Rockfish count in Maryland the lowest since 1983

September 21, 1990|By Phillip Davis | Phillip Davis,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- Fewer striped bass were spawned in Maryland waters this year than in any year since 1983, but scientists predicted that the species would continue its comeback.

Despite results of the state's annual juvenile rockfish survey released yesterday, the fishing season for rockfish, as the striped bass are called, will still begin Oct. 5, Natural Resources Secretary Torrey C. Brown said at a news conference. The sport fishing season will continue until Nov. 9, or until 637,500 pounds of the fish are caught.

"People have waited for five years, and they've been very responsible," Mr. Brown. "I think there's going to be a whole host of people fishing" on Oct. 5, he said.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation didn't object to the opening of this year's season, but said the 1991 season should be delayed until the health of the stock of rockfish after this season could be measured.

At 22 locations around the bay, Department of Natural Resources workers came up with only an average of 2.1 rockfish young per sample during the year, most recently on Sept. 10. That compares with a high average of 25.2 netted last year and a long-term average of 8.7.

Since the Chesapeake is the spawning ground for most of the rockfish along the Atlantic Coast, the state's annual survey has become the major tool for managing the species.

Mr. Brown professed not to be worried by the low count. "Last year's index was high, and this year's was very low, but that often happens," he said.

In general, he said, there has been a fivefold increase in the numbers of rockfish swimming in the bay. DNR samplers have found "remarkable," "huge" and "gigantic" numbers of year-old rockfish swimming in the bay's waters, leading them to conclude that last year's high index was not a statistical fluke.

State officials offered a number of guesses why a long spawning season and vigorous spawning activity didn't produce a corresponding number of fingerlings.

The two most often mentioned were the unusually rainy spring and summer -- 4.5 inches over normal since April. Scientists think that pollution-tainted rain might have made the bay's waters too acidic for the rockfish roe to survive.

Rainstorms also can lower the temperature of the bay, and a drop of 10 degrees, even for one day, could have killed off a number of the rockfish fingerlings, said W. Peter Jensen, director of DNR's fisheries program.

Finally the large numbers of 1-year-old fish took some of the blame -- they sometimes eat the fingerlings, officials said.

"One thing we've found is that there is no single smoking gun," Mr. Jensen said. "You just can't nail any reason down."

Beyond environmental factors, however, there are signs of trouble suggesting a delay in the 1991 fishing season might be wise, said Bill Goldsborough, a staff scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

For example, the number of fish killed inadvertently is higher than once thought and the number of rockfish caught legally during both the sport and commercial seasons might be as high as 750,000 pounds.

Cary DeRussy, the publisher of Fishing In Maryland magazine, ++ said that most anglers were cautiously optimistic about the health of the rockfish stock.

"The rockfish are all over the bay. You'll be out trolling, and you'll catch eight or 10 and throw them back," he said.

"I think there should be a season -- but it will be over in a week," he said because of the massive numbers of anglers who will be out fishing for rockfish for the first time since 1985, when catching them was made illegal.

Col. Frank Wood of the DNR police said his officers will be out in force when the season opens. Anyone caught taking more than the legal haul -- two rockfish for recreational fishermen and five rockfish for members of charter boat parties -- will be subject to fines of up to $1,500 for each fish over the limit, confiscation of equipment, license revocation and even prison terms.

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