Maryland's prized rockfish is making a comeback after a 10-year decline.
Watermen recently have reported finding rockfish in their nets even when they are not trying to catch them, and state scientists said a recent survey showed more young rockfish swimming around the Chesapeake Bay than at any time since the early 1970s.
State officials warned, however, that it will be several years before the adult numbers of Maryland's endangered state fish are at normal, healthy levels. The fish is also called striped bass.
Catching rockfish was banned in Maryland in early 1985 after pollution and overzealous fishing caused dramatic declines in their numbers. Watermen had seen their catch of striped bass, once the state's most important commercial fish, decrease from more than 5 million pounds a year in the late 1960s to less than 400,000 pounds in 1984.
Virginia has banned rockfish catching during the spring spawning season between December and May, when it is easiest to catch the fish in large numbers. The state also has made it illegal to catch rockfish shorter than 18 inches in the bay and its tributaries and shorter than 24 inches offshore. But because rockfish tend to prefer the upper areas of the bay, fishing for them has not been as big an industry in Virginia as it has in Maryland.
"There's a lot of rockfish -- probably more than we have seen in the bay in many years," said Louis Rugolo of the state's Department of Natural Resources. But the rockfish "have by no means recovered," he added. "We're seeing a lot of young, immature fish that we need to protect for another year or two, before they become fully mature."
"It appears that right in this upper bay area, they are really on the increase," said Wayne Brady, a major fish buyer in Rock Hall who used to deal largely in rockfish. Watermen have "seen the fish everywhere. It's a good wide range, but the bulk of them probably hatched in the last couple of years."
Brady predicted there will be enough fish in a couple of years to end the ban and said that, for commercial reasons, limits on rockfish catches should be imposed. "There's going to be an abundance of fish," he said. "We have some sophisticated gear to catch fish . You get out there, and you glut the market, and then the price goes to hell. We really need to take a long look at this thing."
Most of the rockfish that watermen and scientists are finding in Maryland waters were born in 1982 -- and are called the class of '82 -- or later, and have not started to spawn or lay eggs. Scientists said the rockfish population can survive the nets and hooks of fishermen only after several classes have spawned.
"We've seen a lot of males of the '82 year class," said Rugolo. "And encouragingly, we've seen the participation in spawning of the '82 class females for the first time in this analysis." Female rockfish normally take about five years to become sexually mature, he said, and as a result only the more precocious of the class of '82 females have started to spawn.
It is hard to know the precise reasons why the bay's rockfish declined severely after 1970, Rugol said, but added that "there's very strong evidence that overfishing played a significant role." This reduced the ability of the rockfish population to survive such threats as water pollution and natural changes in the environment, he said.
Over the past three months, watermen have returned to their traditional fishing grounds on the Potomac and Choptank rivers and in the upper reaches of the bay, where rockfish spawn in the spring, to net rockfish for state biologists who count them, determine their ages by counting the rings on their scales, and release them.
Scientists working on the netting program said they were particularly encouraged by finding large numbers of female rockfish who typically live far more dangerous lives than males. While male fish normally stay in the Chesapeake Bay, females swim up the Atlantic coast after they are born, beyond the reach of Maryland's rockfish ban and into an ocean filled with predators.
The female fish return to the bay and the rivers in which they were born when they are old enough to spawn. They repeat the migration process to the ocean and back every year. If nobody catches them, they can live 25 years and spawn throughout their lives.