- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

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 the Capt. Buddy charter boat.

At 36 inches, its belly shimmering and deep crimson gills exposed as it is netted and hauled in, the rockfish is fat and healthy. It’s an example of what state officials loudly hail as one 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 opened this week, 15 years after a moratorium on rockfish ended, some environmentalists and watermen say the species is at a crossroads, its future threatened by disease and the overharvesting of the fish it preys on.

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 watermen say some of the rockfish they catch 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.

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 trophy season, which lasts from April 17 to May 15, comes as the fish move up and down the Bay into spawning grounds. Anglers hunt them with big, neon yellow or white rubber lures crowned with bright shocks of feathery hair and embedded with a sturdy hook.

Fishermen prize rockfish for their taste, the fight they put up and their size — some can reach more than 65 pounds. During the trophy season, anglers can only keep one fish per day that is more than 28 inches long.

Anglers reeled in more than 31,000 rockfish last year, according to DNR fisheries officials, and this year’s catch could also be strong. Fish born during three different years that produced healthy populations of rockfish are now big enough to be part of the trophy season, with the 16-year-olds born in 1989 potentially reaching more than 45 inches.

The stock hasn’t always been so robust. By the mid-1980s, the Atlantic Coast’s population had fallen to about 5 million, a victim of overfishing.

It took about 10 years, with moratoriums and catch limits imposed by states around the Bay, for the fish to recover. The DNR estimates that there were about 56.7 million rockfish in 2004.

But there are threats to that recovery, Mr. 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 also can sometimes lead to unsightly ulcers.

DNR 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.

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 also are used for human dietary supplements.

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