Twelve years ago, on a crisp, windswept day in late October, from the banks of the Miles River I watched with others from the sport fishing community as President George H. Bush signed an executive order bestowing gamefish status on red drum and rockfish in federal waters. He then boarded a charter boat to try and catch a rockfish.President George W. Bush (which makes better since from at timing point of view), but whatever. Layers of fact checkers and all.
Some might argue – cynically perhaps – this was purely ceremonial, given both iconoclastic gamefish had long been out of bounds beyond the state boundary line. But they’d be missing the point. Both species are representative of saltwater angling at its best.
We had a few really great years, from about 2000 to 2008. Then things started to look off.
Both also had been pushed to the brink of no return by human avarice. And both had been brought back from that precipice, largely by the relentless determination of recreational anglers and conservationists. So when the leader of the free world acknowledges these efforts, it is a huge deal.
Several years before, and for a few years after President Bush’s show of support, we enjoyed a glorious rockfish renaissance. Fat and healthy stripers – many trophy-sized – could be caught up and down the Chesapeake Bay. Line peeled from reels at angling meccas like Cape Cod and Cape Charles, and points in between. All was right with the striper world. At that time, few saw signs that storm clouds were brewing.
The decline was a subtle at first, as is often the nature of these things. Then the drop accelerated. Many Chesapeake and East Coast anglers raised the alarm that the striper fishery was in serious trouble, warning if the brakes weren’t stomped on a crash was inevitable.We anglers has already been warning about the decline for years at that point, but the managers kept insisting that the numbers showed the fish weren't being overfished. As far as I know, they haven't apologized yet.
By the time the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) released its 2018 stock assessment stating rockfish are overfished and overfishing is occurring, much of the damage had already been done.
We’re now forced to again begin the arduous task of rebuilding rockfish stocks. Managers have set a minimum reduction target of at least 18 percent along the coast and in Chesapeake Bay.Yep, equal cuts. In a perfect world, I'd argue for a slow cessation of commercial fishing, but knowing fishing politics, that ain't gonna happen. Watermen would rather catch the last fish.
While I encourage you to read the entire draft proposal, called Draft Addendum VI, for the sake of brevity there are three basic options: Status Quo (Option 1); Equal Percent Reductions among the commercial and recreational sectors (Option 2:), and; Commercial sector takes a smaller percentage reduction (Option 3).
Most sport anglers and fishing groups I’ve talked with believe Option 2 (and its subsets) offers the best chance at reducing mortality quickly and fairly. I concur. Should Maryland close the upper Bay during the summer to reduce dead discards—and I believe they should—then it also makes sense to consider implementing a complete closure that applies fairly to both commercial and recreational sectors.
I’m also hopeful Maryland will be among the leaders during this latest round of rockfish conservation, in no small part because we’re the primary nursery state but also because so much is at stake economically.
You don’t need me to remind you of the significance of the issue confronting the ASMFC, and by extension striper anglers and the sport fishing community writ large. Whatever you do, don’t sit this one out. One way to ensure nothing meaningful happens is to wring your hands in apathy.
As we move forward in the rebuilding years, the question we should ask ourselves is what kind of striper fishery do we really want, not just for the next few years but long-term?
Meanwhile, the Redfish are doing great, judging by the number of giants being caught in the Bay this year.
So why have the conservation measures succeeded so well for the Redfish, and relatively poorly for the Striped Bass? It might have something to do with the fact that the commercial fishing for Redfish in 2017 was approximately 194,000 pounds harvested, with a maximum size of 27 inches, while the commercial take of Stripers was 4.6 million pounds, with a maximum size of 36 inches (at least in MD).
The Wombat has Rule 5 Sunday: Summertime Girls ready for your digital amusement.