Fish breeding signs encouraging


August 14, 1994|By PETER BAKER

CAMBRIDGE -- A team of biologists from the Department of Natural Resources bent over a section of seine hauled onto a narrow strip of sandy beach, counting, sorting and measuring fish.

White and yellow perch. Striped killifish. Spot. Atlantic silversides. Blueback herring and rockfish.

By the middle of September, the cataloging from dozens of sessions such as the one along a small beach on the Choptank River will become the young of the year index, a simplistic and yet sometimes controversial assessment of breeding success and an early indicator of potential abundance of fish stocks in Maryland waters.

Last Monday, Jim Uphoff, Don Cosden and Scott Barbour were making their second of three sets of seinings on the Choptank, and the results were encouraging.

"Probably not as good as the dominant class of last year," Uphoff, stocks assessment coordinator for DNR, said as he separated young of the year rockfish from yearlings. "But almost certainly, a better-than-average year here. It's a good sign."

Uphoff and Cosden have been with DNR fisheries for more than 20 years, long enough to experience the end of the heyday of rockfish, the frightening decline through the late 1970s and early 1980s -- and then the species' recovery.

"This is the second round of the survey," said Cosden, fisheries manager with DNR, "so our figures are still incomplete, but except for the Potomac River, the situations look good -- better than average.

"The Nanticoke, for example, should end up being well above average, and it hasn't done well the last few years."

The young of the year survey checks 22 sites on the Potomac, Choptank and Nanticoke rivers as well as the head of the bay in July, August and September.

Pete Jensen, head of Tidewater Fisheries for DNR, said Tuesday that based on the July round of seinings and those that have been completed so far this month, the rating is around 20.

"The long-term average is around 9," Jensen said. "[This year] it looks like we will definitely have double digits, which is especially good news since last year was the record year that it was."

A few hundred yards off the beach along the Choptank, a handful of snags broke the surface. A faint mud line formed a crooked angle as the tide built over the remnants of Hambrooks Bar.

Five years ago, young of the year seinings at Hambrooks Bar were largely responsible for reopening a limited fishery in Maryland for stripers after a five-year moratorium.

In the years since, the continued resurgence of stripers seems to verify the importance biologists placed on one haul at Hambrooks bar that collected more than 1,100 juvenile stripers and pushed the young of the year count to a three-year average of more than 8.0 and triggered the reopening of the fishery.

The Hambrooks count still is questioned by conservative sports fishermen like Keith Walters, an author and a former holder of the state record for rockfish.

"Rockfish are in much better shape than they were in the late 1970s and 1980s," Walters said on Monday while watching the DNR crew sort the catch. "But they are not like they were when you could look out on this river and see them breaking on top all the way across."

Cosden was working one end of the 100-foot by 4-foot seine during the 1989 survey.

"They were all there that day, no question of that," Cosden said. "No one can dispute that. Was it an unusual number? Yes. But those kinds of high numbers and low numbers still have to be figured in."

In a nutshell, after the 1989 haul at Hambrooks there were many recreational fishermen and environmental groups who urged that the high count be thrown out, and said at the time that reopening rockfish seasons was more a political coup than a sound decision by fisheries managers.

This year, with Hambrooks Bar submerged and its underwater surface too obstructed by snags and rubble to seine effectively, DNR has been checking alternative sites, one immediately across the river and the other just off the small stretch of sandy beach.

And as Hambrooks erodes, rockfish continue to recover, despite the increasing pressure from recreational and commercial fishermen, whose seasons and creel limits are gradually broadening.

"It sometimes seems that biology and politics are each 50 percent of what drives rockfish seasons, and maybe that is so," said Uphoff. "But for the people who work in our end of this business, the important thing -- the only thing, really -- is the fish."

As of Jan. 1 1995 -- a decade after Gov. Harry Hughes imposed the rockfish moratorium in Maryland -- rockfish from North Carolina to Maine will assume recovered status under federal and state guidelines.

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