Population of Chesapeake Rockfish Rebounds, but Worries Persist over Species' Future

After a 15-minute fight, the telltale dark stripes of a rockfish show through the murky waters of the Chesapeake Bay, hooked on one of the 16 lines trailing behind a charter boat.

OFF CHESAPEAKE BEACH, Md. — After a 15-minute fight, the telltale dark stripes of a rockfish show through the murky waters of the Chesapeake Bay, hooked on one of the 16 lines trailing behind a charter boat.

At 36 inches, the fish is fat and healthy, its belly shimmering and deep crimson gills exposed as it is netted and hauled in. It's an example of what state officials praise as of the bay's few success stories -- the rebound of the once perilously low rockfish population.

"We're getting more and more. They're getting bigger and bigger," said Marty Gary, a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

But as the trophy season opens this week, 15 years after a moratorium on rockfish ended, some environmentalists and anglers say the species is at a crossroads, its future threatened by disease and overharvesting of the fish it preys on.

Rockfish, also known as striped bass, are a migratory species that roam much of the Atlantic Coast. About 80 percent of the Atlantic population spawns in the Chesapeake Bay, many returning to breed in the same rivers and estuaries where they were born.


The federal commission that regulates rockfish is considering a cap on catches of menhaden, the small oily fish that rockfish feed on in the bay. And some anglers report catching rockfish that are lean and sickly, covered with sores that signal disease. One theory floated by independent scientists is that the two are linked -- that menhaden shortages stress rockfish, putting them more at risk of becoming sick.

Environmental groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation say regulators need to act to preserve the rockfish resurgence and stave off another collapse.

"We are advocating a new, more participatory approach to management that doesn't sit on its hands until it is too late," said Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist for the Annapolis-based foundation.

The trophy season, which lasts from April 17 to May 15, comes as the fish move into spawning grounds. Fishermen prize rockfish for their taste, the fight they put up and their size -- some can reach more than 65 pounds.

Anglers reeled in more than 31,000 rockfish last year, according to DNR fisheries officials, and this year's catch could also be strong.

The population has not always been so robust. By the mid-1980s, the Atlantic coast's population had fallen to around 5 million, a victim of overfishing. It took about 10 years, with moratoriums and catch limits, for the fish to recover. The DNR now estimates there were about 56.7 million rockfish in 2004.

But there are possible threats to that recovery, Goldsborough said. Several recent studies have suggested that environmental threats such as disease are causing fish to be leaner and live shorter lives.

Much of that data coincides with the appearance around 1997 of mycobacteriosis, also known as "fish handler's disease," he said. Bacteria infect the internal organs of rockfish, causing them to experience a dramatic drop in weight. It can also sometimes lead to unsightly ulcers.

State scientists see the sores during regular sampling of rockfish populations, said fisheries ecologist Harry T. Hornick. But they also find plenty of healthy fish, some of which bear scars from ulcers but appear to have recovered, he said.

"We see a lot of fish that have sores, but we see even more healthy ones," Hornick said.

Rockfish are also under pressure from a possible overfishing of menhaden, a primary source of food. Commercial boats use large nets to scoop up vast amounts of the small fish that are later processed into animal feed or fish food. The omega-3 fatty acids from menhaden are also used for human dietary supplements.

There is no consensus on whether the menhaden population is in decline. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has proposed a cap of 110,400 metric tons of menhaden during 2006 and 2007, but also said the population needs to be studied to determine if it shrinking.

Jim Price, a charter boat captain, plans to seek federal threatened species protection for the menhaden if the commission doesn't act to limit menhaden catches.

"The striped bass are sick and their future is very much at risk," he said.

But DNR officials insist surveys of rockfish populations, combined with the photos of beaming anglers holding big fish, are proof the fish have recovered and will stay healthy, Hornick said.

"People have been saying that for five years," he said of those who predict another collapse. "But the population has grown 23 percent from last year and it continues to grow."


On the Net:

Maryland Department of Natural Resources: http://www.dnr.state.md.us
Chesapeake Bay Foundation: http://www.cbf.org
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission: http://www.asmfc.org

Source: Associated Pres