Rockfish rack up another good spawn in the Bay
The 1994 Chesapeake Bay striped bass spawn was the third best in the past 24 years, providing new evidence that rockfish stocks recovered during more than a decade of fishing restrictions.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ annual “young-of-year” survey — a widely watched barometer of reproductive success — was 16.1. Though lower than last year’s index of 39.6 — the highest ever recorded — it far surpassed the historical average of 9.6.
And 1993 and 1994 are the best back-to-back spawning years since the annual survey began 40 years ago. Only a decade ago, overfishing drove rockfish populations so low that some wondered whether the stocks could recover.
The young-of-year index is an annual evaluation of reproductive success based on samples taken at 22 sites in four Maryland spawning areas — the Upper Bay, and the Potomac, Choptank, and Nanticoke rivers. This year’s index means that biologists caught an average of 16.1 juvenile fish per seine net haul during their spring and summer surveys. Each site is sampled three times during that time.
Pete Jensen, director of the DNR’s Fisheries Division, credited the good spawn to favorable climatic conditions coupled with management actions taken since the early 1980s that are aimed at reducing fishing pressure on striped bass to increase the number that survive to spawning age.
Fishing restrictions in the 1980s were aimed at protecting rockfish spawned in 1982. Though that year’s young-of-year index was only 8.4, it was the best spawn in four years.
As a result of those restrictions — which included a five-year striped bass fishing moratorium in Maryland during the late 1980s — more than half the spawning fish are now age eight or over, Jensen said, compared with about 12 to 15 percent of the spawning population in 1982. By age eight, almost all female striped bass are capable of reproduction.
As a result, Jensen said, when this year’s freshet provided the right conditions for a good spawn, there were plenty of spawning-age fish around to take advantage of it.
“One of the singular purposes of all that we’ve been doing since the early 1980s is to increase the spawning stock — both the number of fish and their average age,” Jensen said. “We accomplished what we set out to accomplish.”
In the spawning areas, the upper Bay index was 23.4 compared with an average of 12.4; the Choptank index was 19.3 compared with an average 12.1; and the Nanticoke index was 21.5 compared with an average of 6.4, setting a new record for that river. Only in the Potomac was the spawn below average, with an index of 3.9 compared with an average of 7.2.
“I think we have dramatically increased the odds that good spawns will occur more often,” Jensen said. “If we can maintain the fishing at a level that doesn’t deplete these levels of brood stock, then we’ve increased the long-term chances that we will be able to maintain this recovery.”
About 90 percent of the Atlantic Coast’s striped bass are spawned in the Bay, and the index has historically been used as an indicator of future populations.
Because of the steadily improving stocks, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission — an interstate compact charged with coordinating fishing activity on the East Coast — earlier this year declared that the striped bass stocks were “recovered” from their depleted levels of the late 1970s and 1980s.
That clears the way for increased fishing beginning next year, though the total catch along the coast will have to stay within levels set by the ASMFC. But the commission, in declaring the rockfish stocks recovered, vowed to “conservatively manage” the striped bass to “preclude the excessive harvests observed through the 1970s and 1980s.”
And unlike the 1970s and early 1980s, when states could ignore fishing requirements set by ASMFC, laws now allow the federal government to enforce the commission’s actions on the states.
But in the Bay this year, the good news was not limited to rockfish, Jensen said. Surveys indicated that croaker, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, and yellow perch were doing well also.
“They’re doing great, we’ve had a terrific year,” Jensen said. “The bad news people are going to have a hard time this year.”
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