The number of adult rockfish (striped bass) has been declining for 10 years and is about to drop below the level that means it is officially "overfished." This is the primary finding of the latest scientific analysis of the striped bass "stock," which includes fish spawned in the Hudson and Delaware Rivers as well as the Chesapeake. In fact, Chesapeake-born rockfish migrate all the way to Maine and make up about 75 percent of the total catch.
Recreational and commercial fishermen pursue striped bass from Maine to North Carolina, making it one of the most sought-after fish along the coast. However catches have been declining steadily in recent years. These states are currently working together under the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to craft a response to the situation that will maintain the stock at a level that will support these valuable fisheries.
But the Bay's rockfish population is far from collapsing. A few things to keep in mind:
1. First, while the amount of spawning-age female rockfish (the "spawning stock") is dropping into the overfished range, this does not mean we face reproductive failure. The spawning stock threshold is set conservatively at the level it was in 1995 when the stock was declared recovered from the severe decline of the 1970s and 80s. Scientists knew that this was a level from which the stock could recover, because it did so very well. (In fact, we set a record for reproduction in 1993, and then we shattered that record in 1996.) A favorable spawning pattern continued in the Bay through 2003 and then dropped off until 2011. This period of lower reproduction is the main reason for the stock decline.
2. Second, in 2011 Chesapeake rockfish had an excellent spawn producing the fourth highest number of juveniles on record. This very strong "year class" will mature in the next few years and join the spawning stock, helping turn the trajectory back upward.
How much and how soon we need to conserve striped bass in the short term to boost this recovery is the question currently before the ASMFC. The Commission is deliberating the nature of the fishing restrictions that will be required under an updated fishery management plan for striped bass.
A draft striped bass management plan that includes a number of options for cutting back the catch is available for public comment through September. The goal is to reduce the amount of fishing to the level that will bring the population up to a healthier, more stable state over time (AKA the target level). The main decision among the options presented is whether to do it in one year, which would require a 25 percent cutback, or spread it across three years at a rate of 17 percent. We at CBF believe that the three-year phase-in at 17 percent is an appropriate management measure. It provides the same level of conservation after three years without inordinate socio-economic impacts. Click here for more information and to submit your own comments about this important issue.
Perhaps more critical for Chesapeake Bay is the quality of the habitat the Bay provides for rockfish during their first four to six years when they are year-round residents in the Bay before joining the annual coastal migration. Exposure to low dissolved oxygen, high summer water temperatures, diminished grass beds and oyster reefs, and lack of sufficient food, especially their favorite forage fish, Atlantic menhaden, has taken a toll on these fish. In fact, scientists have documented widespread occurrence of a serious disease called mycobacteriosisamong resident stripers that likely results from poor water quality and nutrition. And fishery managers now assume a higher mortality rate for those fish in their population modeling--in effect we are having to adjust to a degraded Bay.
Therefore, implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, restoring habitat, and conserving forage fish are essential to maintaining healthy populations of rockfish and all the other Bay fish and shellfish we value.
--Bill Goldsborough, CBF's Director of Fisheries
Help us get the word out about the state of the rockfish by sharing the above infographic with your friends and family!