Rockfish's comeback offers wider hope

ON THE BAY

June 25, 1994|By TOM HORTON

Is it crazy, with all the bay's current problems, to think of returning to a golden era of fishing, an abundance and diversity of sport and seafood not seen for half a century?

I say that, as of May 18, 1994, it is not crazy at all. I say also that there is nothing easy or assured about it. But the path to piscatorial heaven is clear, even if strewn with obstacles.

There is nothing magic about May 18. But it was a milestone nonetheless. That was the day the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a legal compact involving Maryland and all other East Coast states, voted unanimously to declare the striped bass "recovered."

In fish science, recovery doesn't mean just big catches, which can be a sign of overfishing, or even that there are lots of the fish around. Rockfish clearly have been on the increase for years, after a virtual coastwide shutdown of fishing for them from 1985 to 1990.

Recovery means that the species once again has lots of spawning-age members -- and, just as important, that those spawners include a broad span of ages (from 5 years old to more than 25, in the case of the long-lived rock).

Females of different ages spawn at different times, and their eggs hatch best under different conditions. It is this variety that gives a species resilience against environmental insults, natural and human.

The rockfish comeback is more than gratifying. It offers hope that other species can follow and a blueprint for how to make it happen.

First, the hope. The rock's rapid recovery, once fishing pressure was removed, indicates that water quality across much of their bay and coastal ocean range is not ruined.

That doesn't mean we can dismiss the environmental impact of acid rain and low oxygen, sediment, toxics and loss of wetlands and underwater grass beds. But it does mean that none of those factors has reached the point where it is controlling the show.

Provide some breathing room, and chances are that most -- but maybe not all -- of our coastal and bay species can take it from there.

Now for the blueprint. The rockfish comeback didn't just happen. In 1984 a worried Congress did for the rock what it had done decades before for ducks and geese, whose migrations similarly pass through many states with a wide variety of conservation laws and attitudes. Congress passed a law that gave the fisheries commission both money and authority to develop, with the states, excellent, science-based conservation plans for the rockfish.

Maryland's courageous move

The law also gave the federal government power to shut down a state's fishery if its efforts didn't pass muster. Maryland's independent and courageous decision to bite the bullet with a moratorium beginning in 1985 undoubtedly got the ball rolling ahead of schedule.

The rest is history. Rockfish seasons have reopened, with strict limits for now, but with every prospect of blossoming. A key point is that the recovery will be a sustainable one.

And now the blueprint has been extended: In December 1993, President Clinton signed a law that extends the rockfish model to more than 20 species of fish that migrate through East Coast and Chesapeake Bay waters.

It was desperately needed. Just look at the official status of five major migratory species whose recoveries will be the most immediate priorities of the commission:

Weakfish (sea trout), severely overfished; bluefish, overfished; summer flounder, overfished; American shad, severely depleted, with all Maryland spawning rivers still under a moratorium imposed in 1980; red drum, status uncertain but population at low levels.

Recovery will vary

So how long before these species, too, come roaring back? The spawning stocks of some, such as the weakfish, have been pushed even lower than the rockfish and aren't likely to respond quickly, says Bill Richkus, an expert on coastal fish stocks with VERSAR, a Maryland environmental research firm. But he thinks that summer flounder already are showing an upturn, which can be attributed to coastal quotas for commercial trawlers.

Paul Perra, director of interstate fish management for the commission, points out that saving a species requires more than enforcement of a conservation plan. The plan must be a good one, and there must be some fervor.

Rockfish's special treatment

Rockfish, he says, were always something special, "a fish people get divorced over, staying out all night, every night to catch one." For that and other reasons, rockfish conservation had funding, scientific interest, good catch information and intense political scrutiny to a degree few species enjoy.

Money is tight now. For example, Congress has authorized a three-year spending plan of $3 million, $5 million and $7 million for commission activities, Perra says. But in the president's budgets, the commission has received none of it.

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