- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Striped bass fans who believe the bigger fish simply aren't as readily available in the Chesapeake Bay as they once were are correct.
During a recent meeting with the state's outdoors writers, fisheries biologists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources appeared to agree that catches of fat rockfish in the 8- to 12-pound class during the frosty months aren't what they used to be.
For example, one of the richest rivers for fish anywhere on the East Coast, the tidal Potomac, could be relied upon only a few years ago to deliver a veritable cornucopia of 6- to 12-pound stripers around the U.S. Route 301 bridge in Charles County the moment autumn's first cold winds blew across the Chesapeake. That is no longer so. The same is heard from Chesapeake Bay trollers during the late season. One reader e-mailed us several days ago, urging the state to enact a rockfish moratorium like the one that ran from 1985 to 1990. He believes the commercial netters in the bay and its rivers are taking far too many fish. (Of course, the watermen blame recreational anglers.)
Meanwhile, the fisheries people at the DNR say the spawning stock of rockfish age 8 and up actually has increased. These are fish from the 1993 year class. And watch out, they warn, when an exceptionally large 1996 year class of stripers turns 8 in 2004. The DNR believes the Chesapeake will be brimming with the striped delicacies.
However, what used to be a sizeable resident population of fat rockfish even during the winter months now resides along the Atlantic Ocean shore. Why?
There isn't enough food for them in the Chesapeake when the water turns icy. Because of unchecked commercial exploitation, the bay's menhaden schools have dwindled so severely that a case might be made to protect them under federal endangered species statutes. As it is, the soft-finned baitfish are netted to the brink of extinction just so they can be turned into fish oils, fertilizers and pet foods.
The menhaden also provide the bulk of nourishment for rockfish, bluefish, sea trout and other predator species. If there's not enough food to go around, the fish seek new hunting grounds and ignore our waters.

What else is new at the DNR?
The new Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, J. Charles Fox, continues to be viewed with some caution by many outdoors writers.
Fox was appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a man widely perceived to be an animal rights advocate, what with his recent expressions concerning the management of the state's burgeoning whitetailed deer herd through "non-lethal methods," which are animal rights agenda buzzwords if ever there were any.
Would the Guv appoint a man who ran counter to his beliefs? Fox has had ties with Friends of the Earth, the Nature Conservancy, and the Sierra Club none of which are viewed by the recreational hunting community as stalwart supporters of their sport.
To be sure, I've met officers of the Nature Conservancy who were hunters, but they didn't want it widely known. The Sierra Club, meanwhile, certainly is no friend of the American hunter.
When Fox was asked by The Washington Times how he feels about recreational hunting, he said, "Hunters are an important part of Maryland. I am not for a minute going to suggest that I am anti-hunting, but the DNR's role is to manage the state's natural resources for all the people."
While that sounds a lot like he is willing to turn the "tree huggers" loose during various hunting seasons on state-owned lands, Fox also said that hunters play a vital role in the state's ongoing management of wildlife. Go figure.

A crabby forecast
Eric Schwaab, the director of Maryland Fisheries, is fully aware of the load that will be placed on his department with the future management of the top cash crop in the Chesapeake, the blueclaw crab. Small wonder. The bay-wide commercial crab harvest in 1993 was 110 million pounds. In 2000 it had dropped to 40 million pounds. Virginia crabbers told their Maryland counterparts that their late-season catches were down 48 percent over the previous year, but crabbers in Maryland's Tangier Sound said they had a fine year, while others in the upper Bay complained.
Schwaab says the state will try to get a better handle on things and probably begin regional surveys of catches and think of ways to help crabbers in one area, while such help might not be needed in other sectors. One thing is certain: The crab spawning stock biomass is way below long-term averages; crabbers' efforts have been at record levels, and abundance is down. So the bi-state Blue Crab Advisory Committee agrees that something needs to be done to reduce crab catches.
What are the odds that Virginians will stop taking sponge crabs or that Marylanders will stop going after females? Not very good, believe me, even with all the valiant talk of helping the crabs.

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