It was likely they would succeed: Motovidlak has a half-century of on-the-water experience as well as a high-tech fish finder that scans the bay. It doesn’t take him long to get over a school of what the fishermen call “stripers,” also known widely in the Chesapeake area as rockfish, a species valued for its white, flaky meat. “Fish on!” one young man yells as his line goes taut.
A few months earlier, a New England-based nonprofit group called Stripers Forever, aimed at protecting the striped bass as a game fish, called for a 10-year moratorium on the harvest of stripers from Maine to North Carolina, including in the Chesapeake, the largest striped bass nursery area on the East Coast. Anglers could still catch striped bass, but every one would have to be released. Many who fish for sport do that already. For Motovidlak, his charter customers and any of the hundreds of other fishermen looking for a meal on this cool June morning, however, a moratorium would mean no fish filets. “What it means is retirement,” he said of a potential moratorium, which, if enacted, would be carried out by state officials.
Fish, particularly species known as both sporting fish and table fare like the striped bass, need to be managed, collectively, among the states where they are sought. There’s often tinkering year to year, a tidelike give-and-take of state regulations — such as rules governing how many fish one person can keep — to appease recreational anglers, charter boat captains and commercial fishermen. That tinkering extends to other species of fish the striped bass eat. In some places, like the Chesapeake, Cape Cod and Montauk, at the eastern tip of Long Island, striped bass are intertwined with both the economy and the culture.
Stripers Forever believes the time for tinkering is over when it comes to striped bass. The call for a 10-year moratorium is an alarm meant to wake up anyone who believes the stock is healthy, says Mike Spinney, a member of the national board of Stripers Forever. “Immediately after we made that suggestion, the conversation changed,” Spinney, a Massachusetts resident, told me. “We got lambasted by some, but we received positive reception from others. The fact that people are debating whether this is the right approach is a plus for us. Why do we have to wait for a collapse to take action that is necessary now?”
Most of the Atlantic’s striped bass spawn in the Chesapeake Bay and its many tributaries each spring, and juveniles often stay there for years before heading into open ocean. Counting fish is not easy, obviously, and extrapolations are made based on the size of large breeding females known as cows. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which oversees management of the species for the Eastern states, has deemed the striped bass “overfished,” based on a 2018 assessment. The commission also found the striped bass’s mortality rate was high, meaning too many fish that are caught and released are not surviving.
“The stock is declining, and we’ve been seeing that in the stock assessments,” says Toni Kerns, the ASMFC’s fisheries policy director. As a result, the commission told states they needed to reduce the overall “removals” of the fish from the water, whether they are taken for food or accidentally killed. Lowering removals is often done in myriad ways, including instituting open and closed seasons, regulating the size of fish that can be kept and requiring the use of specific hooks aimed at reducing mortality. In Maryland, in June, each fisherman on Motovidlak’s boat was allowed to keep two striped bass between 19 and 28 inches. Everyone caught two legal fish, and plenty of smaller ones were thrown back. Occasionally, small dead stripers floated past the Dawn Marie and other boats.
Spinney, of Stripers Forever, says Maryland is the striped bass’s worst enemy on the East Coast, likening the state to Nero, fiddling while Rome burned. “Maryland is at the top of the list for the continued decline of striped bass and against taking action,” he told me.
Mike Luisi, director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Monitoring and Assessment Division of Fishing and Boating Services, points out that managing an ecosystem is not black and white, and that one must take the needs of the fish and all types of fishermen into account when making rules. “We have to find a balance, and that’s not as simple as some people think,” Luisi told me. “There’s a lot riding on it.” The state has had moratoriums in the past, he notes, “but we don’t believe we’re at that point again. There’s other things we can try to do to help the population rebound before we do that. We can reduce the amount of fish you could take home, for instance.”
Motovidlak has been fishing so long that he’s used to most regulation changes and rolls with them. It’s the more recent hook requirements that really irk him. Traditional hooks, shaped like the letter “J,” can be swallowed more easily when a striped bass inhales bait. A fish that swallows a hook into its stomach is usually doomed. In 2018, Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources required fishermen like Motovidlak to use circle hooks, which have more bent angles meant to pierce the fish’s mouth and lips.
Motovidlak says he catches fewer fish with circle hooks and some still get “gut hooked” and die anyway. He hates circle hooks so much that in 2019, undercover DNR officers posing as fishermen on his boat found that he wasn’t using them and fined him for the hook infraction and other violations. “That was my first ticket in 49 years,” he says. “I’m on probation.”
For Nick Li, a recreational angler from Yorktown, Va., who catches 50-plus stripers a year over 40 inches long in the bay and the Atlantic, the thought of a moratorium brings mixed feelings. He knows a moratorium would be best for the fish and his interests: Li, 26, has never kept a single striped bass to eat, only handling them long enough to take a photo before releasing them. “I value them as a sport fish, not for food,” Li says. But he also knows a moratorium would possibly end a way of life for many bay watermen.
On the Dawn Marie, amid all the hooking, netting, measuring, baiting and chumming, Elam Fisher, the patriarch of the family who came from Pennsylvania to charter the boat, seemed puzzled when I asked if he would still visit Maryland to fish if he couldn’t keep any. “No,” he said, after a few seconds. “What would be the point of that?”
Jason Nark is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a freelance writer.