Survey spawns critical fish figures


October 03, 2004|By CANDUS THOMSON

Lumpy gray sky. Bullying winds. The Chesapeake Bay the color of cheap milk chocolate.

The day after Jeanne blew through was not the best day to celebrate a golden anniversary at Sandy Point State Park, but there we were Wednesday just the same.

Given regime changes and budget cuts and all that, not many things started by government survive 50 years. So the fact that Department of Natural Resources biologists have been able to track the population of baby rockfish since Theodore McKeldin was governor is quite an accomplishment.

But bay spawning grounds are responsible for producing more than 75 percent of all the striped bass along the Atlantic Coast, so keeping an eye on their health is an important job.

The Young of the Year survey is studied by scientists, used to set fishing quotas by regulators and eagerly awaited by anglers, who want to know what they'll be catching years from now.

Sometimes, survey numbers have been stratospheric. Other years -- like the ones in the early 1980s just before the five-year fishing moratorium -- are hair-on-fire alarming. Thankfully, most results are as normal as a town painted by Norman Rockwell.

The long-term average is 11.9. This year is 11.4 -- as normal as Norman himself.

"Average sometimes indicates mediocre, but that is not the case at all. In this case, average is a great thing," said Eric Durell, the biologist who supervises the monitoring program.

This year's index is down from 2003, when it was 25.75. But it's higher than 2002, when it was just 4.73.

"This is typical of striped bass reproduction," said Durell, kneeling by a bucket of finger-long, swimming stripers. "You'll have years and years of average numbers followed by one -- like 1996, when it was 59.39 -- that's off the charts.

"Average is a benchmark. It's what we like to see. In six out of the last seven years, that's what we've seen. This right here is a healthy year class."

The state has 22 sampling sites in the four primary spawning systems: the Upper Bay and the Choptank, Nanticoke and Potomac rivers.

Once a month from July through September, biologists take a 100-foot-long, 4-foot-high seine and see how many fish born that spring they can scoop up in two passes.

The number is derived from the average number of juvenile fish caught in 132 hauls of the net. So if there are 132 fish caught in 132 samplings, the index number is 1.

The team scooped up 50,578 fish from 49 species during three months of sampling. Of the total, 1,510 were stripers.

At Sandy Point, the wind and swells made the going a little tough for Durell and biologists Carrie Kennedy, Erik Zlokovitz and Erik Pertain. But you don't win awards from the American Fisheries Society, as the Y-of-Y survey did last month, by wimping out on nasty days.

The survey also looks at other species. This year it indicates that white perch spawned at normal rates and yellow perch are slightly above average, especially at monitoring sites in the upper bay.

"Striped bass and white perch are so alike in many ways that as one goes, the other goes," Durell said.

But even more heartening are the latest figures on America shad. Overfishing forced regulators to close the fishery in Maryland in 1980 and the Potomac River two years later.

From 1995 to 2002, a restoration push by government at all levels and conservation groups put 15.8 million shad fry into the Potomac. On other tributaries of the bay and Susquehanna River, blockages caused by dams have been bypassed.

The results are in this year's numbers. Durell and his staff netted 3,868 wee ones. Where the average index baywide since surveying started in 1966 is 2.3, this year it's 29.3.

The upper bay more than tripled the 38-year average to 3.6. And for the Potomac, this year is 88.4 vs. the long-term average of 6.1.

DNR's Phil Jones says the survey results mean there is very little chance fishing regulations will change much between now and next season.

"Most coastal states are careful about any changes they make in the way they manage their resources," he said. "But each year, as we gather more data, we get more comfortable with our management techniques."

Naturally, there had to be a sobering moment. It appears the completed survey gives credence to anecdotal evidence from bay anglers that menhaden, the primary food source for striped bass, are decreasing.

"We did not see a large year-class. It was below average," Durell said.

Some studies show that menhaden, once 80 percent of the diet of striped bass, are now just 20 percent. The fear among groups such as the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association is that striped bass will starve.

Apparently, fisheries regulators are starting to worry, too.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will hold a two-day workshop in Alexandria, Va., next week to explore whether the bay's menhaden pantry is bare.

The gathering on Oct. 12-14 is expected to attract scientists from universities and all parts of government.

Recommendations will be given to the Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Panel this month and to the management board next month.

Seminar organizers say there will only be limited time for public comment on the second day of the workshop. If you'd like to go or need more information, contact Nancy Wallace at ASMFC, 202-289-6400, or e-mail her at

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