Recent surveys indicating severe population depletion in the Chesapeake Bay illustrate what the delicate balance of fisheries management could be.
In fact, I had high hopes of joining a commemorative rockfish (a Marylander of striped dress) on Saturday with a trip out of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, courtesy of the Mason Dixon Outdoor Writers Association (M-DOWA). That plan was literally blown out of the water by the fierce storm that swept the region this weekend, prompting warnings of small ships across the bay as gale-force winds swamped the waters in an avalanche of white peaks.
But despite our fishing trip being cancelled, the M-DOWA seminar program continued to operate, highlighted by Alison Colden, Maryland’s Chief Fisheries Scientist, who gave a detailed description of the challenges to Maryland’s planned bass fisheries.
Colden explained that a 2018 stock assessment combined with more recent survey data revealed a depleted population with significant poaching problems. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) responded by adjusting size and fishing limits in an effort to reduce the planned bass death rate by 18 percent.
To this end, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced the 2022 planned recreational sea fishing (private and charter) regulations in the Chesapeake Bay that have not changed since 2021.
Prior to the spring trophy season, fishermen were prohibited from targeting planned bass at all (including hunting and releasing) from April 1 through April 30. Then, during cup season from May 1 through May 15, anglers can catch and keep one striped bass daily at least 35 inches in size in the Chesapeake Bay.
The summer and fall season runs from May 16 through July 15 and resumes from August 1 through December 10 when anglers are allowed to keep one striped bass per person, per day, of at least 19 inches in size. During a chartered fishing trip, the captain or his companion will not be permitted to land or own a bass planned for personal consumption. During the lockdown period from July 16 to July 31, fishermen are prohibited from targeting the planned bus, which includes fishing, release and charter boats.
And only last week, Colden noted, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission approved the Seventh Amendment to the Interstate Fisheries Management Plan (FMP) for the Atlantic Bass. The amendment establishes new requirements for the following components of a building management plan: management triggers, the conservation equation, recreational release mortality treatment measures, and the inventory rebuilding plan. The most recent assessment of the striped bass stock found that the stock was overfished and that poaching still occurred.
This finding required the Board of Directors to end poaching within one year and rebuild the stock by 2029. Amendment 7 enhances the Committee’s ability to reach the rebuilding goal by implementing a more conservative hiring stimulus, providing more formal guidance around uncertainty in the management process , and implement measures designed to reduce recreational launch deaths.
Colden added that catch and release mortality is one of the biggest threats to fisheries since studies have shown that 9 percent of all released fish will die. Among other things, Amendment 7 encourages education of the hunter in proper hunting and release techniques and also allows for seasonal closures. However, the catch-22 here is that Amendment 7 won’t take effect until March 2023.
Meanwhile, a combination of other factors also affect the health of curvy fisheries including problematic habitats and water quality. The striped bass prefers cold water and the temperature of the bay has increased. Warmer waters don’t contain as much oxygen, which is a major reason sections avoid so-called “dead zones” in the bay while searching for deeper, cooler, oxygen-rich waters.
Since the upper reaches of the bay is the primary spawning area for this species, the timing of the annual algal blooms coupled with the arrival of the bedrock fish is critical for the larvae of striped seabass to survive. Unfortunately, thanks to a gradual warming of the water, the timing of this important relationship is spiraling out of control. Another factor is the availability of strider-based fish feed. These include shad, river herring, and menhaden among others. Colden noted that shad and river herrings were in historically low numbers, and the menhadd population was also emphasized.
Another problem arises from invasive species such as northern snakehead and blue catfish that compete with native species such as rockfish. A staple of baby bass is crabs and it is also a favorite food of blue catfish, a species that devours millions of young crabs each year, depriving schools of small, vulnerable rockfish of a critical delicacy for crustaceans.
Colden noted that a number of countries classify striped bass as a game fish, meaning there are no commercial fisheries competing for it. But in both Maryland and Virginia, commercial fishermen are allowed to harvest their share of striped bass, often via gillnets and pound nets. Despite the fact that commercially harvested striped bass must be at least 28 inches in length to be legal (as opposed to 19 inches for recreational fishermen), gillnets do not discriminate and discarding smaller fish harms fisheries.
While the challenges of managing the Chesapeake Bay’s planned seabass fishery may seem overwhelming, Colden advised us that all was not “dreary and doom” and that the situation is not close to being as bleak as 1985 when both Maryland and Delaware imposed complete moratoriums on fishing for striped bass. from 1985 through 1989, and Virginia imposed a one-year moratorium in 1989. After three-year average employment levels exceeded a set threshold value indicating that the lines had bounced back, the Chesapeake Bay fisheries reopened in 1990 .
But the precarious state of present-day fisheries has prompted a New England-based nonprofit group called Stripers Forever to recommend a 10-year moratorium on harvesting strips from Maine to North Carolina, including in the Chesapeake, the largest bass nursery scheme planned for the East Coast. Such a move would likely put commercial fishermen and the charter fleet permanently out of business.
Despite an alarming appeal from Stripers Forever, Colden believes, there’s no need for such drastic measures to save the Chesapeake’s planned fisheries, at least for the time being, but we’ll see what Amendment 7 does when it starts next year. “We have a plan to clean up the bay, and the dead zones are shrinking,” she assured us.
Rodeo trout game for kids. The West Chester Fish, Game and Wildlife Society has rescheduled the Dave Heller – Bruce Riddell Trout Rodeo to their nursery on Saturday, May 14, for children age 15 and younger. The event is free and open to the public. Participants must meet at Paradise Farm Camp Hotel (895 Ravine Road, Downingtown, PA 19335) at 8:00 AM. Raffle Awards will be presented from 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM.
Tom Tatum is an outdoor columnist for the MediaNews Group. You can reach him at [email protected]