Atlantic Weather May Be Key Culprit In Fish Decline
The striped bass is in trouble again.
During the 1980s, wildlife managers said these big, full-bodied fish — favorites of anglers along the East Coast — were overfished. So they laid down severe catch limits. The population recovered, and fishing resumed in what is considered one of conservation's great success stories.
But now catches are down again, and some biologists say the problem may not be overfishing this time: It could be the weather.
Nearly 70 percent of the country's striped bass come to the Chesapeake Bay to lay their eggs, including inlets like this one, where the Choptank and Tred Avon rivers meet.
Bob Wood is a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He studies his fish in a boxy little building on the Maryland shore of the Chesapeake Bay. In the semi-darkness, you can make out several vats with bubbling oxygen hoses. Each vat is home to striped bass or white perch, two species that spawn in the bay. This is where Wood's team studies the fish to figure out why striper numbers go up and down.
They thought they had the 1980s crash figured out: "The striped bass crashed because of overfishing," says Wood, "and then it recovered because we closed the fishery."
But now Wood has a new idea that's just taking shape. "This research, at first glance, seems to call that into question," he says.
This idea focuses not so much on fish but on the weather, and especially the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or the AMO. The AMO is a mashup of wind and ocean currents, a flip-flop that happens every 35 years or so in the North Atlantic.
Photo credit: Hamptons.com