Worried by recent declines in the numbers of Maryland's state fish, Atlantic states fisheries regulators are weighing slashing the annual striped bass catch by up to one-third next year all along the East Coast and in the Chesapeake Bay.
The proposal, to be aired Tuesday before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, comes six months after a study found the striped bass population verging on being overfished and the number of spawning female fish likely to slip to unsustainable levels soon if no action is taken.
"We're thrilled," said Tony Friedrich, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, which has long pressed regulators to curtail the catch. "I don't know anyone who doesn't think the stock is in trouble."
A catch reduction of that size would hit Maryland's watermen hard, though, especially since their mainstay of crabbing appears likely to be poor again this year, based on a recent survey.
"It's called being regulated out of business," said Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. He contended that "there's no shortage of fish."
Striped bass, also known as rockfish, are the bay's premier fish, with Maryland's commercial landings worth $7 million in 2012, the most recent year for such figures. The bay is a prime nursery for the fish, which migrate as far north as New England.
About 5.8 million pounds of striped bass were harvested commercially last year, with 3.4 million pounds of that from Maryland, according to commission and state data. About 25 million pounds were caught recreationally along the entire East Coast last year, with Maryland anglers accounting for about 11 percent of that.
Overfishing drove the fishery nearly to collapse 30 years ago. It rebounded to record abundance after a five-year catch moratorium in the bay and severe limits along the coast. There has been concern over the past decade, though, as striped bass numbers have declined to levels not seen since the population was declared restored in the mid-1990s. There has only been one really good crop of young fish produced in recent years.
"It's not overfished yet, but it's very close to that level," Michael Waine, a commission staffer, said of the striped bass stock.
Maryland's fisheries director said he'll join counterparts in Virginia and on the Potomac River in arguing for smaller reductions in the bay than along the coast. He pointed to differences in the striped bass population in the Chesapeake and to the regional importance of the commercial catch.
"The striped bass is a marquee species for the Atlantic coast," said Tom O'Connell, Maryland's fisheries director. But surveys show that only 20 percent of the fish in the Chesapeake in summer and fall are females, he said, so making an across-the-board cutback in catch there would protect relatively few of the future spawners.
O'Connell said he's also worried that a 30 percent reduction in watermen's catch would have "substantial" impacts" on their livelihoods.
Recreational fishing groups contend that the cutback should be the same for all, including commercial fishermen.
Friedrich said recreational fishermen in Maryland will happily accept a reduction in their allowable catch of rockfish from two fish a day to one, the same cutback anglers on the coast could face.
"We don't necessarily care how many fish we take home," he said. "We just want to make sure fish are there for our grandkids."
William Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said striped bass also may be suffering in the bay from a lack of menhaden, a staple of their diet. The commission imposed a 20 percent cut last year in the commercial menhaden harvest.
"I don't think a one-size-fits-all works for this fishery coastwide and in the bay," said Goldsborough, who is part of the Maryland delegation on the Atlantic States commission. "There are no simple answers."
If the commission decides to act at its four-day meeting in Alexandria, Va., it will take public comment through the summer on various options before voting on one to take effect next year.