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Rockfish's recovery sinking in Advisory committee may raise catch limits


Maryland's rockfish moratorium was controversial. In the years of the moratorium, from January 1985 to the fall of 1990, businesses went bust. Recreational anglers redirected their efforts toward bluefish and bottom fishing.

But the moratorium also saved the rockfish -- not only in Maryland, but along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Maine.

"I have no doubt that the moratorium is the reason that there are as many rockfish as there are here now," said Capt. Buddy Harrison, who has fished the Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years and runs recreational and commercial enterprises in Tilghman on the Eastern Shore.

"There are more and bigger rockfish in this bay than any time I can remember," he said.

Few if any will quarrel with Harrison's assessment of the Chesapeake Bay's stocks of rockfish. But along with the moratorium came intensive studies of rockfish, extensive hatchery programs and a commitment from watermen and anglers alike to save the fishery.

William P. Jensen, director of Maryland's tidewater fisheries, said last week that Maryland's commitment to the stripers has led the way to rebuilding the fishery.

In Richmond, Va., tomorrow and Tuesday, Jensen expects the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Committee's Striped Bass Technical Committee to report that the fishery will be declared fully recovered within a couple of years.

"I think we are [close to recovery]," Jensen said. "And that subject is on the agenda. . . . I am speculating somewhat, of course, but that is what I expect to happen.

"We are seeing all the signs here in Maryland. The spawning stock in our rivers is high, the number of eggs deposited is high, the number of fish over age 8 now make up over 60 percent of the spawning population in most of our rivers."

William Goldsborough, senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and chairman of Maryland's Striped Bass Advisory Board, sees a flaw in the population structure.

While the bay has "potentially the best fishery we ever have had" for stripers, Goldsborough said last week, the coastal population is not in optimal condition.

"Although we see this unprecedented abundance of large fish in the bay, the bay does not represent the full life cycle of the fish," Goldsborough said. "In fact, there are a number of older-year classes that we don't see here in the bay except in the spring, and these are not as abundant as the relatively young-year classes."

Stripers can live for 25 or 30 years and continue to grow through their life cycle. For every 10 pounds of weight, a female striper can produce 1 million eggs. A 15-year-old cow weighing close to 40 pounds will produce about 4 million eggs a year and an 11-year-old female will produce about 2.5 million eggs.

Stripers of different ages also come into the spawning areas at different times, Goldsborough said, and a greater distribution of age classes provides an insurance policy against the destruction of a major spawn by bad weather, acid rain or poor water quality

With few dominant-year classes through the 1970s and well into the 1980s, Goldsborough said the potential for a population nose dive exists as the older fish die off.

"So we have restored the fish up to 11 years of age, but when you get above that, the age-class distribution drops right off," Goldsborough said. "So we are really only talking at best about half the age classes being restored."

Jensen said that it is unlikely that the population will nose dive. The 1982 class, protected until its members had reached spawning age, remains healthy. The 1989 class, initially thought to be a statistical anomaly, is prospering and its more mature members make up the younger end of the spawning stock.

"We are very confident that we have reached a state where the spawning populations are stable and strong," Jensen said. "And there is no secret that Maryland put out a major effort, led the way and did a lot of the right things."

Maryland's striper fishery is atypical. The Chesapeake Bay is the primary spawning area and nursery ground for the Atlantic Coast population of rockfish.

In the spring, the mature males and females come in from the Atlantic to spawn and then quickly return to coastal waters.

During the rest of the year, younger fish stay in the bay and its rivers until they are old enough to join the migratory stocks. The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are the breeding grounds for as much as 75 percent of the coastal population.

It is this matter of multipurpose habitat that has enabled Maryland to be in the forefront of rockfish research. The matter of habitat also puts Maryland in a position to be envied or damned by other coastal states.

Marylanders have the potential for a year-round fishery -- as it was before the decline toward the moratorium -- but anglers, scientists, politicians and conservationists also bear the responsibility of ensuring the perpetuation of the coastal stocks.

Jensen said the commitment of Maryland fishermen -- commercial and recreational -- often is overlooked by fishermen in other states.

"In some cases, I think some of the fishermen of the other states think of Maryland as the devil reincarnate when it comes to striped bass," Jensen said, "because we have historically taken a share greater than any other state solely because we have the resource here.

"Even though those states have been fishing all year long -- even when Maryland had the moratorium -- each time we reached for more they have looked on us as being greedy."

Based on statistics gathered through a study on the bay's

younger, resident fish, Jensen said Maryland is entitled to an increase in its proportion of the catch "so long as we can support it with the right information."

A proposal by Maryland to increase its fall catch of 18- to 36-inch fish by 40 percent this year recently was voted down by the ASMFC's striped bass technical committee, but Jensen believes the proposal might be approved by the group's Striped Bass Advisory Committee at this week's meeting.

"When you talk about abundance -- the population of 18- to 36-inch fish is 3.2 million," Jensen said, "and if you look at that in terms of what the recreational and charter fishermen caught last year, that is 5.2 percent of that population.

"Commercial fishermen caught an equal amount. . . . We are catching much less than what is allowed."

The maximum catch rate is roughly 25 percent of the non-migratory population.

Capt. Bruce Scheible runs a fishing center in Ridge, Md., near the mouth of the Potomac River. He, too, has seen the change in the bay's rockfish population.

"Comeback? The comeback was in 1989," said Scheible. "Now it is the deluge of '93. There were so many rockfish around last year we couldn't keep them from running the blues out of the chum lines."

Scheible, who operates a number of charter boats, said Maryland fishermen have earned the opportunity to catch more stripers in the spring and fall.

"I think the public deserves a pat on the back, and that doesn't happen too often," Scheible said. "The average sportfisherman has gone out of his way for conservation of the rockfish, and now I think he deserves a chance [to catch more].

"It's not time to annihilate the fish, but one in the spring and especially one per day in the fall is not enough."

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