The gloomy drizzle I observed through the window of the Loew's Hotel in Annapolis last Saturday matched the mood of the program in the room. The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) and Costa Del Mar sponsored a one-day symposium to review the state of stripers (rockfish) in preparation for the scheduled October meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to develop mandates to protect and restore the striper fishery. ASMFC is an organization of states created in 1942 "To promote the better utilization of the fisheries, marine, shell and anadromous, of the Atlantic seaboard by the development of a joint program for the promotion and protection of such fisheries..."
The current position of ASMFC for stripers is that "Projections of female SSB (spawning stock biomass) and fishing mortality suggest if the current fishing mortality rate (0.20) is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of the stock being overfished is high and increases until 2015-2016, but declines thereafter. This trend is driven by the lack of strong year classes currently in the fishery, and the emergence of the strong 2011 year class that matures into the spawning stock in three to four years."
A lot of fishermen would attest the striper fishery has been in serious decline since at least 2008. Witness for example the collapse of such renowned striper Meccas as Susquehanna Flats, Virginia's Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT) and the bay and inshore fishery at Montauk, New York.
Tom O' Connell, Fisheries Service Director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), presented the scientific findings on the striper fishery, the reasons for ASMFC concerns, and the possible reductions in harvest that may be imposed. But he stated a major problem is that the Chesapeake fishery is radically different from the coastal fishery. The spring trophy fishery in Chesapeake Bay is for the predominantly female coastal fish, but from summer through the rest of the year, Chesapeake Bay stripers are 70% to 90% male. Therefore significant reductions to Chesapeake Bay harvests will do little to protect the spawning stock. ASMFC needs to establish biological "reference points" for the Chesapeake, and this may take several years.
In summary, while several states jockey for exemptions, we can probably expect ASMFC to propose significant cuts to the striper harvest from Maine through North Carolina. These decisions may be made with a deficient biological model of the Chesapeake and with little to no consideration of economic and social factors. While CCA is still formulating its position, some fear that the proposed ASMFC cuts may be half measures, and we'll be back to the need for the kind of moratorium on all striper catches that we went through in the mid-1980's.
While I was impressed with Tom O'Connell's presentation and all of the presentations that day, I wondered if O'Connell wished he had a less complicated job –- like the State Department desk for the Middle East. Because when you look at stewardship of Chesapeake Bay, things are really complicated.
In dealing with just Bay fisheries, people tend to posit three groups of users –- sport fishermen, commercial fishermen and charter boat captains. As fisheries biologist and CCA South Atlantic and Gulf Fisheries Director, Dick Brame, pointed out in his presentation, management practices for recreational fisheries are entirely different than for commercial fisheries, yet natural resources staff are expected to do both. Also there are significant differences within the major groups, e.g., among sport fishermen, fly and light tackle fishermen, trollers, chummers and bait fishermen often have diverging views on the ideal Chesapeake fishery and how it should be regulated.
Restrictions to harvests of stripers may involve not just reducing the numbers of fish that can be kept but raising the size limits of those fish. Both approaches are likely to cause economic pain to all groups of fishermen and to such related industries as tourism, charter boats, tackle shops, etc. Further, such rules are bound to increase "fish handling," the taking and releasing of undersized fish, with attendant increased mortality. The class of 2011 stripers mentioned earlier are especially in need of protection.
Then there are the environmental factors. Single species management is inherently problematic. A classic case was the striper moratorium, usually hailed as a success. One could draw a large "X" diagram for fish populations for those years with an upward line showing the increase in stripers crossing the downward line showing the decline in menhaden (bunker) needed to support a sustainable and reproducing striper population. The critical factors of striper mortality and reproductive mass in the ASMFC calculations are both adversely affected by the decrease in the forage base. Some wonder whether pollution, increased temperatures and the forge base decline are capping the carrying capacity of all bay and coastal waters.
But, as with so many environmental and conservation issues, the individual cannot afford hopelessness and inaction. Those attending the CCA meeting refused to play the blame game with the DNR, the commercial fishermen, industrialists, whoever. A number of speakers acknowledged that recreational fishermen had behaved irresponsibly. Moreover there was a resolve to cooperate in restoring the striper fishery.
Writer and outdoorsman, Shawn Kimbro, captured this spirit in his presentation extolling the wonders of the Chesapeake, its beauty and its creatures, and urging the participants to share the value of this experience rather than the harvest with others. CCA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are two groups working to protect the Bay, and I urge all to support these organization. ( See http://www.ccamd.org and http://www.cbf.org.)
In his May 16, 2009 piece on his website, http://www.chesapeakelighttackle.com Kimbro masterfully summarized the ethic and techniques of catch and release fishing. Click on the "Articles & Techniques" and see "Careful Catch – When A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Fish."
No matter what regulations come forth from ASMFC, it's time for individual fishermen to limit their harvest and promote Chesapeake Bay health.