Bay's bumper bass spawn stuns biologists

TOM HORTON

August 14, 1993|By TOM HORTON

The net is set, then pulled, sieving the shallows of the Choptank River in anticipation of the baby striped bass, or rockfish, that will tell the success or failure of this spring's spawning.

Even a dozen of the 2-inch "young of year" would be a satisfying haul for state Department of Natural Resources biologists -- well above the average of around eight baby stripers per sample their survey has averaged since 1954.

If the rockfish in their spawning had gotten obscenely lucky, as they do in certain, rare summers, the net might hold a few hundred.

This morning, though, is unlike anything the biologists can remember. The net comes up almost solid stripers. Spread on the beach, the little fish pack an area nearly 10 square feet. A count records 1,122.

Nature, combined with a courageous conservation effort led by Maryland, has given the Chesapeake Bay a jolt of prized life that should ensure good fishing from Maine to North Carolina for well into the next century.

How good is this year's historic striper spawn? The official index of spawning success requires DNR to haul its 100-foot sampling net a total of six times at each of 22 locations in major rockfish rivers around the bay-- a process that is only half complete.

But consider that the single, incredible haul I witnessed at Castle Haven on the Choptank last Monday would make for a respectable index of spawning success even if DNR did not catch a single young striper anywhere else the rest of the summer.

And that haul, while in a class by itself among anything ever recorded, by no means looks flukey. "I've been waiting 20 years for a year like this," says biologist Jim Uphoff, who at 39 is the same age as the survey.

"We have only had one sampling site on the whole bay where we didn't catch young rockfish . . . I find that more astounding than the number [1,122] we just caught," says his colleague, Don Cosden.

Auxiliary surveys run this year by DNR, which do not count in the official index, are turning up giant quantities of little rock along the shores of rivers that aren't even significant spawning areas -- the Patuxent, Wye and polluted Curtis Creek off Baltimore Harbor. (Remember that next time anyone wants to fill in harbor shoreline, claiming it is environmentally worthless.)

Clammers report seeing hordes of little stripers flipping on the belts of dredges, and kids are catching the fish in their minnow traps off the shoreline in Edgewater.

A magical spring for fish

It seems, moreover, to have been a magical spring for fish in general in their spawning throughout a lot of the bay, says Mr. Cosden. DNR keeps track of dozens of species besides rockfish -- from little mummichog minnows to 40-pound rays.

Indeed, one way to appreciate the abundance and diversity of the Chesapeake is to watch all that comes up in a single haul of DNR's little net, covering a one-fifth of an acre of shoreline shallows. In your mind, expand that patch of water by the bay's nearly 9,000 miles of shoreline.

The babies of the great Chesapeake rockfish boom of 1993 will, by 1996, be nearing 18 inches and 3 pounds, legal catching size in Maryland. By the turn of the century, they will be maybe 3 feet long, 10-12 pounds and starting to migrate, delighting surf fishermen through New Jersey and New England.

With proper conservation, many will still be returning annually to the Chesapeake to spawn in the year 2020, by then weighing 50 pounds, with potential to reach a hundred or more.

There will be, in the months to come, lots of celebration surrounding the rockfish, and consideration of relaxing some of the current restrictions on catching them -- all rightly so.

Tracking progress

What ought to be just as celebrated is the index itself, which comprises one of the richest and rarest sets of long-term data on any estuary in the world. Without it, there likely would have been no rockfish worth indexing.

The reason is that nature in general, and estuaries like the bay in particular, show huge normal variation from year to year. Without long-term monitoring, it is impossible to sort out natural influences from human impacts, normal cycles from ominous trends.

From 1954 when state biologists Ed Hollis and Harold Davis began it, the index remained virtually unnoticed by anyone outside a few fisheries experts for 20 years. And why not? During that time, commercial rockfish harvests in the bay climbed, from a few million pounds to nearly 8 million.

The index showed that spawning success was excellent to phenomenal in seven of the years between 1954 and 1970, when it hit an index average of 30, the greatest ever recorded.

Joe Boone, retired now on his Carroll County farm, took over the survey in 1958 and ran it for nearly 30 years. He says, "We `D weren't even thinking of it as specifically for rockfish during the [1950s and 1960s]." Everything that showed up in the net was counted, and the data filed away.

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