After successful five-year moratorium, it appears rockfish will be ready to roll


James Peck, assistant secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, was being polite. He was, after all, speaking at a news conference replete with television cameras, reporters, DNR staffers and others -- and it was time to praise many people and carefully damn a few.

"Remember three years ago we were getting ready to embark on our first striped bass [rockfish] season, in October 1990, and people were saying it may be too early or we might hurt the striped bass," Peck said Friday in Annapolis after announcing a record-high juvenile striped bass index of 39.6 for this year.

"We assured people that we were embarking on a very conservative fishery. We were going to closely manage this fishery. We were not going to allow a catch that would prolong the recovery of the stocks.

"That all has been borne out over the years in 1990, '91, '92 and again this year. We are conducting in all fisheries [commercial, charter boat and recreational] the most closely managed fishery ever, at any place or any time."

The success of the fishery was attributable, Peck said, to the fish, the fisheries managers, the Natural Resources Police, politicians and fishermen of all types. Each had paid a price for rebuilding the population of a threatened species in the span of a decade.

If there was subtle chest thumping in his remarks, it was proper. There is no shame in showing pride in a job well done.

And Maryland -- fishermen, biologists, policemen and politicians -- has done its job well.

Now, if unlike one of my neighbor fishermen, you can see into the future beyond your next footstep or next cast, see that the 1993 young of the year index is a harbinger of rockfish seasons.

The 1993 index, the first dominant-year class since 1970, is the product of rockfish that are 8 years or older, fish that largely have been alive since before Maryland's moratorium on striped bass fishing started in 1985.

During the five-year moratorium, rockfish of all ages were protected or conserved in various ways along the East Coast. Now, as subsequent classes reach sexual maturity, the number of spawning fish should continue to increase.

"Obviously, that is the payoff of the moratorium," Peck said. "That when we were down at dangerously low levels we were able to protect all that spawning stock and allow it to rebuild so that when conditions were favorable [a record spawn] could happen."

The current index of 39.6 is the second above 25 in five years, with 1989 registering 25.2. Of those fish, the class of 1989 should be large enough to be taken in this fall's fishery. The class of 1993 will not be big enough until 1996 or 1997. Neither class will figure in the spawning stocks until it is 8 years old.

So, if the current spawning stocks, which have been built from only seven above-average-year classes in the past 24, can produce a record spawn this year, will there be a rockfish boom when the 1989 and 1993 juveniles reach sexual maturity?

"I think so," Peck said. "That is the importance of looking at the spawning stock biomass. As we know, these annual index values are not very predictable. . . . But the way nature works, if you have enough fish out there, and conditions are favorable, you can get a high or dominant-year class."

The rockfish is not yet fully recovered from the severe depletion of its numbers during the 1970s and early 1980s, but the biomass of the spawning stocks is increasing at an incredible rate.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Peck said, uses a criterion that compares the biomass with the levels of the 1950s and 1960s to determine when the stocks will be considered recovered.

When that number is reached, which state biologists have said should be no later than 1996, Maryland fishermen will benefit greatly, with the season likely doubling.

Peck said Friday that a 90-day season is a remote possibility as soon as next year.

"It may not happen that soon," Peck said. "But if all the factors continue to improve as they have, it can't be too far away.

"If you look at where it is this year, the quota [2.3 million pounds] is three times what it was in 1990, and when these [1993] fish get into the fishable population, hopefully we will have a lot more fishing opportunities."

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