Bluefish require regulation, too


August 10, 1993|By PETER BAKER

Sunday evening at dusk, the calm edge of the tide rip at Tolly Point was a busy place. Gulls rose and fell and screeched. Panicked baitfish cleared the surface, herded into the shallow water atop the bar by larger fish feeding eagerly.

A few fishing boats idled beneath the birds on the edges of the frenzy, and some fishermen cast and caught while others simply watched.

For more than a week each evening the scene had been repeated.

The fishermen, surrounded by acres of rockfish, are faced with a dilemma: Should one cast hoping to catch a bluefish and risk mortally injuring a rockfish, or should one move on and pass up the certainty of catching some kind of fish?

From a fisherman's standpoint, neither is a desirable choice. Fishermen go fishing to catch fish, but we also are to abide by state laws forbidding fishing for rockfish at this time of year.

There is no catch-and-release season for stripers in areas of the bay and its tributaries controlled by Maryland -- and again this year there are darned few bluefish north of the lower Middle Grounds below the mouth of the Potomac River.

On the one hand we are confronted with seemingly large numbers of rockfish that cannot be fished, and on the other we are free to take 10 per day of any bluefish we can find over 8 inches long.

It is an odd situation that fishermen and fisheries managers would like to sort out.

A recent Department of Natural Resources Tidewater Administration issue paper asks the question: What would you do differently to increase bluefish stocks in Maryland?

Given the success Maryland has had with rockfish, it might seem that a model program for species replenishment exists:

Shut down the fishery for five years, clean up the spawning reaches of bay tributaries, stock hundreds of thousands of hatchery fish to supplement natural spawning and once a population estimate reaches a predetermined level, reopen the fishery in tightly controlled stages, thereby ensuring continued recovery.

The trouble is that, although rockfish and blues share the same bay waters, their life cycle and habits are vastly different.

Rockfish are born in the bay's rivers and stay within the estuary until they are old enough to join the coastal migratory stock, after which they will return to the rivers of the bay to spawn. Rockfish are compelled to be a part of the Chesapeake Bay, and as such are a species that can be closely studied and tightly managed here.

Bluefish spawn offshore over the continental shelf and their larvae drift into warm, shallow waters along the Atlantic Coast and into its estuaries, where the young can grow to 8 inches by the fall.

Adult bluefish move north along the Atlantic Coast in spring and south in the fall, and rising or falling water temperature and increasing (spring) or decreasing (fall) hours of daylight are thought to be the primary triggers of migration.

While an estimated 75 percent of the rockfish along the Atlantic Coast are compelled to return to the Chesapeake Bay, the bluefish can take a left turn north of Cape Hatteras into the bay or they can head on to New England waters. Whichever direction they choose, they must move steadily north as the hours of daylight increase.

One theory about the blues, especially the larger fish that used to invade the bay each spring, is that the Chesapeake has discharged an inordinate amount of cold water into the Atlantic in several of the past few years, creating a thermal barrier that the bluefish skirt to seaward.

Another theory is that the rockfish have crowded out the blues.

Biologists say there are not enough facts on hand to validate either theory.

A popular theory with recreational fishermen is that commercial fishermen have scooped the waters clean of blues. The commercial fisherman, of course, lays a lot of blame on the recreational fisherman.

According to the management plan approved by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in March 1990, the commercial catch over a nine-year period ending in 1987 averaged only 10 percent of the combined recreational and commercial catch.

So, how might one better manage the bluefish?

The four standard management tools are: introduction of new species, stocking, protective regulations and habitat restoration.

The introduction of a new species does not apply, and stocking? Well, perhaps anything is possible.

Protective regulations -- 8-inch minimum and 10 per day, when available -- already are in place, and habitat restoration has been going on for 10 years.

Still, Maryland needs the help of the coastal states on a coordinated management plan that could do for the bluefish what has been done for the rockfish.

Not a moratorium, but a conservative limitation of catch to ensure that there still will be big bluefish to make the left turn north of Hatteras and into Chesapeake Bay.

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