Every May, female striped bass, fat with thousands of eggs, return to the upper Chesapeake Bay to spawn, starting another life cycle for the fish that have become an emblem of the state and synonymous with fishing on the East Coast.
Maryland’s official state fish is also a rite of spring, as hordes of anglers in charter boats and private vessels swarm the bay for the trophy season, when fishermen are allowed to keep only one fish per day.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources said Wednesday it has submitted emergency regulations in an effort to protect the spawning population of striped bass, also known as rockfish. The proposal would extend existing prohibitions on recreational fishing for rockfish and push them into May.
The proposal seeks to eliminate the trophy season from May 1 to May 15, and also end the catch-and-keep fishery on the Susquehanna Flats from May 16 to May 31. The remainder of the existing season would remain unchanged and allow for unfettered fishing from June 1 to July 15, and again from Aug. 1 to Dec. 10.
The move comes after the DNR has recorded years of steady decline in the numbers of juvenile striped bass that emerge after the spawn. That number peaked in the early 2000s but apart from a few brief upticks has shown a “slow yet consistent decline” since then, said Mike Luisi, an associate director at the DNR.
“We’re saying, if they made it through an entire year, made it through the gauntlet, and they’ve arrived here and they’re ready to lay their eggs, let’s leave them alone for a season,” Luisi said.
The hope is that one strong season of restorative spawning can “drive a fishery for 10 years,” he said.
Striped bass inhabit the coastal waters of the Atlantic from Maine to the Carolinas, but they begin life in the shallows of Maryland, where their eggs hatch and juveniles spend years feeding and growing before heading out to the ocean.
Before the proposal goes into effect, it has to be approved by the 19-member Maryland General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, which is chaired by Sen. Mary Washington and Del. Samuel Rosenberg. The committee must wait 10 business days before holding a vote. Before the committee votes, it could request a hearing to ask questions, or request changes to the proposal.
“We don’t anticipate making changes to it,” Luisi said. “We hope that given the importance of it, it will be approved. It’s not a done deal but we are working as if it is.”
The proposed restrictions apply only to recreational fishing, which includes charter businesses. Commercial harvesting of rockfish is managed separately and regulated with quotas. The commercial season generally starts in June and ends in February.
“They’ve been slowly chipping away at the days,” said Dave Mogel, who operates Mary Lou Too Charters, a fishing charter business out of Chesapeake Beach. “The season used to close on the 15th, now it’s the 10th [of December]. It used to open the third Saturday of April, now it’s May 1.”
Mogel has other employment and runs the business as a side hustle, but he’s concerned about those who depend on recreational fishing to make a living, and the cultural cost of losing it. He talked of generations of families joined by fishing on the bay, and of people who use all of their time off to go fishing, because it’s the one vacation a year they can afford. He understands the need to protect fishing stocks, but he feels recreational fishermen bear an inordinate amount of the pain.
“I get it, but I don’t understand their rationale,” Mogel said. “They’re not talking to us.”
“I think they’re being reactive, not proactive. The writing’s been on the wall that fish are declining. But it’s tough, because a lot of people make money on fishing. I see another moratorium coming, I do. I just don’t know when.”
In January 1985, the state instituted a controversial moratorium on catching rockfish after stocks plummeted. It was the answer to a decade long decline and lasted until October of 1990. Rockfish rebounded and continue to do so for another decade.
For many years after the moratorium ended, rockfish populations remained healthy. Regulations put in place after the moratorium helped keep their numbers up, but in recent years, the count of juveniles in the bay has been dropping. The DNR cited warmer, drier winters and decreased spring water flow as contributing factors.
“Most likely, it’s multiple factors,” said Jack Cover, general curator of the National Aquarium. “No one knows for sure what the cause is for the decline.”
Cover also oversees the aquarium’s waterfront campus project, an attempt to recreate shoreline habitats in the Inner Harbor to attract native species like the menhaden, also known as bunker, which juvenile rockfish feed on.
According to the DNR, 70% to 90% of the striped bass on the Atlantic coast are born in the Chesapeake, making it the nursery of the species.
“What Maryland does to protect spawning striped bass has cascading effects for all states that rely on this coastwide stock,” said Allison Colden, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a regional conservation organization. “DNR’s emergency actions recognize a need to reduce interactions with spawning fish, which will hopefully help address the alarming trend of continued low juvenile abundance in the Bay.”
Water quality, the health of aquatic grasses, water temperature, salinity, pollution, and waterfront development all affect juvenile rockfish. Invasive species like snakehead fish and blue catfish are also possibly preying on young rockfish.
These factors, in addition to habitat loss, are likely contributing to the decline of the juvenile population, Cover said.
“It’s many factors,” he said, “but overfishing is the one thing we can control.”