'There's going to be no fish to fight over at all': The Chesapeake Bay's rockfish population is falling

After a decade of declines, the Atlantic striped bass population, also known as rockfish, is likely to be subject to new fishing restrictions soon in Maryland.  (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

It’s trophy season for Chesapeake Bay rockfish, the only few weeks on the calendar local anglers can hunt for the 40-pound specimens visiting the estuary to spawn. But this year, it’s not as celebratory as it sounds.

Three decades after an outright ban on fishing for the species properly known as Atlantic striped bass helped it recover from near-extinction, scientists, anglers and the commercial fishing industry are raising alarms that the bay’s supreme and delectable swimmers are again being overfished. And about half of the fish that anglers are killing aren’t even being eaten — they’re caught and thrown back, only to die from their wounds.


The concerns prompted Virginia to cancel its trophy season Tuesday, six days before fishing was set to begin in some Potomac River tributaries. Authorities there said emergency action was needed to allow as many of the females to spawn as possible.

Maryland officials said they have no plans to make a similar decision this spring. But commercial and recreational fishermen around the state’s rivers and creeks are nonetheless hoping, and bracing, for new restrictions to stabilize the striped bass population once again.


“I think most charter boat captains have resigned themselves to the fact that we’re going to have some changes next year,” said Mark Galasso, who operates Tuna the Tide charter service out of Kent Island.

After a charter trip Thursday with nary a nibble on any of 11 rods hanging off the back of his fishing boat, he said maybe it’s for the best that there be no trophy fishing during April next year.

“If we keep having days like today, nobody will want to come fish during trophy season anyway,” he said. Besides, he added, “I don’t think we can wait until that happens.”

A contentious process to develop new fishing restrictions is expected to begin Tuesday, when a commission that governs Atlantic coast fisheries is scheduled to discuss a decade of striped bass decline. Those talks could lead to new rules by next spring, if not before.


And there is already discord over whether common strategies to reduce fishing — such as size limits — will help reverse population declines, or if they are actually making recovery more difficult — because some of the many fish thrown back die.

“Everyone’s pointing fingers at each other,” said Paul Sheldon, a recreational fisherman from Middle River who has been catching rockfish for two decades. “If it doesn’t change, there’s going to be no fish to fight over at all.”

Striped bass are, along with crabs and oysters, among the most valued creatures in the Chesapeake. With striped bass spawning grounds upstream in rivers such as the Nanticoke, Choptank and Potomac, the estuary is the largest nursery for juvenile striped bass on the Atlantic coast, producing as much as 90 percent of a population that stretches from Virginia to Maine.

The fish, known for silvery scales with seven or eight rows of dark stripes, grow up hiding in the nooks of rocky reefs around the bay, as well as in tidal portions of the Hudson River and sounds of North Carolina. After two to five years, females and some males head out to deeper Atlantic waters, growing to as long as five or six feet and returning to their birthplaces each spring to spawn.

In most parts of the Chesapeake, once grown, their only predators are the occasional shark — and commercial and recreational fishing rods and nets. They’re caught more than any other type of fish in the bay.

The fish are prized for their lean, firm flesh with a sweet, delicate flavor. Crab-stuffed rockfish is considered a Maryland delicacy.

On Tuesday, Virginia did what Maryland should: close its 2019 spring recreational striped bass trophy season. A new report finds striped bass are overfished and that manmade overfishing — taking too many fish too fast — is accelerating the decline. Marylanders are among the worst offenders.

Those fishing pressures, plus environmental hazards, nearly brought the population to collapse in the 1980s. Acid rain, pesticides and other pollutants were killing larval stripers. So as larger efforts launched to restore the Chesapeake Bay, fishery managers in 1985 imposed a ban on striped bass fishing that lasted nearly through the end of the decade.

The moratorium, along with efforts to boost wild populations with hatchery-raised fish, was viewed as a success. But, while striped bass numbers across the coast remain far healthier than in the 1980s, new data show the recovery has reversed.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study of the population released in January found that in 2017, the stock of spawning female striped bass along the East Coast fell to its smallest size since 1992, about 68,500 metric tons. That figure had surged above 100,000 metric tons throughout the 2000s, but it has now fallen below a benchmark conservation threshhold of about 91,000 metric tons for five straight years.

Those who spend time on the water say the numbers confirm what they’ve been seeing for years. Anglers say they’ve noticed rockfish have grown more scarce, but also congregated at times in isolated sections of the upper bay. Word travels fast among anglers, allowing those groups to be heavily fished, said Pedro Navarro, another Middle River fisherman.

“What we’ve got left is getting hammered,” he said.

