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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Below is what I consider to a be a well-thought, even-keeled article in today's Capital newspaper on the possibility of a declining Rockfish population. Nice job, Chris.

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Earlier this week an acquaintance sent me a note, lamenting that, unlike in previous weeks, his most recent outing didn’t produce the “big rockfish.” Never mind the fact that in the several spots where he and his friend wet a line they hooked up – it was as if the lack a trophy striper was the only criteria for success. Such disappointment is baffling to me from a sportsman’s perspective.
I get a fair number of such emails, and am regularly sent photos of the ‘big ones’. It’s great people are out taking advantage of the great fall fishing in our area waters, when the ocean run stripers mingle with Chesapeake resident schoolies. And while I don’t consider myself a purist in the strict catch-and-release sense, on my boat we rarely, if ever in recent years, kill a large breeder. But we do rejoice in keeping a dinner rockfish (from 18-28 inches) from time to time. And it’s also true that I’ve killed a few big rockfish (tournaments mainly) and I can understand why people want to, as long as it’s legal to do so.

But there is a troubling trend afoot, which can be seen in both the scientific data from our Department of Natural Resources and observations of many fishermen along the coast who for decades have followed striped bass trends.

First the anecdotal: Friends who fish up and down the striper coast, particularly in New England waters, have in recent years noted the absence of the big breeders. Also, for several years there has been disturbing “dock talk” detailing the deeds of miscreant sport anglers who fish outside the legal boundaries, catch more than the legal number of fish and even “double dip” – catch their legal limit, sprint to the dock where they dump the striper in a cooler in the truck and head back out.

This is more than idle talk ¬ I’ve seen it happen on a few occasions, and have heard it from reliable sources. When I saw it, I let the chumps know I knew what they were up to and then dropped a dime on these outlaws. Yet resource police are out numbered and understaffed, so in most cases they can’t do much. Here’s a thought – when the stripers are congregated in large numbers as they are in the winter, what about a massive operation, using the combined fleets of federal, state and local marine law enforcement, to ferret out these greedy fishermen who give the rest of us a bad rap? It seemed to have sent a strong message when Virginia directed a similar action toward its crabbers this summer.

As for the scientific trends, a few weeks ago Maryland Department of Natural Resources released their annual Young of the Year (YOY) striped bass index, a measurement of the number of young rockfish born each spring in the state’s part of the Bay.

Using a seine net to sample at 22 sites, DNR biologists measured the 2008 index at 3.2, which was the average number of rockfish taken in each haul of the seine. The long-term average, using information recorded since 1954, is 11.7. Obviously the 2008 figure is well below that, but in DNR’s press release, state biologists believe this low number is no cause for alarm, that it’s simply part of the natural noise. They add this downtick isn’t uncommon for stripers since there is a long history of variability among year-classes.

In that same release, Eric Durell, DNR Fisheries Biologist, said, “Healthy striped bass populations are known for such highly variable spawning success. This is just the third time in the past decade that striped bass reproduction in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay has been below average.” He said cool spring water temperatures may have killed striped bass eggs and larvae.

I don’t take issue with these explanations except a closer look at the YOY chart reveals four of the best five YOY indexes ever recorded happened in the past 15 years. But you have to go back five years (2003) to find a survey that was significantly above the long-term average. Several conservation groups point out that the banner year-classes of 1989, 1993, 1996, and 2001 should have produced more fish that would have arguably shown up in the YOY data.

Another factor worth considering is the fishing pressure. If you combine the recreational striper fishery, both in Maryland and Virginia (including the winter fishery at the Bay’s mouth) and along the Atlantic coast with the commercial effort, stripers never really get a break, unlike other game species, such as waterfowl and deer. Add these factors to declining spawning stock biomass (confirmed by the federal striped bass board) and YOY data and you have reasonable concerns.

I’m sure my views might draw the ire of some fishermen, and possibly among my fellow professional brethren. They may charge I’m simply fanning a fire that doesn’t need fuel, particularly in a tough economic climate. While I’m not pushing the panic button, cruising along as if there aren’t any caution signs seems slightly irresponsible. If sportsmen are the “original conservationists” as we like to boast, then we shouldn’t shy away from walking the walk.
 

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There is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the striper population is in decline. Could another moritorium be too far off? Hopefully we can learn from past mistakes, but too often greed supercedes logic.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
I don't want to put words in Chris' mouth, but what I took from his editorial is the following:

(1) We should appreciate and be thankful for what continues to be a thriving fishery; we've certainly not reached the point of doom, gloom and drastic creel curtailment just yet.

(2) However, we cannot simply ignore some troubling trends and, as recreational anglers, should keep the pressure on managers and regulators to pay close attention to these trends and swiftly act if necessary.

(3) If the trends continue, recreational anglers should be prepared to lead, by example, the effort to curtail Striper harvest, especially where large breeders are concerned. Regulators should know now that we are willing to do this so that they do not allow fear of user backlash (at least not from recs) to push them away from policies that are best for the fishery.
 
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