As Chesapeake Bay fishery goes south, look south to cause of some problems


September 22, 1991|By PETER BAKER

Striped bass, bluefish and American shad already have come under fisheries management plans that are expected to preserve and propagate the species. Sea trout and spotted sea trout are the latest species about to become the beneficiaries of a designer lifestyle.

And this is good, for sea trout, or weakfish, in particular is a popular food fish for recreational fishermen in the southern waters of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay.

Unfortunately for the sea trout -- and as is the case with bluefish, American shad and rockfish -- before getting to Maryland waters, where some form of reasonable protection might be afforded, they first must pass through the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake.

Given the active commercial fisheries in the Atlantic below the Chesapeake Bay and in the lower bay, it sometimes comes as a surprise that any fish get through.

As, an example, take the sea trout.

The weakfish ranges along the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Massachusetts and sometimes as far north as Nova Scotia, migrating north and inshore each spring and south and offshore each fall.

The Chesapeake Bay comes into play in the spring, when adult sea trout move into its bays, sounds and rivers to spawn.

Once the spawn is complete, many of the adult fish move again offshore and the bay and its tributaries become a nursery area for juvenile sea trout.

In a normal year, sea trout abundance is from the Choptank south on the Eastern Shore and from the Patuxent south on the Western Shore. In a year such as this has been -- with low rainfall and high salinity in bay waters -- the range is expanded northward.

Statistics on recreational and commercial catches of weakfish are not as complete as those for rockfish, for example, but the stats that do exist seem to tell a disappointing story.

* The combined recreational and commercial catch for weakfish from the Atlantic Coast has declined from 80 million pounds in 1980 to 20 million pounds in 1989.

* In 1980, about 5.5 million pounds were taken from the bay, but over the past few years the catch has been around 1.7 million pounds, with Virginia accounting for 80 to 90 percent of the catch in recent years.

* Over the past 10 years, Maryland hasn't harvested more than 500,000 pounds.

* The recreational fishery alone along the coast and including the bay has declined from a high of some 42 million pounds in 1980 to 2.5 million pounds in 1989.

* Current estimates suggest that 52 percent of the weakfish stock is being harvested annually, with the greatest increase in mortality occurring since 1987.

* Trawl surveys indicate that there has been reduction of juveniles and a lack of strong year class since 1978.

So, something certainly is wrong somewhere, and something certainly must be done.

Ask a charter-boat captain or a local fisherman about the sea trout runs in the Crisfield area. You are as likely to get a dirty look as an answer.

If you get an answer, it most likely will have some pointed reference to fishing practices that are allowed just south of town, where a line drawn on a political map marks the Virginia-Maryland border.

One of the problems identified in the study that produced the weakfish management plan is the killing of juvenile sea trout in nets used to catch other species -- menhaden in Virginia waters, for example, or in shrimp nets off the coast.

In Maryland waters, the commercial fishery for sea trout is negligible, apparently because there no longer are enough sea trout around to make it worthwhile.

In order to ensure that there once again might be enough sea trout around for recreational and commercial fishermen, a balance must be struck between protecting the fish and allowing a number of fish of suitable size to be caught -- in effect, establishing a size of fish that might guarantee a resurgence of successful reproduction.

Maryland and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission are prepared to go from a 10-inch minimum size to a 12-inch limit, and apparently are willing to look closely at possible creel limits.

Virginia proposes to maintain its 9-inch minimum size.

So, the bulk of the sea trout population in the Chesapeake Bay, presumably those fish with the most reproductive potential, will be subjected to the smallest size limit -- all of which makes it easier for netters to maintain smaller mesh size and catch more bait fish at the expense of the sea trout -- or bluefish or stripers or shad or whatever creature might be gathered in.

The management plans for these migratory species are formulated under the Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which was signed in 1987 by Maryland, District of Columbia, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

In theory, the agreement was a joint commitment to the preservation and propagation of species important to recreational and commercial fishermen in the bay and its rivers -- a commitment that eventually would look at managing these species without regard to political boundaries.

In theory, what is 12 inches in Maryland waters and the Potomac River also should be 12 inches in Virginia waters.

One has to wonder when -- if ever -- Virginia is going to get with

the program.

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