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Maryland overfishing imperils rockfish population

Maryland overfishing imperils rockfish population
But maybe throw the rockfish back in. In 1965 it was made the official state fish. The General Assembly called it "this fine old Maryland fish." We now seem to celebrate rockfish by eating it at $30 a plate in nice restaurants. Sorry, rockfish! You're still fine. (Andre F. Chung / MCT)

On Tuesday, Virginia did what Maryland should: close its 2019 spring recreational striped bass trophy season.

“The recent stock assessment shows that early action is needed to slow the decline and restore this fishery to sustainable levels,” Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner Steven G. Bowman said in a statement.

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Yet Maryland, one of the worst offenders when it comes to overfishing Atlantic striped bass — what we like to call “rockfish” — has chosen to go forward with a trophy season this year despite mounting evidence of the dangers.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just released a peer-reviewed report that finds striped bass are overfished and that manmade overfishing — taking too many fish too fast — is accelerating the decline. (When a fish population is overfished, there are fewer fish in the water than that population needs to replace itself.)

Recreational anglers are largely responsible. Since 2008, they have killed eight times more striped bass than commercial fishermen, with Maryland anglers harvesting a huge haul: nearly three times the number of fish taken by Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware and North Carolina — combined.

There is only one stock of Atlantic striped bass between Maine and North Carolina, and 70-90 percent are spawned right here in the Chesapeake Bay. These bass grow in our estuary until they mature and migrate along the coast. As the stock’s largest nursery, Maryland is obligated to protect new generations. And the ocean states are in turn responsible for conserving mature fish so they can return to spawn. The science is clear: This highly migratory species must be managed as a whole and cannot be separated into political schools of “my fish” and “your fish.”

In years of good recruitment like 2011 and 2015, abundant new fish are spawned to make up for bad years, “natural” mortality and manmade removals. But Maryland’s own recruitment surveys show the peaks of good years are trending lower, and lows in bad years are getting worse. Sadly, the new NOAA data indicate Maryland removed much of the strong 2011 class before they could mature.

To be sure, multiple factors contribute to the striped bass decline. The Chesapeake Bay as a whole is in trouble. Runoff from farms and manmade surfaces leads to hypoxic dead zones and sediments that smother habitat. Forage fish are decimated by localized depletion from purse-seining (industrial extraction by huge nets), and invasive blue catfish suck-up newly spawned young bass. The parlous state of the bay has also severely diminished alternative sportfish such weakfish, flounder, and croaker — which drives Maryland anglers to focus almost exclusively on striped bass.

Though external factors are real, they do not absolve us from the responsibility to act. Striped bass are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a group of states from Maine to Florida. By charter, ASMFC should act when a fishery falls below certain thresholds. The commission is set to meet Tuesday to consider “reductions needed to achieve fishing mortality reference points” for striped bass. That’s fisheries-management-speak for “how do we turn this around?” A 50 percent reduction in mortality across the fishery would be a good start — and for Maryland that probably means seasonal closures and a one-fish limit.

If Maryland won’t learn from Virginia and set that restriction on its own, ASMFC should vote to do it for us. Of course, when and how the ASMFC acts is often driven more by politicking than science. At the next meeting, some may lobby to change reference points to make bad numbers look better, or even promote a specious claim that “bay fish aren’t ocean fish” to divide the fishery and gain local control. These statistical gymnastics are bad for everyone’s long-term interest and should be voted down. Neither approach will help rebuild the fishery, and neither will sustain our multi-million-dollar recreational economy built around striped bass.

NOAA’s peer-reviewed science is proof striped bass are in deep trouble. Many on the ASMFC deny this reality, and they will undoubtedly work to postpone the inevitable and advocate for more studies before acting. This is unacceptable. Maryland must work with ASMFC now to cut harvests and start rebuilding immediately — or striped bass will be fated to slide downward into another moratorium.

Mark Eustis (mark.eustis@greyowlanalytics.com) is a recreational angler and Chesapeake Bay advocate.

William "Billy" Lednum, a fourth-generation Tilghman Island resident, has been voted to remain fire chief while residing in Federal prison for one year. He pled guilty to a major rockfish poaching operation. (Baltimore Sun video)
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