WASHINGTON – Commercial striped bass harvests jumped 77 percent last year in the Chesapeake Bay area, the largest increase since Maryland lifted its rockfish moratorium in 1989, the federal government reported.
The rise from 1.98 million pounds in 1995 to 3.51 million pounds in 1996 was possible because federal scientists — growing more confident that once-depleted striped bass stocks continue to gain strength — raised the annual harvest quota. The 1997 quota has again been raised, to 4.3 million pounds.
But area watermen claim the government is being too cautious.
“We catch what they tell us we can catch,” said Maryland Watermen’s Association President Larry Simns. “But if (the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission) regulated the fish according to science, we would be catching twice as much as we are now.”
But Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist Gina Spess said the fisheries have not fully recovered and they will continue to be treated conservatively.
Although Spess called the striped bass effort “one of the first real success stories” in fisheries management, she said factors such as weather and pollution could affect the stock’s future.
The resurgence of striped bass in the bay reflects the improving health of the fish along the entire East Coast. Atlantic Ocean commercial fishermen’s harvest of the fish increased 42 percent last year, according to a federal survey.
The population of striped bass, better known in the region as rockfish, was so depleted that from 1985 to 1989 Maryland issued a moratorium on all striped bass fishing.
But the survey suggests the striped bass stock will be strong in the future — the count of rockfish under a year old in Maryland waters set a record in 1996. That’s good news for the striped bass industry in other Atlantic states, as Maryland spawning areas produce most of the coast’s supply.
Despite the increased numbers of fish and the higher quotas, Maryland did not harvest the maximum number of fish last year and is short of its number this year. Subsequently, the Department of Natural Resources extended the recreational season for rockfish from Nov. 23 to Nov. 30.
From 1995-1996, the commercial harvest rose 42 percent and the recreational harvest 21 percent. Harry T. Hornick, a Maryland ecologist who advises the coast commission, predicted that the restoration efforts will benefit recreational fishing more than commercial in the future.
“If the stock continues to grow along the coast, the recreational season may continue to grow,” he said. “Maryland has set the trend for commercial monitoring. … It’s pretty effective.”
Simns said Atlantic commission representatives from northern states want to limit or even eliminate commercial striped bass fishing in the Bay to ensure better recreational fishing in their states.
“I don’t think that the quotas should be lifted but we shouldn’t be ultra conservative either,” he said. “We’re fishing only one half of the maximum sustainable yield.”