Hordes of baby rockfish in bay are the biggest crop in 40 years Bounty pits anglers against watermen

September 12, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

Favorable spring weather and careful conservation have produced the Chesapeake Bay's biggest crop of baby rockfish in 40 years, Maryland natural resources officials said last week.

With their annual survey for juvenile fish nearly finished, state biologists have tallied record numbers of 2-inch rockfish, also called striped bass, in major spawning grounds in the upper bay.

That is good news not only to fishermen but also to government officials, scientists and environmentalists. The baby boom provides evidence that the 10-year-old bay restoration effort is starting to reverse the harm done by decades of pollution, development and overfishing.

This summer's rockfish bounty shows that tight fishing restrictions, imposed all along the East Coast for nine years, have brought a severely depleted species back from the brink of oblivion.

"I've been waiting 10 years for this," said Paul Perra, assistant director of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a federal agency that oversees interstate efforts to restore striped bass and other species.

"If [the bumper crop of 1993] is managed right, it will take us into the next century," Mr. Perra said, alluding to the fact that rockfish mature in three years and live 20 or more.

The challenge now, he and others said, is to preserve the abundance and use the knowledge gained with rockfish to revive other faltering fisheries.

Poor reproduction and plummeting commercial harvests in the 1970s and early 1980s led Maryland to impose a five-year fishing moratorium in 1985 on the rockfish, which is prized for its fight and flavor. Other East Coast states also curtailed catches to protect the migratory species, which spawns mainly in the Chesapeake but roams the ocean from Maine to North Carolina.

A near-record spawn in 1989 prompted Maryland to resume fishing, but restrictions have continued.

This year's survey, in which biologists at times hauled in hundreds of baby rockfish, has confirmed the observations of anglers, charter boat skippers and watermen, who have said for months that rockfish were so thick in the bay that it was difficult to catch anything else.

"It's unbelievable," said Ed O'Brien, a charter skipper in Chesapeake Beach. "Next to every boat, off of every dock, all you have to do is dangle a little piece of crab in the water and all these hordes of little rockfish come up."

Using a 100-foot seine, Maryland biologists sample for juvenile fish every July, August and September at 22 shallow-water locations in the upper bay and in the Choptank, Nanticoke and Potomac rivers.

The state's "young of the year" index -- the average number of baby rockfish caught in each haul of the net -- has given biologists a yardstick of spawning success since 1954, the first year of the survey.

The final index for 1993 won't be known until state biologists finish sampling the upper bay on Tuesday and compile the results.

But the final, overall average is expected to exceed 35 fish per seine haul and may reach 40, said Donald Cosden, who runs the survey for the Department of Natural Resources.

The previous record spawn occurred in 1970, when state biologists got slightly more than 30 baby rockfish on average every time they pulled in the net.

"Overall, it's real encouraging," Mr. Cosden said Friday, after he and his helpers caught 350 baby rockfish in two hauls of their net at Rock Point in Charles County on the lower Potomac River.

While spawning has been unevenly distributed throughout the bay in recent years, the number of young this year is up in all four areas sampled, with the Choptank leading the way largely on the strength of a record 1,122 little rockfish collected in a single sample at Castle Haven in Dorchester County.

Even the Nanticoke, which has not produced many young rockfish for years, is showing the best spawning success in more than a decade.

Good reproduction also has been reported in Virginia, Delaware, North Carolina and New York. But because the Chesapeake Bay is the major nursery for all East Coast striped bass, Maryland's "young of the year" survey is closely watched by anglers and fisheries managers throughout the Northeast and mid-Atlantic.

Expectations of a record helped persuade the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission last month to allow Maryland to increase its annual quota of rockfish from 1.6 million pounds to about 2.3 million pounds.

This spring apparently produced good spawns of other fish as well. State biologists say their net has caught more perch and herring than usual -- and even American and hickory shad.

Though the the baby boom for rockfish is welcome news, bickering already has begun between recreational and commercial fishermen over who should benefit.

Maryland sports anglers complain that charter captains are getting favored treatment in the state's proposal to expand fishing for striped bass this fall.

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