Cold front moves in on rockfish Weather, politics spawn poor outlook


April 25, 1993|By PETER BAKER

As last week started, the prospects for rockfish fishing seemed especially bright. The spring, though late and wet, finally was rounding into form for a good spawn, and the state Department of Natural Resources had a plan that would increase the fall striper season in the Chesapeake Bay to 45 days.

By the end of the week, DNR's plan had been voted down by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and the weather had thrown a potentially dangerous curve at the rockfish spawn.

DNR -- after an innovative, five-month tagging study with the ASMFC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- felt it had found a way to estimate more accurately the catch rate for its fall season.

Under this new system, DNR said in its proposal to the ASMFC Striped Bass Technical Committee last week, it would be possible to manage the fall recreational season directly from the catch rate.

And if that were so, then Maryland recreational and charter fishermen were entitled to a larger quota of fish -- 40 percent more -- and a 45-day season between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30.

The proposal was voted down, 14-2.

According to ASMFC and DNR sources, those who voted against the proposal believed the five-month, mark-and-recapture study was too short and needed another year for fine tuning to ensure precise measurements of striper mortality.

Then there was this comment noted in a DNR document: "[The study] appears to be technically sound, but is premature. [It] also complicates situation with bordering jurisdictions."

Read that to mean that Maryland is way out in front of the pack in fisheries management, and the other states represented on the ASMFC are worried that Maryland, the nursery for the far greater part of the Atlantic Coast population of striped bass, finally will get its fair share.

In Maryland waters, unlike most other areas along the Atlantic Coast, there are two segments of the rockfish population, those that come in to spawn each spring and then rejoin the migratory coastal population, and those that are yet too young to leave the bay and its tributaries.

The pre-migratory fish are those that are targeted in the fall fishery, and until they reach the age of 4 or 5, they are generally unavailable to fishermen in other states.

The target in the spring trophy fishery, which begins Saturday, is the mature fish that come into the bay late each winter and then cruise up rivers to spawn in zones where freshwater and saltwater interface.

This spring, the weather has been wet and cold, and the spawn has been delayed while the waters warm to optimal spawning temperatures of 55 to 60 degrees.

If there is a danger in a spring such as this, it is primarily that the eggs and larvae are subject to quick drops in water temperature.

"Let's say we get a number of sunny days and the water temperature comes up around 55 degrees," William P. Jensen, director of tidewater fisheries for DNR, said Tuesday. "You have a big spawn and then a cold front comes through with thunderstorms, where the water temperature might be reduced by 8 to 10 degrees. It is going to wipe out everything."

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, such weather blasted through, with nighttime temperatures bottoming out in the upper 30s and daytime temperatures barely edging out of the 50s.

The passing of the cold fronts was but a single surge in spring of pulsating weather. Will it have a noticeable effect on the spawn?

"Probably not," Jensen said Friday. "To this point, we have seen no evidence of a major spawn. We are fortunate that the warmer days of spring have been late."

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