Rebound of the Rockfish

August 29, 1993

By any measure, this has been a record year for the hatch of rockfish. The state's testing nets are bulging with the 2-inch babies and their counts are soaring off the charts.

The unexpected bounty of young rock, or striped bass, extends to nearly all parts of the bay and tributaries: clammers pick them up in dredges, sport fishermen can't avoid hooking them. All this for a princely fish that was greatly endangered and protected by a Maryland moratorium for five years until 1990. The Chesapeake nursery has rebounded with unaccountable generosity.

All of which leads to the conclusion that Maryland's autumn fishing season should be extended beyond last year's 34 days to harvest this natural bounty. While Maryland enforced a rockfish ban from 1985 through 1989, more northern states continued to fish for the older, larger rockfish that migrated along the East Coast.

Nature's whimsy often makes fools of man, so caution is always warranted in interpreting the scientific surveys of aquatic life. We respect that prudence. But the accumulated evidence of recent years strongly justifies an extended Maryland season for the official state fish that provides great sport and even grander gourmet eating.

This year's spawn will not be legal size for three years. Yet mature rock have been hooked in abundance in the Susquehanna and other tributaries out of season.

This state has done an admirable job of nurturing and protecting the threatened rockfish from pollution and overfishing. It has been conservative in resuming the season for commercial and sport fishermen, permitting only 10 days of limited fishing three years ago.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission met last week to craft a plan to allow expanded fishing in Maryland in the fall. Although details are to be worked out, the thrust should be a 40 percent increase in the allowable pounds of catch of rockfish for Maryland anglers this year.

That increase is a well-merited reward for conservation measures that have paid off. But if the fish counts should again turn pessimistic, and the cornucopia of the Chesapeake should shrink, Maryland can be expected to be a leader in adjusting its appetite to the dictates of nature.

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