A cautious consensus is developing that Maryland's limit on rockfish harvests is working. One indicator is this season's quota -- just over 1 million pounds, up from 750,000 pounds last fall. While a far cry from the plentiful yields of the late '70s, this expanded allocation suggests an eventual return to normalcy.
There are other reasons for optimism: The minimum size limit for fishermen -- 18 rather than 28 inches -- is the smallest on the East Coast and state fishery officials report near-record levels of migratory rockfish, (elsewhere known as striped bass) in Maryland waters.
Less encouraging is the below average proportions of the 1991 young of the year index -- 4.4 compared to an average of about 8.6 -- but fishery managers are heartened by other measures of spawning fish, the number of rockfish appearing in new river systems and the general abundance of stripers in the 8-inch to 17-inch range. If the pattern continues, quotas could in time double, putting harvests in line with the 2 million pound catches of 1979 and 1980.
State fishery managers are congratulating themselves, deservedly, for their role in reviving this once-threatened species. The challenge now lies in tempering this early success with conservative management. There doubtless will be pressure to ease restrictions now that a rebound appears to be under way.
One obvious cause for caution is this year's less-than-spectacular spawning season. Based on the flourishing number of adult stripers this spring, scientists expected a robust spawn. It didn't happen and no one seems to know why. What is known -- even by those who strenuously resisted the ban imposed in 1985 -- is that aggressive limits on harvesting work.
The rockfish has become symbolic of the trouble facing other denizens of the bay, most notably oysters. There has been much resistance to a moratorium on these bivalves from watermen and from state fishery officials. But a growing body of evidence points, at the very least, toward stricter limits. A recent study from a team of University of Maryland researchers, for example, implicates overfishing, not pollution and disease, in the decimation of the bay oyster population. There are compelling arguments on both sides of the moratorium issue. As the debate continues to unfold, however, it becomes increasingly clear that controls on the harvests of the bay's bounty are essential to guarding these precious and irreplaceable resources.