Rockfish take could double if Amendment 5 is adopted


February 15, 1994|By PETER BAKER

In January 1985, Maryland initiated a moratorium on fishing for striped bass in its waters. In January 1995, it is likely that the framework for managing a recovered fishery will be in place.

The framework, Amendment 5 to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Striped Bass Fisheries Management Plan, represents the final step in what so far has been a 15-year battle to save the rockfish.

"The purpose of preparing Amendment 5 is to take us into managing the coastal population under a recovered stocks status," said Steve Early, until recently special assistant to the director of Tidewater Fisheries in the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "We are still in a recovery mode."

Judging by the way the ASMFC worked with Amendment 4 to the management plan, fishermen in Maryland and in the other Eastern coastal states probably can expect good things to happen in fairly quick order once an amendment is in place.

Amendment 4, which paved the way for the re-opening of the fishery in the fall of 1990, was adopted the previous autumn. If Amendment 5 is adopted in January next year, it is possible the 1995 fall fishery may be doubled in some respects.

"So this isn't something that is 10 years away," said Early, who now is special assistant to the director of DNR's Freshwater Fisheries Division. "This is an immediate thing for us to be concerned about."

To fishermen, the adoption of Amendment 5 may represent the possibility of fishing at a 40 percent harvest rate rather than the 20 percent allowed under Amendment 4. But the new framework also places new emphasis on the methods by which rockfish health and abundance are calculated.

For a couple of years, DNR has been making a case for fishery management based on annual mortality, which would put less emphasis on, but not ignore, such traditional triggers as the young of the year index.

"We wanted to look at spawning stock biomass -- how many individuals are there in the stock, how many potential spawners are there," Early said. "We are now looking to move beyond that a little bit and get real heavy into managing by biomass."

The reason that biomass becomes especially important in managing a recovered stock is that egg production or spawning potential is directly related to weight. A 5-year-old, six-pound female in its first spawning season, for example, will produce about 425,000 eggs. A 50-pound female will produce about 4.2 million eggs.

"Every fish has a weight," Early said. "If you could multiply all those weights times each one of those fish and add them up, what you get is biomass, the weight of the population.

"This translates into numbers of eggs, your spawning potential," he said.

Part of the groundwork for building Amendment 5 includes determining what level of biomass indicates a recovered stock of rockfish.

Fishery managers will continue to look at the fishing mortality rates, the juvenile index and indicators of health and abundance, but once spawning stock biomass can be established, it might become the most accurate indicator.

"It is the thing that is going to tell us, you are in a recovered mode and you can fish at 40 percent; you're not in a recovered mode and you have to drop back to something else," Early said.

"We are looking at a doubling of the allowable fishery under recovered stock status," Early said.

If the possibility of doubling the quotas for recreational, charter-boat and commercial fishermen brings to mind the collapse and eventual closure of the rockfish fishery in the 1980s, consider a few more things:

* ASMFC studies are under way to try to combine the juvenile indexes from coastal states from North Carolina to Maine, including North Carolina and New York, which Early said are not considered as contributing to the coastal population.

* Maryland continues to allow only an extremely conservative fishery for rockfish, and a doubling of a conservative fishery on a rapidly expanding stock of fish continues to be a conservative fishery.

* Maryland's current take is less than half of its historical take from the fishery. And in numbers of fish taken, what traditionally had been close to 90 percent of the coastal harvest has been changed significantly. The reason is that there are now regulations applying to smaller, premigratory fish (fall season) and larger, migratory fish (spring season) in Maryland.

"We harvested many more individuals and the lion's share of the weight," Early said. "The reason we did is that we were fishing on both small and large fish.

"When you start off, you don't have much weight, but you have scads of numbers, and it is is very impressive to harvest a million fish, but they weigh only a million pounds. Those same fish, if you delay harvest, will be fewer in number but contribute a much greater percentage of weight in terms of the catch."

The larger fish are extremely more important in terms of spawning stock biomass.

"Currently, Maryland is not even harvesting, to speak of, the largest part of the stock, the coastal migratory stock. . . . What we are taking is not excessive by any measure," Early said.

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