Striper's tag brings good news

OUTDOORS

May 22, 1994|By PETER BAKER

The tag, slipped through the gill and snapped into place minutes before, read 1994 MD-DNR Trophy 127680, an embossed plastic band that marked the year and general location of the striper's capture.

But what of its history? What, if any, special significance could be attached to a 38-plus inch, female rockfish that had, out of habit, taken a swipe at what probably had seemed the white belly of a baitfish and had unluckily been caught by a large, white spoon instead.

If, as some studies have shown, rockfish do return to the areas of their birth to spawn, then the location of the catch -- just south of the Bay Bridge -- begins to tell us something.

If statistical averages are accurate, then the length, weight and sex of the striper begin to tell us a little more.

And if a little odds-making is allowed, then for more than a decade Trophy 127680 was indeed a lucky fish, after all.

By length, weight (almost 29 pounds) and sex, Trophy 127680 was barely into its 13th year, a product of the 1982 class.

By location of the catch, north of the spawning reaches of the bay tributaries below the bridge, the striper probably was

spawned in the upper bay or its tributaries, the Chester, Sassafras or Susquehanna rivers, for example.

That Trophy 127680 grew from egg to prolarva to postlarva to a young fish in 1982 is not so much of a surprise in itself. In that year the juvenile index, an annual statistical measure of spawning success, was 5.5 for the upper bay, a low count, but almost five times as good as the year before.

But the 1982 class also became the spawn that eventually was targeted by biologists to be saved in Maryland waters until at least 95 percent of its females had spawned at least once.

For the first two or three years of its life, Trophy 127680 would have followed the pattern of Chesapeake stripers, growing in its natal river, then moving to open bay waters in summer and concentrating in deep holes for the winter.

But later in its life, Trophy 127680 would have undergone a change in behavior, joining the adult stripers that spend their late springs, summers and early autumns in migrations along the Atlantic Coast.

After a southerly migration in autumn, the rockfish would have wintered off the Virginia and Carolina capes, and not for as many as six years would the Chesapeake Bay become a stopover in the cycle during the spawning season each following spring.

But through those early years, Trophy 127680 benefited from increased minimum size limits and the rockfish moratorium, which was implemented in 1985 by Gov. Harry Hughes, and which provided five years of almost complete protection for striped bass in Maryland waters.

Although the males from that 1982 class may have joined the spawn in as many as nine years since, Trophy 127680 was slower to develop. But certainly it had joined the spawn at least in each of the past three springs and probably more.

In the years since rockfish seasons were reopened in 1990, the impact of the restrictive fishing in other bay and coastal waters and the Maryland moratorium has been felt from North Carolina to Canada's Maritime Provinces.

That Trophy 127680 spawned again this year is a good sign.

In the middle of last week, the Atlantic Coast population of rockfish was declared a recovered fishery as of Jan. 1, 1995, and in the years ahead management plans will gradually loosen their hold on Maryland fishermen.

The recent approval of catch-and-release fishing for rockfish is one example of a more liberal attitude made possible by the recovery of the rockfish.

The coming changes are the result of intensive efforts by Pete Jensen and DNR's Tidewater Administration personnel. Steve Early, Harley Speirs and Ben Florence are but a few of the many who have worked through a decade to bring the rockfish back.

Charter boat captains, recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, fish packers, tackle manufacturers and tackle shop owners all have been represented on citizens' advisory boards that have worked with DNR through the recovery.

Ed O'Brien, Fred Meers, Buddy Harrison, Charlie Ebersberger, Jim Gilford, Bill Huppert and others all took the hits to their businesses or pleasures while the rockfish population was rebuilt. None of them liked it any more than the average tidewater fisherman, but all accepted their losses and put the preservation of the species ahead of their own immediate interests.

And all are to be vigorously applauded for their efforts.

Now there is talk of a 50 percent increase in the poundage of fish that recreational, charter boat and commercial fishermen may catch in 1995 and 1996 and a possible 100 percent increase starting in 1997. The length of the season eventually could be increased to 120 days.

But while Marylanders, whose waters are the spawning grounds for 75 percent of the Atlantic Coast population of striped bass, are largely responsible for the recovery of the species, we will have to continue to fish sensibly to ensure that the majority of trophies like 127680 complete one or more trips to the spawning grounds.

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