Rock renaissance True fish tale: Bay survey finds record high numbers of once-endangered state fish.

September 13, 1996

THE REMARKABLE REBOUND of the rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay is an exultant affirmation of scientific fisheries management and of prudent human restraint. Young rockfish in the bay are at record levels -- indeed, 50 percent higher than the abundance record set three years ago, according to the state's annual survey that has been conducted since 1954.

That's exciting news, given the virtual collapse of the valuable bay species in the 1980s and the resulting five-year Maryland moratorium on catching rock that was lifted in 1990. Maryland natural resources programs to nursery-hatch and stock tributaries with baby rock played a major part in that recovery.

But it's also a reflection of the significant role of natural conditions, which fluctuate not in predictable cycles. The state survey found that other young fish, including shad and perch, are also well above average. Shad fishing has been banned in Maryland for 17 years, while perch fishing is largely unrestrained. These spawning successes occurred despite a recent decline in underwater bay grasses -- and partly because of favorable spring weather.

There's also room for human humility when we note that young rockfish, or striped bass as they are known elsewhere, reached a near-record high in 1989 -- only to plummet the next year to a

near-record low.

The rockfish is rightly Maryland's official state fish, its continued health fundamental to the health of the bay and our environment. It's a joy to avid anglers and a delight to the table, a gustatory treat that few fish can rival.

So it is in the public interest to restrict catches of rockfish, to avoid overfishing and to redouble efforts to protect the bay and tributaries that give life to our fisheries.

Fisheries management tools have their limits. The state's $18 million pledge to oyster replenishment will aid that shellfish's recovery, but its historic prolificacy cannot be restored. Restraints on blue crab catches, imposed last year, have yielded uncertain results; their biology and lifespan is different from rockfish.

Still, efforts to prevent overfishing and pollution are the best ways that humans can help nature protect these valuable resources.

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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