Conservation efforts do produce visible results, despite the inherent unpredictability of nature. Maryland's just-completed survey of juvenile rockfish has confirmed earlier predictions that 1993 would set a record.
Testing nets were bulging with unexpected masses of the silver fish in sampling spots along the Upper Chesapeake and tributaries. Fishermen reported hooking rockfish without any effort, a nuisance since they had to be thrown back in order to avoid stiff fines for out of season catches.
The season opens this weekend with much anticipation. The state's five-year moratorium on catching the rockfish, or striped bass, was lifted cautiously in 1990. Catch quotas have been raised prudently since then; this year, the quota is three times that of 1990. It is cause for celebration.
The bountiful sampling of 2-inch young is a harbinger of the future abundance of rockfish. This year's record spawn is the product of sexually mature rockfish that are at least eight years old, fish that were protected by the ban imposed in 1985. State biologists see every indication that the numbers of spawning fish will continue to increase.
Regulators optimistically suggest that stocks may recover sufficiently to allow for a 90-day fishing season as early as next year. This year's season, approved by the regional Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is 38 days for recreational anglers and 52 days for charter boats.
The rockfish population has gone through natural cycles of boom and bust, but it burgeoned in the 1960s and early 1970s, promoting a vital commercial and recreational activity. But man-made pollution, overfishing and natural causes combined to produce a severe depletion.
Fishing restrictions were delayed for several years in the hope that the species would rebound, but eventually a ban was needed. The bay cleanup program also contributed to the resurgence of rockfish, as well as increasing the spawn of other popular species, such as perch and herring, which could reduce some fishing pressure on the rock.
The lesson of the rockfish is that Maryland fishermen and regulators alike have become more sensitive to the declines of important natural wildlife resources. They have seen the wisdom in responsibly curbing catches to preserve spawning stock, protecting the threatened species so that it might have a fighting chance for a vigorous recovery.