The Chesapeake’s fish and shellfish are the most tangible symbol of our treasured Bay. The Chesapeake Bay is home to 348 species of finfish and 173 species of shellfish, many of which have been fished commercially and recreationally for generations.
Sadly, over time many of the Bay’s fisheries have been taken for granted. People have polluted the water, damaged vital fishery habitat like oyster reefs and underwater grass beds, and engaged in overharvesting. As a result, many of the Chesapeake Bay's fisheries have been reduced in diversity and productivity.
CBF seeks to apply the lessons learned from history to restore and maintain the Bay's valuable fisheries. We strive to represent the interests of the resource itself, "speaking for the fish" at legislative hearings, in regulatory forums, and directly to watermen and anglers.
The Chesapeake Bay’s fisheries are a huge economic driver in the region. Fisheries represent jobs, tourism, and a unique way of life. Here’s what that means by the numbers:
- Five-hundred million pounds of seafood are harvested each year from the Chesapeake Bay, supporting the region's livelihoods and ways of life.
- The 2016 Fisheries Economics of the U.S. report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicates that the commercial seafood industry in Maryland and Virginia contributed $1.4 billion in sales, almost $539 million in income, and more than 30,000 jobs to the local economy.
As the largest estuary in North America, the Chesapeake Bay is a hot spot for commercial fishing—both for the variety of fish species found in the watershed and the quality of the seafood harvested here.
While the Chesapeake Bay is known for our iconic blue crabs and oysters, they are only two of many fish and shellfish species commercially caught here. Striped bass, blue catfish, and menhaden are three other significant commercial species.
The Chesapeake Bay remains one of the few places in the world that still supports an industry based on harvesting oysters from the wild, though it is a fraction of what it once was. Decades of overharvesting, disease, and pollution have taken their toll, removing not just the oysters but the valuable habitat they created, as well. Find out more about oysters to the Chesapeake and efforts to restore them.
With wild oyster harvests struggling, a new, growing industry is taking hold and is helping to keep oysters supplied to our restaurants and oyster roasts. Aquaculturists are successfully farming shellfish (oysters and clams) throughout the Bay. Much of this new industry is focused on providing uniquely branded oysters for a variety of markets. Find out more about oyster aquaculture.
Just like the oyster, the blue crab is critical to the Chesapeake’s culture and economy. While the population fluctuates annually based on a variety of factors, in general the population has been more robust since a new baywide management plan was agreed to in 2008. Find out more about the challenges faced by the blue crab.
These small silvery members of the herring family create a vital connection between the bottom and top of the food chain, helping nourish a variety of predators, including striped bass, osprey, and marine mammals. Atlantic menhaden have been the number one fishery in the Chesapeake by weight for decades. More than 150,000 metric tons are caught each year. Most of the catch is rendered into oil and fish meal for dietary supplements (a process called reduction) and feed for livestock and aquaculture. A significantly smaller but important portion supplies bait, especially for the blue crab fishery. Find out more about the importance of menhaden.
Striped Bass (a.k.a. Rockfish)
Overfishing devastated the Chesapeake's rockfish stocks in the 1970s, but intensive conservation efforts in the 1980s through the 2000s restored them to sustainable levels. However, recent assessments of rockfish indicate the stocks are once again on a downward trajectory, with indications that overfishing is occurring and the stocks are in a depleted state. Challenging environmental conditions and elevated catch and release mortality, lower than average spawning success are contributing the rockfish's recent declines. Swift and meaningful management action by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will be necessary to reverse this decline. Find out more about the challenges facing Chesapeake's rockfish population.
Moving forward, our fisheries need thoughtful, proactive management combined with aggressive restoration efforts in order to improve fished populations across the board.
The health of the Chesapeake Bay and its underwater residents suffer from both airborne and waterborne pollution. Air pollution, primarily from power plants, is the main source of the mercury contamination of fish in the Bay watershed. As a result, anglers are warned to limit their consumption of certain fish species due to potentially harmful levels of this toxic chemical.
Unfortunately, in April 2020 EPA reversed its stance on regulating toxic chemical emissions, including mercury, from power plants. Also, regulations focused on reductions in nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions have been delayed by industry lawsuits.
Waterborne pollution comes from stormwater runoff from cities, suburbs, and farms. Runoff picks up oil, pesticides, and other chemicals as it flows across lawns, fields, roads, and parking lots into nearby streams and storm drains. There, it enters an interconnected web of bioaccumulation.
Here’s what the impact of pollution looks like in practice: Small, bottom-dwelling aquatic organisms take up these contaminants as they feed… larger fish eat these contaminated organisms and accumulate toxins in their tissue… and we humans—and other animals—end up consuming these contaminates when we eat the fish.
The Importance of Conservation
Fisheries management is comprised of two basic functions: conservation—determining how many fish, crabs, and oysters can be caught without harming the resource—and allocation–determining who gets to harvest these resources.
Historically, conservation has too often been compromised to satisfy allocation pressures. The result? Depleted fisheries.
We believe the two core functions of fishery management must be addressed separately. At CBF, we focus on conservation issues. And for those conservation efforts to be successful, we believe they must be based on science with input from all stakeholders, including the commercial watermen. We promote the use of the best available scientific information as the basis for conservation decisions, but when information is incomplete, we advocate caution, erring on the side of the resource.
How You Can Help Restore the Bay’s Fisheries
Here are other ways you can help restore the Bay’s fisheries:
- Become an oyster gardener: Help rebuild the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population by growing oysters alongside your docks. Then, we’ll plant them in our sanctuary reefs!
- Recycle your oyster shells: Did you know oyster shells could be used to create habitat for other oysters? CBF places cleaned, cured shells in huge water tanks containing millions of microscopic oyster larvae, which then attach to the shells.
- Practice safe fish handling techniques: Even fish that are released alive can die after release because of the stress of being caught and handled. Learn how to safely handle and release fish to minimize this “post-release mortality” that impacts fish populations .
- Plant trees: From capturing and filtering out pollution before it enters our waterways to alleviating flooding by stabilizing the soil, trees provide countless health, economic, and environmental benefits. Check our calendar for upcoming tree planting events. If you live in Pennsylvania, see what opportunities are available with our Keystone Ten Million Trees Partnership.
- Support CBF's Bay-saving efforts: Your critical support will help CBF restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay, its rivers, and its streams for generations to come.