Rockfish are success story worth telling

On the Outdoors

September 15, 1996|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

SOLOMONS -- The gentleman at the transom had come to Calvert County last Wednesday to deliver a message on the elevated status of rockfish in Maryland -- and at the end of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's fishing line was a piece of evidence that showed that the state fish is well along in a remarkable comeback.

A television crew on the Dolly Diesel maneuvered into position as the rockfish was brought to the stern of the Capt. Bunky Conner's charter boat Kathy C.

Reporters crowded around the governor, shutters clicked and cameras whirred, as the rockfish was brought aboard. The governor held up the 20-incher and quipped:

"Are there any cameras here that have an enlarger on them?"

In an hour or so of fishing off Cedar Point at the mouth of the Patuxent River, parts of the big picture began to unfold.

Between catches, Glendening announced that the young-of-the-year index for rockfish this season is 59.3, easily surpassing the record index of 39.8 set in 1993.

But while the young-of-the-year index is a gauge of potential, the catches off Cedar Point are proof in part of Maryland's success story with rockfish (striped bass).

The eight fish caught Wednesday morning ranged from 18 to 29 inches, representing rockfish spawned between 1989 and 1993. During that same five-year period, three of five spawning classes were above the long-term average, and overall since 1989, six of eight classes have been above the average.

By contrast, the index dropped from 30.4 in 1970 to 1.4 in 1983, two years before the start of the five-year moratorium on striped bass fishing in January of 1985.

"This shows scientific management programs do work," Glendening said after catching a 27-incher, and declining another chance to catch a fish "unless it could be a state record."

The success also shows, the governor said, that building on the fisheries management and Chesapeake Bay clean-up strategies, started under Governor Harry Hughes in the early 1980s and carried on by the Schaefer administration, can help all species in the estuary.

"This success was achieved at significant cost to all those who use this fishery," the governor said, "and serves to remind us of the importance of taking action and making those difficult decisions that help conserve a resource before a crisis is reached."

Crabs and oysters and bay, river and wetlands habitat all are in need of that improvement though better management plans and the cooperation of recreational and commercial fishermen, landowners and developers.

"There are still some tough decisions to be made," the governor said. "And even with the success of rockfish, we will open the fishery slowly -- but never again will it be wide open."

On the periphery of Glendening's activities Wednesday was a handful of Department of Natural Resources fisheries personnel, including Pete Jensen, Ben Florence, Jim Uphoff and Don Cosden, all of whom have worked through the changeover of governors since Hughes declared the moratorium.

While the governor fished, Florence, head of the state's tidewater hatchery program, stood in the background, wondering whether one of millions of hatchery rockfish released over the years would be caught.

As he waited, Florence said the hatchery program was not intended to increase the abundance of rockfish, but to have a controlled portion of the population as a model.

"We have about 7 million hatchery rockfish out there now," said Florence, whose primary projects now are the restoration of shad and sturgeon in the Chesapeake and its tributaries. "And we have learned a lot from them."

But, he said, there is still more to learn, including determining the "critical mass" of rockfish that ensures a good spring spawn, which, in years when habitat and weather conditions are right, will result in high indexes.

Cosden, who has run the young-of-the-year index for many years, said the index is only a measure of potential.

"We don't know that an index of 60 is twice the size of one of 30," said Cosden. "It is relative only to itself in the present, and we can't guarantee its translation to the future."

After more than 10 years of cooperation among the states in the Chesapeake watershed to reduce pollution, save wetlands and limit commercial and recreational catches of rockfish, the six strong classes in the past eight years would seem to indicate that the future of the rockfish is secure.

"This is the result of good management of the resource and the environment," said Jim Uphoff, chief of DNR's fishery stocks assessment program. "And it also is with a good bit of serendipity -- nature at work."

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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