PHOTO: striped bass

A researcher with a striped bass.

AS ONE of the most important fisheries on the Atlantic coast, striped bass—or rockfish as they are also known—have been counted, studied and managed for decades. That history provides a wealth of data and knowledge on the state of the fishery’s health, and shapes the thinking on when harvesting adjustments need to be made.

The striped bass fishery is a major player in the Chesapeake Bay. The rockfish sits atop the Bay food chain, with menhaden being among its favorite menu choices.

In turn, rockfish is a favorite fish dish among humans, whether prepared at home or at a restaurant. Most non-commercially harvested striped bass are caught by recreational fishermen who simply love the sport and often return a catch to the water. Along with charter boat captains, these anglers are part of a key tourism industry for the Chesapeake Bay.

Since 2010, except for an upward spike in 2013, the overall striped bass population, including the number of larger egg-bearing females, has been dropping. That sends up a red flag for researchers, indicating that overfishing is taking a toll. Thanks to the data regulators have in hand, population trends can be tracked and acted upon as necessary.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission serves as the state’s fisheries regulator. The evidence it sees suggests the time is right to implement a moratorium on this year’s recreational spring trophy striped bass season, which runs from May 15 to June 1, since the larger females are considered prime breeding stock.

During that two-week season, anglers are allowed to keep one striped bass at least 36 inches or longer per day. A ban would decrease that limit to zero. The taking of rockfish over 28 inches is strictly regulated throughout the year.

The VMRC will issue its decision at its meeting on April 23. Considering data collected by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, it appears likely the VMRC will vote to impose the ban.

According to a VMRC statement: “The number of striped bass harvested recreationally [in Virginia] has declined markedly since 2010 when 368,000 striped bass were harvested from all tidal Virginia waters. In 2018, the preliminary recreational striped bass harvest was less than 52,000 fish.”

Such a precipitous drop warrants action by the state’s regulatory agency, even though Virginia’s harvest represents only 5 percent of the overall East Coast harvest.

Maryland, whose overall striped bass harvest represents about 50 percent of the East Coast catch, will allow its earlier, longer trophy season to run as scheduled from April 20 to May 15. Officials there say the outlook is for new restrictions, or perhaps amended regulations, to be implemented in 2020.

The good news is that according to the juvenile striped bass seine survey, conducted annually by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the numbers of young rockfish have remained similar and above average for the past five years. Making sure they grow old enough to spawn, and harvest, is the point of the management strategy.

Harvest moratoriums and restrictions are often controversial because of the toll they can take on the livelihoods of people who depend on the Bay’s bounty. But swallowing a bitter pill now will mean a healthier fishery in the future, if the success of previous restrictions is repeated.

The striped bass was teetering on the edge of extinction in the early 1980s when a commitment to clean up the Bay and restore its ecosystem was being made. Bans and restrictions imposed by the states, with federal support, allowed the population to bounce back starting in 1990, and the fishery was declared “recovered” in 1995. The population peaked in 2006.

Virginia’s proposed ban on this year’s trophy season is a conservative approach—some might say too conservative. But it’s easy to see how it falls in line with strategies designed to maintain the fishery at sustainable levels.

All things considered, a trophy season ban is a small price to pay to ensure that a fishery with such a key role in the Bay’s ecosystem, not to mention its recreational appeal, remains healthy in the long term.

Twitter: @FLS_Opinion

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