Opinion: Bold action needed now for Chesapeake rockfish

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It’s hard to find a Chesapeake Bay watershed resident whose eyes don’t light up at the mention of striped bass — though some won’t know what you mean unless you call them by their “proper” Chesapeake name, rockfish.

For many of us, striped bass are a big reason we fell in love with the Bay and being on the water in the first place. But whether you love them for their fight, eating, or their critical place as an apex predator in the ecosystem, we can all agree that the Bay would be greatly diminished without this iconic fish.

That’s why recent data showing warning signs about the declining health of the striped bass population are extremely worrisome. The most recent scientific stock assessment, released in 2019 by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, found that striped bass are overfished and its coastwide population is well below target levels. In the Chesapeake Bay, not only has there been a lack of legal-size fish, but there has also been below-average spawning activity in the last two years. Meanwhile, the number of large, female fish continues to decline, as it has for more than a decade.

There are multiple reasons striped bass populations are struggling. Overfishing is a serious problem, of course, but it’s not the only one. Low-oxygen dead zones, driven by excess nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Bay, can stress striped bass and push them into warmer waters than they prefer, making them more susceptible to diseases like mycobacteriosis. Stress and injuries from being caught and released result in an unfortunately high number of dead fish each year. They may be going hungry too. There are concerns about the health of the population of menhaden — a crucial part of the striped bass’s diet, but also aggressively harvested by an industrial fishing fleet in the Bay.

On top of all of these stressors, changes in water temperature and rainfall patterns from climate change are a growing concern for the Bay’s striped bass population. Warmer waters may be leading to reduced spawning success, slower growth of young striped bass and increased disease prevalence in the fish's population.

It’s not too late to turn things around. Bold actions by the ASMFC and its members can successfully stem the decline and increase the striped bass population to healthy levels. After taking action last year to reduce the harvest, or “mortality,” of striped bass, the ASMFC is undertaking an extensive public engagement process to help shape a plan to set the course for coastwide striped bass management for the next decade or more. Robust public participation allows everyone’s voice to be heard and is critical for ensuring the best outcome.

We know this can work, because we’ve done it before. Striped bass populations plummeted in the 1970s and early 1980s, primarily from overfishing, but rebounded to historic levels by 2004 — thanks to intensive conservation efforts from all stakeholders, including restocking programs and a particularly painful harvest moratorium in both Virginia and Maryland.

These efforts also included rigorous interstate management plans with specified fishing seasons, size restrictions and reduced bag limits, many of which remain with us in some form today.

This time around, we have the opportunity to avoid such drastic and costly measures as a fishing moratorium and restocking programs — because the population is still approximately three times the size it was when the last striped bass moratorium was instituted. But we can avoid those extreme measures if those who use or manage this resource are willing to take bold action now to return the population to its target levels.

Chris Moore is the senior regional ecosystem scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.