Anyone who cares anything about saltwater fishing is concerned about the plight of the sriped bass, a fish whose fortunes are inexricably linked with the health and welfare of the Chesapeake Bay.
Hook-and-line fishermen from the Carolinas to Maine are wringing their hands over the downward plunge in striper catches over the last eight years. The federal government has a three-year emergency study under way to find out what's wrong. Individual states are monitoring water quality, tagging fish, looking for answers in the puzzle.
So why, why tell me, were watermen at the head of the Chesapeake Bay selling stripers to wholesalers this winter for 35 cents a pound, as low a price as there's been in a decade?
The answer is simple. For the last for months, Maryland commercial netters have been catching hell out of stripers, which they call rockfish. Two weeks ago, for example, Bobby Jobes, who fishes net out of Havre de Grace near the mouth of the Susquehanna River, brought in 2,400 pounds of stripers one day. Watermen will tell you that ton-a-day catches will have not been unusual.
According to sources in Rock Hall, one netter there has landed more than 70 tons of stripers this winter. It's been a season very much like the boom years of the 1960s, one waterman said.
The result was a market flooded with rockfish, and flooded markets mean low prices.
So what became of the striper emergency, the rockfish disaster, the downward slide that is supposed to show no sign of abating?
Still there, says the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. And about to get much, much worse.
To understand the rockfish dilemma, you have to understand a little about the habits of the fish. They are anadramous, meaning they live in salt or brackish water but return to freshwater rivers to spawn. The great majority of rockfish spawning on the East Coast occurs in the rivers of the Chesapeake, so what happens there affects fishing up and down the coast.
There were tremendously successful spawns here in 1956, '58, '64, '66 and '70, creating dominant year-classes that fleshed out the striper population to record levels.
Since 1970, there had been no dominat year-class. Instead, spawning success had declined steadily, according to studies by Maryland DNR scientists. Steadily, they say, but not dramatically. Then the bottom dropped out in the springs of 1979 and 1980. They are expecting disastrous rockfish catches beginning in 1982.
The DNR is busy trying to convince people that real trouble is brewing on the striped bass front. Meanwhile, commercial fishermen are having one of their finest years. It is a strange situation.
"No more rockfish? I no more believe that then that cows will grow wings and fly," said Gregg Buckmaster, who has netted stripers out of Chesapeake Beach for eight years and has enjoyed a solid season this winter.
But that's what Maryland officials are afraid of. Every spring and summer they run seine-haul surveys at selected spots around the bay to determine the success of that year's spawning rockfish. The last boom year, 1970, they averaged 30 young of the year per haul of the seine.
This is the progression in the 10 years since: 15 per haul in 1971; 11 1/2 in '72; 14 in '73; then 12 1/2; 7; 6; 7; a moderate rise to 9 in 1978; 4 in 1979 and below 2 in 1980.
"Those last two figures are the basis for our concern," said Pete Jensen, DNR tidal fisheries director. "Up to 1978 we had what we call 'normal' reproduction, with a slight decline. The last two years mark the third- and second lowest figures since we started taking haul surveys in 1954; the worst two-year stretch ever."
It will take two years for the meger few fish hatched, if indeed the hatches were as bad as DNR says, to reach keeper size. So when DNR proposes conservation measures in view of its dire predictions, the commercial fishermen say, "Why? We're up to our ears in rockfish."
Most commercial men simply don't believe the DNR really knows what's going to happen, and they cite this winter's fine catch as a perfect example.
"These guys (DNR scientists) are just bopping around with a little seine, going to the same spots every year," said one. "If the fish don't happen to be there when they show up they say a disaster is coming.
"I don't really think they know a thing about it," added the fisherman, who asked that his name not be used. "I mean, where did all those fish that we're catching come from?
"Some of the guys in the bay have fished anchor nets for 30 years and they never caught this many fish in their lives."
The state contends this winter's success stemmed from a curious combination of factors. There was a respectable population of keeper-sized fish after the succesful 1978 hatch and circumstances had the stripers moving up the bay in shallow water at a time when netters were poised and ready to intercept them.
"You can't judge a population by the harvest," said George Krantz of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies. "The commercial men just managed to hit 'em this year."
And that's where it stands: a squareoff between the people who work the bay, who like the way things look, and the people who study the bay, who don't. At a hearing before a State Senate committee last month, assembled watermen managed to knock down a state proposal to raise the minimum size for "keeper" stripers from 12 to 14 inches. Now the DNR has run out of proposals, but not worries.
"We really do believe," said Jensen, "that in 1982 people are going to be saying, 'Where are all the rockfish?'" CAPTION:
Picture, Rock Hall watermen, Booty Elbourne, Joe Kendall and Buddy Beck, pick striped Bass from nets in Chesapeake Bay. By Angus Phillips -- The Washington Post