Rockfish recovery certified

May 19, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this article.

In what was called a major victory for conservation and the Chesapeake Bay, federal regulators yesterday declared the rockfish fully recovered from the ruinous effects of over-harvesting.

But other East Coast species -- especially shad, bluefish and sea trout -- are in serious trouble, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission said at a meeting in Washington.

The declaration on rockfish affirms what population surveys have shown -- and what veteran skippers have seen in the bay.

"They have been recovered for at least a year and probably longer," said Bruce Scheible, who runs a charter boat business in St. Mary's County near the mouth of the Potomac River.

"The other day down here, there was a school of 10- to 20-pound rockfish four miles long, just moving and feeding on the surface," he said.

But surveys show that other important fish stocks are declining along the Atlantic Coast. The fisheries commission has ordered states to curtail their catch of sea trout by 25 percent, and tough new restrictions on commercial catches of bluefish and shad are being considered.

Rockfish, also called striped bass, are the only population that's "really healthy," said John H. "Jack" Dunnigan, executive director of the commission, which is responsible for fish conservation from Maine to Florida.

In declaring rockfish recovered, the commission cleared the way for a major relaxation next year of the catch restrictions that have protected the species since the early 1980s.

W. Peter Jensen, fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the restoration could have taken even longer. "I don't think anybody anticipated we were going to achieve this great a success in this short a time," he said.

Prized for their fight and flavor, rockfish spawn primarily in the rivers of the upper Chesapeake Bay, though some also reproduce in the Hudson and Delaware rivers and in North Carolina. Most of those from the bay migrate to the ocean and range the Atlantic Coast from Maine to North Carolina until they reach spawning age, 3 to 6 years.

A decade ago, rockfish had been over-harvested nearly to oblivion as a result of the lack of concerted conservation by Atlantic Coast states.

Moratorium in 1985

In 1985, Maryland imposed a fishing moratorium for the species amid plummeting catches and pressure from Congress and sports anglers to take drastic action. Other states followed suit, with bans of their own or catch limits.

Maryland lifted its moratorium in 1990 after a big spawn of young rockfish in the upper Chesapeake, but tight regulation of the fishery has continued. The annual catch quota -- divided among commercial watermen, sports anglers and charter boat captains has grown from less than 1 million pounds the first year of renewed fishing to 2.1 million pounds this year.

Maryland biologists found a record number of newly spawned baby rockfish in the upper bay last summer, and surveys now indicate that the number of spawning rockfish in the Chesapeake is as great as in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Projections indicate that the population will continue to grow by 15 percent a year even if fishing regulations are relaxed, Mr. Jensen said.

"There are more rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay . . . than we have recorded history of," said William Pruitt, chairman of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. "I don't know what the Indians had, but it's unbelievable."

Despite such optimism, conservation will continue, members of the fisheries commission said yesterday. Never again will commercial and sport fishermen have a free hand, because the catch-'em-all philosophy of the 1960s and 1970s devastated the rockfish population.

Recent studies have found that the fish were even closer to disappearing than scientists thought at the time.

"Fishing will [still] be tightly controlled," said Phil Coates, chairman of the commission's striped-bass management board and director of marine fisheries for Massachusetts.

The commission decided to raise the ceiling on rockfish catches in stages starting in 1995. The limit will rise by about 50 percent next year, followed by a similar boost in 1997. Each state is free to act within the limits set by the commission.

"We don't want to move too fast," said Maryland's Mr. Jensen. But he said the commission's action could lead to a doubling of Maryland's fall recreational season next year, to about 90 days, and that the season eventually could reach 120 days.

We deserve this'

"We deserve this because we all have sacrificed as fishermen," said Ed O'Brien, vice president of the Maryland Charterboat Association. "But as we go into a more liberal fishery, we have to be sure that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past."

"This recovery goes to show what can be accomplished if you put the fish first rather than the fishermen," said Richard Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association. "Now we have to do that same thing with the other fisheries out there that are in trouble."

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