Resurgence of the rockfish

Encouraging survey: Superior hatching rate reflects importance of strong fisheries management.

September 17, 2001

ONCE PUSHED to dangerously low levels, the Chesapeake Bay rockfish is more abundant now than anytime in the past three decades.

This summer's survey by state scientists indicates a superior hatching season, the 10th straight year of healthy reproduction.

It reflects the successful recovery of this important sport and commercial species, Maryland's state fish.

The annual netting surveys, conducted for nearly 40 years, help Maryland and other states to manage the species.

This year's high numbers of young could lead to calls for relaxing limits on the size and number of rockfish, or striped bass, that can be caught.

But it's a complicated picture. The growing abundance of rockfish in the bay may be causing overcrowding, some studies suggest, leading to underweight fish that are stressed and susceptible to disease from common bacteria.

Biologists know that the population of menhaden, a small oily fish favored as food by the rock, has drastically shrunk in recent years.

So rockfish are eating more grass shrimp, bay anchovy and baby blue crabs these days. And they seem to be growing more slowly on this diet.

Maryland's decisions have a broader impact on other states. Rockfish spend their first three years or so here, then move into Atlantic coastal waters, the adults returning annually to spawn in the Chesapeake.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is concerned about possible overfishing of older spawning rockfish.

The remarkable rebound of the rockfish in the bay demonstrates the importance of annual scientific surveys (rather than basing decisions on fishermen's catches) and of taking strong conservation steps to protect threatened species.

Maryland imposed a five-year fishing moratorium in 1985 when the number of rockfish plummeted; other states took similar actions.

But bans alone can't do the job. Cleaning up the Chesapeake and restoring the aquatic habitat are also vital to promoting the healthy recovery of rockfish and other bay resources.

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