Number of young striped bass in Chesapeake Bay spikes

After several years of discouraging results, Maryland fisheries officials say the number of juvenile striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay this summer was the fourth highest in the 58-year history of their annual census.

The abundance of palm-sized newborns bodes well for those who catch — and those who eat — the official state fish, also known as rockfish.

"We had a widespread good spawn in the bay. … In three to four years that will translate into excellent fishing," said Tom O'Connell, director of the Fisheries Service for the Department of Natural Resources. "I expect this will relieve a lot of anxiety here and along the coast."

The census results, released Tuesday, couldn't have come at a better time for Maryland, where commercial and recreational striped bass fishing is a multimillion-dollar business that employs more than 8,000 people. Early next month, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a regulatory panel that sets fishing quotas for Eastern Seaboard states, is to vote on a proposal that could reduce the annual harvest by up to 40 percent.

"We're tickled to death. This is a life-saver," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "If we had had another bad hatch, we would have had cutbacks and that would have been devastating to us. This gives us some breathing room."

The 2011 Young of the Year survey sets the population index nearly three times higher than the long-term average. The number is determined during a three-month sampling of traditional spawning areas in the bay.

The survey, which has been conducted since 1954, is a vital tool in determining the health of the East Coast's striped bass and helping fisheries managers and a regional regulatory commission decide how many fish the commercial industry and recreational anglers should be allowed to harvest.

In Virginia, biologists are reporting similar success in the six rivers that feed the lower bay.

"After almost a decade of average striper reproduction, this is terrific news," said John Bull, spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. "This is a harbinger of good years to come for all of us who love to catch and grill stripers."

Maryland biologists collecting samples found more good news: The number of juvenile blueback herring rose and white perch, a popular recreational target, showed near-record numbers, O'Connell said.

Striped bass reproduction hinges on many factors, including weather conditions, water temperature, winter snowfall and subsequent spring runoff. Last spring lacked the dramatic fluctuations in temperature and water flow that can hamper spawning, O'Connell said.

"We just needed the right environmental conditions to have a strong season," he said.

The upper Chesapeake Bay is the spawning ground and nursery for more than three-quarters of the East Coast's striped bass, a migratory fish. Overfishing in the 1970s and early 1980s led to a five-year moratorium to allow the population to rebuild; it ended in 1990.

Since that near-collapse, the welfare of striped bass has been one of the most debated and studied topics in East Coast fisheries management, and Maryland's policies have been under a microscope.

Recently, representatives of the Atlantic fisheries commission had become increasingly worried that the population wasn't as robust as it should be. Four of the last five years had below-average spawning and the overall population was down 25 percent. Additionally, a deadly disease, mycobacteriosis, has infected up to 60 percent of adult striped bass in the Chesapeake.

Although the population never dropped to a level requiring intervention, the regulatory group took the unusual step of drafting an amendment to the striped bass management plan to curtail fishing without waiting for this year's juvenile survey or an update of the adult population numbers. That amendment will be voted on in Boston on Nov. 8.

The juvenile census is derived from sampling 22 sites in Maryland's portion of the bay with nets in July, August and September in four areas that serve as the primary spawning grounds. The upper bay and Potomac River have seven sites each; the Nanticoke and Choptank rivers have four each.

Ultimately, biologists make 132 hauls. The index number is derived from the average number of juvenile fish caught in the hauls. For instance, if there's an average number of one fish caught per sampling, the index number is 1.

O'Connell was reluctant to predict how the commission would react to the latest survey, noting that there is growing pressure from New England anglers to take precautionary measures until the adult population numbers rebound. A complete stock assessment is still two years away.

"The science has been strong and we need to maintain our confidence in it," he said. "Hopefully, we'll stay the course."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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