ANNAPOLIS -- Our prized rockfish have brought us back to earth just as we prepare to start fishing for them two weeks from today.
The volatile rockfish index has come tumbling down.
But the show must go on, and fishing will resume as scheduled after the five-year moratorium.
There might even be a spring season in 1991, but somewhere in the not-too-distant-future we may have to pay for this year's flop in the Chesapeake's nursery. All this when many thought old silversides was riding the road to recovery.
The bad news came from Department of Natural Resources secretary Torrey C. Brown yesterday, and it was worse than even the most conservative bay watcher had feared. The juvenile index dropped to 2.1, less than 10 percent of what it was last year.
The index, which tracks the spawning success, shows 1990 as the worst since the 1.4 of 1983 played a major role in prompting the moratorium. It's the fourth worst since '54.
The annual index reflects trawl samplings following the spring hatch. It represents the average number of young-of-the-year taken in trawls by fisheries scientists at primary spawning sites. The 1989 index of 25.2 -- the highest since the all-time record of 30.4 in 1970 -- prompted the decision to reopen much of the East Coast's fishery.
All four primary spawning rivers reflected substantial reductions. The bottom fell out of the Choptank River nursery, where the index dropped to 3.1 from 1989's 97.8. In the upper bay it was 3.8 as compared with 19.4. The Potomac was 0.6 as compared with 2.2, and the Nanticoke was 0.9, down from 2.9.
What went wrong? No one knows, Brown admitted, but fisheries scientists are scrambling for clues.
Like last year, there was an abundance of spawning fish, there was another big hatch, and the spawning period lasted longer, which often promises success because the hatch is less vulnerable to adversities prompted by nature. But somewhere between the hatch and the trawls something unknown happened.
Brown suggested that heavier rainfall could have boosted acidification of nursery waters. Salinity changes are another possibility, said Brown, who added "we're trying to find something different this year."
He expressed confidence that resumption of fishing next month will not adversely affect brood stock. The Chesapeake has an abundance of spawners, he stressed, and the management plan for fishing is very conservative, with many built-in safeguards to shut the season down when the predetermined quotas for the sports, recreational and charterboat fisheries are reached.
The impact of this year's crash will first be felt in 1993, when some of this year's stock return to spawn. It will be even greater in 1994.
So there it is in a nutshell. We have a shortage of new rock, but the DNR is not pushing the panic button and it promises to monitor the situation closely.
We can all go fishing as planned, although be prepared for a sudden halt if the catching is too good. Brown predicted charterboaters and commercial fishermen will reach their respective quotas of 112,500 and 318,750 pounds before the season ends Nov. 9.
Recreational fishermen have a quota of 318,750 pounds, and the secretary conceded they could reach it without a halt because of the difficulty in monitoring their catch.
This writer's pocket calculator indicates that if just 60,000 of the potential 200,000 recreational fisherman caught two fish on the long opening weekend, their poundage quota would be met or exceeded. This is based on an anticipated average of 3 pounds per fish, the legal minimum of which will be 18 inches.
If by some stretch of the imagination this occurs, it would take two days at the earliest to close the fishery.
Something else. A recreational angler can catch his limit of two a day, then board a charterboat and catch a charter limit of five a day or vice versa. This will be legal because they will be fishing on different quotas.
Also, the DNR again will consider a request to open fishing for trophy fish in May.