Nearly 30 years have passed since the coastal ban on striper fishing was lifted, action that any reasonable person would agree saved this iconic fish from crossing the point of no return. And it’s been almost 25 years since the coastal fisheries board that manages rockfish declared the stock recovered.
This week, we’ve approached yet another crossroads in the long, complicated history of striper management. Using new information and a new computer model, biologists have produced the most recent stock assessment, which points to a fishery in trouble. That shouldn’t surprise anyone paying attention. Like many Bay anglers I’ve experienced a worrisome downturn in both quality and quantity in recent seasons. Of particular concern is the declining numbers of large spawning rockfish. In my view, too many breeders are being killed, and it’s likely overfishing by commercial and recreational fishermen is occurring coast-wide.
By rule, the ASMFC must take corrective action to reverse the trend when the spawning stock biomass — an estimate of the number and size of reproductive age females in the stock — of stripers drops below 91,436 metric tons along the East Coast. This preliminary assessment found the spawning stock biomass fell to 68,476 metric tons in 2017.
I say preliminary because while the assessment clearly demonstrates that the striper population is headed in the wrong direction, the final version is incomplete, with a crucial piece — a final peer review report — missing. This was another unanticipated casualty caused by the partial federal government shutdown. (Well done, gear-grinding top level political leaders!) ASMFC spokeswoman Tina Berger said we could see the final version by the end of the month, but added the caveat ultimately it’s up to the NOAA Fisheries’s review committee when to release the report.
It’s too early in the process for the ASAMFC to implement changes coastwide this year, and it’s also highly unlikely we’ll experience any changes in 2019 to Maryland’s spring trophy or resident seasons. But small tweaks wouldn’t be out of the question.
Fisheries management is complicated, especially for species like stripers that have varying use groups (sport, commercial, and environmental) clamoring to have their perspectives given priority. Fishery managers also use terms unfamiliar to most anglers, phrases like “threshold,” “spawning stock biomass,” and “total fishing mortality (F),” so it is understandable there can sometimes be confusion among the fishing public.
Maryland anglers were not alone in experiencing tough fishing in the past couple of years. Rockfishing in Virginia’s part of the Bay is also down, prompting that state’s Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler, a recreation angler with a master’s degree in marine science from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, to say, “We think we should be more proactive and get something in place that will help this tremendous fishery recover.”
In a separate announcement, the ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board postponed indefinitely action to find Virginia out of compliance of the Coast’s menhaden management plan. Specifically, the Commonwealth has failed to codify into law the Chesapeake reduction fishery cap. The move was lauded by Omega Protein, the sole operator in the Bay of this highly industrialized fishery, though this inaction certainly disappointed conservation-minded anglers, to put it mildly.
As the ASMFC navigates the future regulatory path of stripers, there will be no shortage of opinions, as it should be. Here are some of mine: 1) Bring back the tag system for trophy rockfish — which to me is a fish over 40 inches — like the one used after the moratorium was lifted. Each spring anglers would get three tags (or two) for free, with the option to purchase an additional two or three tags. The monies generated would go into an account dedicated solely to rockfish conservation efforts. 2) Implement a slot during the resident season, similar to the one used for red drum, a fishery that also experienced a decimating decline but is now thriving. 3) Close the season in the height of summer, say for two or three weeks. Then give three or four more days on the back end in December.
Finally, manage rockfish for maximum abundance, not maximum harvest. And not just a few years but many years out with a heavy lean toward rebuilding a robust stock that can withstand climate-influenced poor spawns. I’m not naive enough to think my three ideas will fix what ails rockfish. Nor do I downplay the pressure put upon the fish from sport anglers, because it is intense, and we ought to own up to that. Real, sustained change will require frank dialogue and the fortitude to make hard choices. Nothing less than the future of a healthy rockfish is at stake, and to abdicate that responsibility would be a dereliction of conservation duty as stewards of one the Bay’s greatest natural resources.
