The return of the rockfish Comeback: Biologists are reporting the largest batch of baby rockfish in the bay in 43 years, and the governor is thanking fishing restrictions imposed a decade ago.

September 12, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

SOLOMONS -- Favorable spring weather and more than a decade of fishing restrictions have helped produce the biggest crop of baby rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay in 43 years, Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced yesterday.

State biologists collected record numbers of 2-inch juvenile striped bass, known in the Mid-Atlantic as rockfish, during their annual sampling of the bay's major spawning grounds in the past three months. This year's tally is 50 percent higher than the last record count, set three years ago.

Glendening and a party of outdoors writers hooked eight hefty mature rockfish yesterday morning on a brief charter fishing excursion into the Bay to dramatize the renewed abundance of Maryland's state fish.

To save it from oblivion, drastic fishing restrictions were put in place along the East Coast in the late 1980s.

Back ashore, the governor joined a team of state biologists at Jefferson Patterson Park near St. Leonard in Calvert County to see them collect a net full of young fish in the Patuxent River. Then, in remarks to an invited crowd of dignitaries, he said the rockfish saga demonstrates the need to maintain catch limits on another popular bay species -- blue crabs -- and to press for controlling suburban sprawl.

"We can't stop here," he said. "There are still very hard decisions to be made."

Overfishing and poor reproduction of striped bass prompted Maryland to impose a five-year fishing moratorium in 1985. Other East Coast states curtailed fishing for the migratory species, which spawns mainly in the Chesapeake but roams from Maine to North Carolina.

Fishing has resumed as the rockfish population has rebounded, with catch limits adjusted to take account of the improvement.

State biologists using a 100-foot seine collected an average of 59.3 young striped bass in each of 132 samples taken this summer at 22 shallow-water spots in the upper bay and in four traditional spawning rivers. That surpasses a previous high of 39.8 in 1993 in the annual survey, which has been conducted since 1954.

Biologists said the cold winter and wet spring provided ideal conditions for spawning rockfish. Don Cosden, who oversees the survey for the Department of Natural Resources, said that other fish species also apparently fared well, including shad, white perch and yellow perch.

"I love it," said Capt. Bunky Conner, skipper of the head boat that took Glendening and his party fishing. Conner said he has seen more rockfish in the bay this year than he can recall. "Those are my future fish," he added, drawing scores of baby rockfish to the surface at the dock by dropping handfuls of bait in the water.

William Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the tally of young rockfish this year was "phenomenal." Yet he called for continuing caution to prevent another decline.

"We still have the fishing power to overfish striped bass just like we did before, if not more so," Goldsborough said.

Caution with crabs

Though catch limits on rockfish likely will be eased, Glendening vowed not to yield to "temptation" to relax all fishing restrictions.

He said he intends to take a similarly cautious approach with blue crabs, even though he was criticized for imposing emergency catch limits last fall even as watermen reported a rebound in the population.

The governor said the state's commercial crab harvest finally seems to be increasing after a lean summer, but he has no plans to relax catch limits despite some appeals to do so. He said he has been pressing Virginia Gov. George Allen for additional restrictions on harvests in the neighboring state, where watermen can legally dredge pregnant female crabs from the bay bottom during winter.

"That really is like eating your seed corn for the future," Glendening said.

Development an issue

The governor said that while the rockfish abundance indicates that the Chesapeake is recovering from decades of pollution and abuse, continued progress depends on taking action to control the rate at which suburban development is gobbling up Maryland's forests and open space.

He said he plans to present the General Assembly next year with proposals to strengthen current laws and direct growth to existing communities. He acknowledged that his proposals, not yet made public, may face opposition from county government officials and from the real estate industry.

"It's not going to be easy, and we didn't get into this condition of sprawl overnight," he said. But if development trends are not changed, he warned, "the biggest loser will be Chesapeake Bay."

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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