Checking in on the Bay's Rockfish Population

It’s mid-spring, and anglers up and down the Chesapeake are eager to wet a line and land a trophy striped bass. Iconic in the Bay, these fish—also known as rockfish—are a favorite of recreational anglers and support an important commercial fishery.

But population numbers for these fish are below target levels. A new stock assessment indicates that this migratory species is overfished—leaving fewer female fish to spawn new generations—and that the population could continue to decline without action.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) holds the responsibility for managing the striped bass population up and down the East Coast, and various Chesapeake Bay agencies (Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, and Potomac River Fisheries Commission) in turn set regulations that support the ASMFC plan.

While a preliminary discussion was held in February, ASMFC will consider the way forward for rockfish at its spring meeting during the last week of April. At that meeting, ASMFC is expected to formally adopt the 2018 stock assessment, triggering a process that would result in a new coastwide fishery management plan within a year. Jurisdictions can choose to take action before that plan is in place. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted to eliminate the spring trophy striped bass season, which had been slated for May 1-June 15, in Virginia waters. Potomac River Fisheries Commission and Maryland Department of Natural Resources indicate they will wait to hear the results of ASMFC spring meeting discussions.

Many fishermen recall the 1980s, when the rockfish population crashed due to overfishing and a moratorium on catching them up and down the East Coast, including the Chesapeake, was enacted to allow the species to rebound. In Maryland, no catch of striped bass was allowed for five years, and other states enacted shorter moratoriums. The population did grow again, and harvests gradually resumed. In 1995, the species was declared “recovered.”

Moratoriums can have far-reaching effects—as recreational anglers lose a favorite fishing target, charter boats and associated industries (bait, marine supplies) lose business, and the commercial fishery is shut down.

Photo of Maryland DNR's fall striped bass survey by Chesapeake Bay Program

The spring trophy season—where fishermen are once again allowed to keep one large fish each day, after the wintertime catch-and-release season—is scheduled to start April 20 in Maryland and on the Potomac River and May 1 in Virginia. Each area has specific regulations on fish size and areas where fishing is allowed.

While many anglers enjoy catching and keeping these large fish, others simply enjoy being out on the water for catch and release. Whether it is for catch and release or to return striped bass that are too small to the waters, all fishermen should follow responsible catch and release protocol.