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State officials are making problem with rockfish decline worse | COMMENTARY

Coastal fishery managers are tasked with rebuilding rockfish stocks after years of decline. Having enough menhaden in the Bay to support healthy rockfish and other marine animals is part of the solution.
Coastal fishery managers are tasked with rebuilding rockfish stocks after years of decline. Having enough menhaden in the Bay to support healthy rockfish and other marine animals is part of the solution.(Chris D. Dollar / Capital Gazette)

As the Chesapeake Bay and our fisheries collapse like an oyster bar in the dead zone, appointed officials in Gov. Larry Hogan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are accelerating the decline with regulatory gifts to political supporters. Their disingenuous approach to resource management is an overdraft on the future of the Chesapeake, and our debt will come due soon.

Today, Chesapeake striped bass (rockfish) are in danger. The rockfish population is overfished and sliding over a statistical cliff because of Susquehanna runoff, algae blooms and spreading dead zones, rampant overfishing and years of Maryland’s own bad management.

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As part of a coastwide plan to restore rockfish, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) directed Maryland to reduce harvests by 18% — recommending an 18% cut in commercial quota and a recreational limit of one 18-inch or larger fish per day. Maryland can choose to implement the ASMFC recommendation or use Conservation Equivalency (CE), which means to develop alternative regulations that achieve the same goal, to meet the targets.

Sadly, Maryland’s officials are now gaming the CE process to benefit their political allies while delivering an illusion of compliance.

As it happens, ASMFC statistics overestimate the recreational rockfish catch in the Chesapeake spring, and their coastwide management formula under-estimates the percentage of fish that die after release in the hot water of our local summers. Ask any charter captain and they will tell you the bay is now virtually empty of rockfish (and boats) in the spring trophy season and littered with dead fish in July.

We now understand DNR has leveraged these statistics. Their plan will close the bay in spring — saving huge schools of fish that exist only on paper — while leaving all but two weeks of the summer open, a season when the state’s own science shows ‘dead discard’ mortality is highest. Overall, closing the fishery during spawning season is good policy, but leaving it open in the heat of summer is bad.

The proposed new regulations cut a token 1.8% of commercial quota, limit private anglers to one fish per day and allow for-hire charters to keep two fish per customer — provided those charters file daily reports through a Maryland electronic system. But those captains are already required to file daily reports. To improve data fidelity, Maryland would do better to enforce the existing charter regulations and implement electronic reporting by private anglers.

Long-term catch data also show the DNR has failed spectacularly in their approach to rockfish regulations. ASMFC required a 20.5% cutback beginning in 2015, but instead Maryland’s recreational harvests have been hundreds of percent over target. And yet, here we are again — rockfish harvests poised to go well over target. We won’t have many more years of this head-in-the-mud vision before there’s nothing left to protect.

Perhaps most troubling, the DNR has failed to take meaningful action to eliminate concentrated harvests in the upper bay. Around and north of the Bay Bridge, ever-larger dead zones and low oxygen from warm surface water pushes rockfish into tightly packed schools. And day after day, dozens of boats anchor directly on the fish. Just as purse seining decimates schools of menhaden in Virginia, the DNR is enabling localized depletion of our rockfish in the upper bay. This cannot continue without consequences.

To be clear, the DNR has the authorities to set regulations at their discretion, and they (always) have the opportunity to rework their approach with ASMFC. They should start acting in good faith to save our rockfish and develop new regulations. They could easily do better with a combination of regulatory zones and variable-length seasons to enable locally-appropriate access.

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One approach would be to separate the Maryland Chesapeake into upper, middle and lower bay zones and create two seasons from May 1 to June 15 and Sept. 15 to Dec. 15. Within those areas and two seasons, they should adjust recreational bag limits as well as catch and release and targeting regulations to suit those local ecosystems. They can reliably meet the ASMFC reduction mandate. Commercial landings should be reduced 18% and extra monitoring implemented to allow for snap closures when conditions deteriorate.

Time and again, the Hogan administration has painted a picture of health for the bay fisheries as they pursue policies that accelerate decline. It’s time to stop vetoing progress. Time to stop gaming the numbers to benefit their campaign supporters at the expense of our Chesapeake’s future.

Because conservation is conservative, it’s time to do the right thing for a change.

Mark Eustis (mark.eustis@greyowlanalytics.com) is a managing partner at Grey Owl Analytics, a consulting group focused on applied geospatial technologies.

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