Rockfish worth celebrating -- but for how long?


There was a nip in the air, as there should be on October mornings, and south beyond Tolly Point the breeze was building. But north of the rocky shallows that extend from the bluff at Bay Ridge east into Chesapeake Bay, the seas were a foot or less and the gulls and terns were clamoring.

The rising tide was sweeping baitfish across the shallows, and several small schools of blues and rock were ambushing them, feeding heavily at the surface, while the birds dove to snatch scraps of fish, and rose again, squabbling beak to beak.

A half-ounce Kastmaster cast into the frenzy was bringing back a fish with almost every cast -- 2-pound bluefish, mostly, which were quickly released.

Casting to breaking fish is one of the pleasures of early autumn throughout the tidewater, while the water surface temperatures linger in the 60s and scattered schools of bluefish begin to work south out of the Chesapeake and rockfish have yet to go deep.

It is easy and relatively harmless fishing if the hook barbs are crimped down or filed off, allowing easy release of lip-hooked fish.

The other morning, the blues seemed to favor the shallower side of the schools and spoons worked fast and just below the surface drew some of them to the side of the boat before they hammered the lure or darted away.

But it was the rockfish that were amazing, thousands of 16- to 18-inchers packed into a half-dozen half-acre schools, seeming to herd their prey uptide before starting to feed with a pincer attack.

After a while, we stopped fishing and just watched, marking the progress of feeding schools by the flight of the birds, baitfish skipping out of the water and the swirls of rock and blues among the waves.

And it was hard to imagine the future could hold anything but promise for rockfish and rockfish anglers in Chesapeake Bay.

But recently the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission expressed concern about possible overfishing of the coastal spawning stock of rockfish (striped bass). As a result, Maryland's Fisheries Service is expected to restrict the size and number of rockfish that recreational and commercial fishermen can catch.

A 28 percent reduction is needed in the catch of rockfish 8 years and older, according to the ASMFC's technical striped bass committee. And while the immediate concern is for rock roughly 28 inches and up, changes in regulations could result in an increase in the 18-inch minimum allowed in Maryland during the summer and fall seasons.

According to the Department of Natural Resources, management options could include:

A one-fish creel for the Atlantic Coast recreational fishery, although this would result in a negligible reduction in the statewide catch.

Changes in seasons and creel limits for the Chesapeake Bay fishery, including a two-fish creel with an 18-inch minimum and allowing one fish to be 28 inches or greater during summer and fall seasons.

Limiting commercial fishermen to rockfish from 18 to 35 inches, rather than allowing fish over 35 inches to be caught.

Fisheries Service director Eric Schwaab said recently the quota for Maryland's spring trophy season for rockfish also could be changed, and size limits on Chesapeake Bay could be raised two inches to help build a "larger pool of bigger fish over time."

Some 75 people attended a public meeting in Annapolis recently to review the problem of overfishing and possible changes in rockfish regulations. Recreational, charter and commercial fishermen expressed concerns that New England states are the cause of the problem, but Maryland again will be a big part of the solution.

A five-year moratorium on rockfish starting in 1985, an extensive hatchery program and a closely monitored fishery that reopened in 1990 led to rockfish being declared recovered in 1995.

But the life cycle of the rockfish has Maryland right in the middle of the problem.

The Chesapeake and its tributaries are the major spawning and nursery grounds for the rockfish population from North Carolina to Maine. Rockfish begin returning to the Chesapeake estuary late each fall and spawn in its tributaries each spring before migrating to New England waters.

During the summer and early fall, Chesapeake anglers fish mostly for rock between 18 and 24 inches, while in the northern states the catch more often than not consists of the big spawners capable of producing millions of eggs apiece each spring.

The rock feeding on the surface the other day are the long-term future of the species, young fish that have not joined the coastal migration and are perhaps five years from spawning age.

Through this decade, Maryland waters have produced several large year classes of rockfish, and DNR announced Friday that this year's young of the year index of 18.1 is above levels indicating healthy reproduction for the eighth straight year.

The survey is carried out monthly from July to September at 22 sites in the Choptank, Potomac and Nanticoke rivers and the upper bay. Each month a 100-foot beach seine is hauled twice at each site, and species caught are counted. The young of year index is the overall average of striped bass netted.

The Choptank River had the highest reading at 48.2 and the Nanticoke averaged 18.7, more than double its long-term average.

The index for the Potomac was considered good at 15.7, but the upper bay reading was 3.1, the lowest observed in seven years.

Fisheries Service biologists said the low reading in the upper bay may have been caused partly by "large-scale environmental factors," because reproduction there was off for several other anadromous species as well.

Pub Date: 10/10/99

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