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What to do About the Dwindling Rockfish Population


The population of striped bass, better known as rockfish, is dwindling. And that has alarmed Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commissioners so much they have drawn up a plan to cut back landings throughout coastal fisheries, including the Chesapeake Bay.

The fisheries managers caution the situation is not as dire as it was in 1985, when Maryland imposed a fishing ban, but that they want to give states from Maine to Florida options.

At their biannual meeting in Alexandria Va., representatives from those states tried to figure out how to boost the striped bass population. Scientists said among the biggest problems are overfishing and a high rate – nine percent – of fish that die from wounds after they are caught and thrown back.

Mike Luisi, who runs fish monitoring programs for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, calls those fish “dead discards.”

“We have concerns over the ten-year decline in spawning stocks that's occurred,” he told the panel.

“There's a problem that exists which was discussed pretty in-depth back in February. And for us that problem is the dead discard issue in the recreational fishery.”

Commissioners say they are most concerned with the recreational fishery, which doesn't have the same limits imposed on it as the commercial fishery.

“If the number of saltwater recreational licenses is a metric for potential effort, those numbers are staggering,” said Eric Reid, who was representing Rhode Island. “I know in Rhode Island, the first year it came out we had 20,000 recreational licenses issued. The next year it was over 30,000. Virginia is in the same position only much bigger.

Scientists estimate that recreational fishermen were responsible for 90 percent of the catch in 2017.

Last week, ahead of the commissioners meeting, Virginia announced it was shutting down its spring trophy fish season citing concerns over declining numbers of spawning-age fish.

Virginia Fishery Manager Rob O'Reilly said dead discards have not been a problem in his state.

“The big currency in Virginia is to try to curtail the number of large fish that are taken regardless of where they are taken because this is a spawning area and it's very important,” he said.

The commission will hold public hearings over the summer on its plans, including proposals to cut harvests, requiring the use of circle hooks to reduce harm to rockfish during catch and release and prohibiting harvest of a fish over 40 inches.

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