Scientists, fishery managers and anglers all say that while the situation isn’t as dire as it was in the 1980s, something needs to be done. They just don’t agree on what, or who to blame.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is expected to formally adopt the population study Tuesday, and then launch talks about how states should respond to reduce overfishing and the overall catch.

Mike Luisi, who serves on the commission's striped bass board on behalf of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said he doesn’t expect any policy changes to go into effect in the state’s fishery until 2020. Ahead of the meeting, he said it’s clear there is a problem, but that it’s hard to predict how it may be solved while also satisfying the various parties concerned about the species.

“It’s a fine balance, because you have a fishery that you want people to have access to,” said Luisi, the department’s director of fisheries monitoring and assessment.

Maryland is changing the way it lets striped bass be caught for sale, ending decades of regulating the popular Chesapeake Bay fish by limiting the times when it can be harvested. Starting Jan. 1, commercial fishermen will have individual quotas of striped bass they can catch most any time, not just in the relative handful of days permitted this year.

If the commission recommends a reduction in striped bass harvest, as it’s expected to do, coastal states are likely to consider shortening fishing seasons, reducing commercial quotas and limits on daily catch for recreational anglers, and raising the minimum size of fish that can be legally caught.

Such size limits are perhaps the most controversial.

The minimum size ends up dictating how often anglers need to throw fish back, in search of the big one, or at least one that’s big enough. When fish are thrown back after swallowing a hook with live bait, the injuries to their intestines and other organs are often too great for them to survive.

Across the entire Atlantic coast in 2017, scientists estimate that for the first time in nearly two decades, more fish died after recreational anglers threw them back than were brought back to piers in coolers.

“It’s a situation we need to work hard to correct,” said Chris Moore, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “You’re basically losing these fish for not any economic value, and you’re losing their ecological value.”


The concern is that raising the minimum size actually will lead to higher throw-back mortality, something research backs up.


Scientists on a technical committee advising the fisheries commission estimated this month that if Maryland were to increase the minimum striped bass catch size for recreational anglers from 19 to 21 inches, about 28,000 more fish would die each year after being caught and released, an increase of about 4 percent. The numbers are based on an assumption that 9 percent of fish thrown back die.

The researchers estimate the number of rockfish caught recreationally would drop meanwhile by more than 300,000.

Based on that data, Luisi said he plans to push against proposals to raise minimum size rules, saying it could worsen the problem the commission is trying to solve. But he hesitated to predict what strategies could end up being adopted.

“We’re going to go into it with an open mind,” he said.

There is some pressure to take drastic action, and fast. In a letter to Commission Chairman James S. Gilmore Jr. this month, officials from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Virginia said “all options should be on the table” to reduce striped bass harvest and that beyond that, “individual states should consider taking immediate measures to reduce fishing mortality.”

A week later, Virginia announced it would cancel its trophy season, meaning no striped bass can be fished there until at least May 16.

When rockfish season opens April 18, anglers will likely be catching a number on their way to lay eggs in the Susquehanna, Choptank and other rivers, rather than on the way down after shedding their loads. That worries sportsmen.

Delmarva Fisheries Association Chairman Robert Newberry questions why any regulations would change for the commercial industry. That segment of the fishery already abided by a 20 percent reduction in its quota in 2015 and 2016, and because it uses nets instead of hooks, it causes far fewer fish to die unnecessarily.

Like many others around the Chesapeake, he pointed to fishing in other states that targets the breeding population of striped bass that spends most of the year in the Atlantic. He suggested the commission focus conservation efforts outside the bay.

“We’re asking to be left alone this year,” he said.

But given that Maryland harvests more striped bass than any other state, it’s unlikely to avoid implementing new restrictions. The recreational harvest, which makes up the bulk of the state’s catch, brought in more than 1 million fish in eight of the past nine years.

Recreational anglers understand that they could soon face new restrictions, said David Sikorski, the executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland. He said anglers in his group are eager to do what they can to help rockfish recover.

Along with similar efforts state natural resources officials are conducting, Sikorski said the group plans to educate anglers about the value of large spawning female fish, and urge them to release any they catch during trophy season, which runs until May 15. Once open season begins after that, anglers will be urged to limit any catch-and-release fishing during hot summer weather, when the fish face extra stress and are more likely to die from hook injuries.

Maryland already has required people to start using what are known as circle hooks when fishing with bait. Instead of embedding into a fish's guts, such hooks are designed to catch the corner of a fish's wide mouth, preventing potentially fatal injury.

“Folks in the fishing community are concerned,” Sikorski said. “A lot of those folks will be doing the right thing. That’s what everyone needs to do, is kill less fish.”