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Chesapeake Bay receives another D+ on health report, due largely to struggling rockfish population

For the second time in a row, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation scored the bay’s health a D+ in its biennial report card released Tuesday.

The poor grade for 2020 was “largely due to ineffective management of striped bass,” also known as rockfish, said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in the “State of the Bay” report. The foundation’s score in that category plummeted 17 points — “the largest decline in any indicator in more than a decade,” the foundation said.

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Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates fisheries along the East Coast, required Maryland and other states to reduce their rockfish harvests by 18%. The commission also voted to reduce the catch of menhaden — a key food for rockfish — by 10% along the Atlantic coast (but not in the Chesapeake Bay).

Maryland opted to close down the rockfish harvest for two weeks in late August to respond to the requirement. But scientists with the bay foundation said that period should occur earlier in the summer, and last longer.

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“While other states chose to close the striped bass fishery during key times when the species is most threatened, Maryland took a piecemeal approach that we believe had limited effectiveness,” said Alison Prost, the foundation’s vice president for environmental protection and restoration, in a statement.

In the 1980s, an outright ban on harvesting rockfish brought the species back from the brink of extinction, but experts now worry that recovery is being reversed.

An October report from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said the index for juvenile rockfish population — or the average number of fish caught per haul on monitoring trips — was 2.5, far lower than what’s considered average.

The foundation isn’t calling for officials to impose another moratorium, but to align catch limits with times when rockfish are most vulnerable due to water temperature and water quality, said Chris Moore, the foundation’s senior regional ecosystem scientist.

“We’re not there,” Moore said. “Despite the stock assessment showing troubling signs for the population right now, we’re still about three times the population that we had when we instituted the moratorium back in the ’80s.”

DNR spokesman Gregg Bortz said in a statement Tuesday night: “The department currently is moving forward with revised striped bass regulation proposals for the 2021 season, which includes proposed modified dates of closure for the summer-fall recreational fishery.”

A pair of watermen check their fish traps in the Susquehanna Flats off Perryville Tuesday morning.
A pair of watermen check their fish traps in the Susquehanna Flats off Perryville Tuesday morning. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Brian Hardman, captain of the Lead Dog charter boat based in Stevensville, said that enforcing the two-week shutdown earlier in the summer would hurt his business. In August, his boat can target other available fish, like Spanish mackerels and bluefish — but not in July.

“If we got shut down in July, there’s nothing else for us to fish on, because those other fish don’t come up until August,” said Hardman, president of the Upper Bay Charter Captains Association. “So we’re dead in the water for two weeks.”

The heads of some local fisheries associations said regulators should focus on shutting down recreational catch and release fishing in the spring, since it could harm spawning females, who may abort their eggs due to stress after being hooked.

“Catch and release in spawning areas, in my opinion it’s like walking into the maternity ward of a hospital with a chainsaw,” said Rob Newberry, chairman of the Delmarva Fisheries Association, adding that recreational fishermen should be required to electronically report their catch just like charter boats and commercial fishers.

Newberry said he was surprised to see such low grades for rockfish and oysters, among other indicators, on the foundation’s report. Rockfish received a C+ and oysters an F — although the numeric score for oysters improved from 2018.

“The past two years have been excellent for oysters. The past two years have been excellent for striped bass,” Newberry said. “I’m seeing more small fish in the bay this year than I have in years.

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“I don’t think there’s a charter boat captain on the bay who had a bad day fishing this year,” he said.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which started its biennial report in 1998, grades the estuary based on 13 indicators, including everything from the health of oyster populations to the vitality of underwater grasses. The bay scored one fewer point out of 100 in 2020 than it did during the foundation’s last assessment, which covered 2018. The foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group aiming to improve the bay’s health, is one of several groups that grades the Chesapeake.

Blue crabs received the highest score from the foundation — a 60 out of 100, which is considered a B+. The crab population has exhibited “relative stability” over the past few years, but it remains below highs recorded in the 1990s. The target number of adult female crabs — 215 million — has been reached only once in the past four years, the report said.

Helping the crab population goes hand-in-hand with water quality improvements that would bolster the growth of underwater grasses and reduce the size of so-called dead zones in the bay.

This year’s dead zone, or area with dissolved oxygen levels insufficient to support marine life, was the second-smallest in Maryland’s portion of the bay since 1985, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

All of the foundation’s pollution indicators for the bay improved or stayed the same in 2020, and the bay saw reductions in damaging phosphorous and nitrogen. In 2018, record rainfall caused intense runoff that yielded high levels of excess nutrients in the Chesapeake, unlike in 2020.

“In 2020, we saw signs these pollution reduction efforts are working,” the foundation’s report says. “But favorable weather conditions also played a role, and the Bay’s recovery remains fragile.”

As a 2025 deadline for a federal plan to reduce pollution in the bay — called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint — approaches, the foundation’s report called on states in the bay’s watershed to bolster their efforts in the years ahead.

“We must accelerate implementation by ensuring sufficient state and federal funding. In particular, Pennsylvania, the state with the biggest pollution-reduction gap to close, must establish a state agricultural cost-share program to assist farmers,” the report reads.

The health of some bay habitats declined slightly between 2018 and 2020, including underwater grasses, which haven’t recovered yet from 2018′s rainfall that caused water clarity issues, obscuring their access to sunlight.

Overall, the report indicates that improvements are being made to key parts of the bay ecosystem, although climate change and inadequate state and federal policy are slowing progress, Baker said.

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Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia have set pollution goals that could meet the 2025 targets, but the watershed’s other two states — Pennsylvania and New York — have fallen short, Baker said. The foundation filed suit in federal court earlier this year in hopes that the Environmental Protection Agency would step in.

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In a statement, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen called on the EPA to do more under incoming President Joe Biden.

“The Trump Administration has refused to hold Pennsylvania more accountable for failing to meet their pollution reduction targets under the Chesapeake Bay Agreement,” the Democrat wrote in a statement responding to Tuesday’s report. “Everyone needs to work together and I look forward to working with the incoming Biden Administration EPA to meet our mutual goals of Clean Water in the Chesapeake Bay by 2025.”

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