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Maryland's rockfish challenge

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)

Maryland rockfish — or striped bass as they are more widely known — are in sharp decline. As of 2017, total East Coast landings, commercial and recreational, were down by nearly 40 percent from 10 years prior. Female spawning stock is in similar decline, according to a recent assessment. Not since the 1980s when the fish was believed to be reaching a tipping point and a years-long moratorium on harvest was imposed to protect rockfish have state officials faced such a worrisome outlook.

On Tuesday, members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will meet in Arlington, Va., and likely call for conservation measures to prevent further overfishing. States like Massachusetts and Connecticut have already endorsed such a move, as has Virginia, where last week the Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted 7-0 to suspend that state’s “trophy” rockfish season (so-called because it’s the one time of year when fishermen can keep large, spawning-age rockfish of 36-inches or longer) just as it was set to open. That move was likely costly to charter boat captains in Virginia who are certain to lose customers, particularly given that its Chesapeake Bay neighbor has not taken similar action — Maryland’s trophy season opened April 20 and continues through mid-May.

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Admittedly, Maryland’s regulatory framework differs somewhat from Virginia’s, but it’s still disappointing that Gov. Larry Hogan and his Department of Natural Resources are once again behind the vanguard of fisheries conservation. That doesn’t mean the state hasn’t taken actions to protect Chesapeake Bay species over the years, but too often officials have done so only reluctantly after outside intervention. Take, for example, oyster restoration. The General Assembly approved a bill this year to protect sanctuaries in five bay tributaries only to have the measure vetoed by Governor Hogan. Lawmakers subsequently overrode that veto to spare those oyster beds from harvest.

Overfishing in Maryland waters is not some theoretical problem. There are any number of factors involved in the decline of striped bass from polluted runoff to warming waters and climate change, but to take more fish out of the Chesapeake than can be replaced by natural reproduction (even when supplemented by hatcheries) is to court disaster. And Maryland has a greater duty to the species than any other coastal state as its bay tributaries are the most essential nursery for the anadromous species — the site were the majority of East Coast striped bass are spawned and spend their early years before departing for the Atlantic Ocean.

What steps might Maryland take on its own? Here are some examples. Officials could shorten the summer season, require charter fishermen to use circle hooks (which are less likely to be swallowed and damage undersized fish than traditional j-shaped hooks), require artificial lures instead of live bait and raise the minimum size limit to preserve juvenile fish so that more reach spawning age. Much of the state’s attention ought to be directed to so-called “discard mortality,” or rockfish that are caught by anglers and thrown back but quickly die from the trauma anyway. And it surely would not hurt for Mr. Hogan to be speaking out on the need to preserve and protect one of Maryland’s signature bay species.

Regulating fisheries of all kinds tends to be an exercise in resource apportionment — letting competing interests take as much as practical — rather than guided by the long-term interests of the ecosystem, and that’s unfortunate. But the loudest voices in the debate are almost always local fishermen whose livelihoods depend on maximizing their catch. Yet it’s good to remind those charged with setting the rules on harvest that Maryland has a responsibility to the broader public to preserve and protect the nation’s largest estuary and its underwater inhabitants. The moratorium of 1985 was a difficult decision. How much more sensible would it be for the state to take significant steps now to avoid a truly dramatic choice in a few years?

Virginia seems to understand this. Cancelling the trophy season may have only protected a few hundred fish, but the symbolism was important, too. Why can’t Maryland demonstrate its commitment to good stewardship sooner rather than later? Chances are, the ASMFC will recognize that striped bass have been overfished and call for states to take action. Maryland should do so unreservedly and at the earliest opportunity to demonstrate that the state with the most to lose by the decline of striped bass also has the most to gain by its restoration.

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