

The goal of the bluefish plan is to protect and monitor the bluefish in the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries and coastal waters and to provide for the greatest long-term ecological, economic and social benefits from the resources.

For that plan to work, fishermen and fishery managers, it seems, will have to do a lot of learning and adjusting -- and a 10-fish-per-day creel limit that would avoid further overfishing and promote conservation seems a good place to start.

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