Feb. 11: Pasadena Sportfishing Group meeting. Guest speaker is Pete Peterson, owner of a Freedom Electric Motor Boat. Doors open at 6 p.m., meeting starts at 7:30 p.m. Earleigh Heights VFC, 161 Ritchie Highway (Route 2), Severna Park.
Feb. 14: Fly Anglers Fishing Club’s “Brew & Tie.” Kislings Tavern at 6:30 p.m.
Feb. 16-17: Pasadena Sportfishing Group’s 27th annual Fishing Expo 8 a.m to 2 p.m. Admission is $5, 12 & under are free. Earleigh Heights Vol. Fire Company, 161 Ritchie Hwy., Severna Park.
Feb. 20: Annapolis Anglers’ Club meeting. South River Keeper Jesse Iliff presents Arundel Rivers Federation mission, water quality issues, and oyster restoration projects. Vendor is Nancy Cann Shimer of Coastal Impressions Studio. Starts at 7 p.m., American Legion Post #7, 1905 Crownsville Road, Crownsville. Visit annapolisanglersclub.com for details.
Feb. 23: Annapolis Anglers Club’s “Saltwater Fishing Expo.” 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Annapolis Elks Lodge #622, Rt. 2, Annapolis. Full slate of seminars and dozens of fishing vendors will be on hand to offer tackle innovations at show prices. Admission is $5 at the door. Details at saltwaterfishingexpo.com.
Feb. 23: Mid-Shore Fishing Club’s Annual Fishing Flea Market. 8 a.m.-Noon, Elks Club #1272 south of Cambridge off Route 50. $2 for adults, under 12 years old, free. Call Harry Miller at (301) 807-4247 to reserve a table.
Feb. 23-24: Lefty Kreh’s TieFest. BWI Marriott Hotel. 1743 West Nursery Road.Linthicum, 21090. Details on LKTF’s Facebook page.
Feb. 23: Salt Water Sportsman National Seminar Series. 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Performing Arts Theater, Old Mill High School, 600 Patriot Lane, Millersville. Tickets are $55 to hear national and local experts, including Captains Robin Payne (Rock-N-Robin Fishing Charters) and Randy Dean (Bay Hunter Charter Fishing, and Annapolis Angling Club’s Dale Dirks.
Feb. 26: Anglers Night Out. Boatyard Bar & Grill. Film is “Finding Joe Brooks: Maryland’s Fly Fishing Pioneer.” Happy hour 5 p.m.-7 p.m., movie starts at 7 p.m. Boatyard Bar & Grill, 400 4th Street, Annapolis.
March 2: Tri-State Marine’s Fishing Seminar, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Captains Richie Gaines and Captain Charlie Sisson discuss light tackle, trolling and live lining. Cost is $30, includes continental breakfast and lunch. Call Dawn Yoder (410) 867-2398 to register.
March 9: Kayak Fishing course offered by Anne Arundel Community College, Arnold campus. 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Cost is $59. Mark Bange and John Veil, instructors. Registration at aacc.edu or (410) 777-2345.
March 11: Pasadena Sportfishing Group meeting. Doors open at 6 p.m., meeting starts at 7:30 p.m. Earleigh Heights VFC, 161 Ritchie Highway (Route 2), Severna Park.
March 14: Fly Anglers Fishing Club’s “Brew & Tie.” Kislings Tavern at 6:30 p.m.
March 16: Upper Eastern Shore Anglers & Tacklecove.com host “Saltwater Expo.” Expert speakers and tackle for sale. 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. at American Legion 2619 Centreville Road, Centreville MD 21617. Email email@example.com for details.
March 20: Annapolis Anglers’ Club meeting. Speaker Erik Zlokovitz of MD DNR presents Chesapeake Bay fisheries status and rockfish regulations. Vendor, Jeremy Dempsey of Old 87 Custom Rods.