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Fishing season for large rockfish — also known as striped bass — has been canceled in Virginia this year due to concern for the fish’s declining population. Striped bass have been overfished since 2010, according to experts at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
So, how can rockfish make a comeback? And what are neighboring Maryland and D.C. doing to prevent overfishing?
We’ll discuss the effectiveness of a ban on recreational catching and ask what else might be behind decreasing fish populations.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Ellen Bolen Deputy Commissioner, Virginia Marine Resources Commission
- Chris Moore Senior Scientist, Chesapeake Bay Foundation
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast how migrant children are acclimating to schools in the Washington region. But first, fishing season for large rockfish also known as striped bass has been canceled in Virginia this year due to concern for the fish's declining population.
KOJO NNAMDIAccording to experts at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, striped bass have been overfished for nearly a decade. So how can rockfish make a comeback? What environmental factors are at play here and what are neighboring Maryland and D.C. doing to prevent overfishing in local waterways? Joining me in studio is Ellen Bolen, Deputy Commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Last week, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted to eliminate this spring's striped bass trophy season. Exactly what does that mean and what's the reason behind the decision?
ELLEN BOLENSure. So in the fall of 2018, we received a new scientific assessment about striped bass. And it told us two pretty important things. The first thing the assessment told us is that we were taking fish out faster than they could reproduce. This is called overfishing. And the second thing it told us is that the reproductive part of the population, sort of the large breeding females had reached a low enough level that we needed to take management intervention. It wouldn't be able to recover on its own without changing how we are managing. So Virginia took the first step to close the recreational striped bass trophy rockfish season, which usually runs around April to May, to begin to address the problems that were outlined in this scientific assessment.
NNAMDIYou are the Deputy Commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. What are the exact details of this fishing ban? Not all rockfish are prohibited here.
BOLENCorrect. So this is really going after those large breeding females that the scientific assessment told us we're at low levels. And so what it does is it prohibits the catching and possession of large rockfish over 36 inches in Virginia waters. And so Virginia that includes the tributaries to the Potomac River, the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay, and Virginia state waters out to three nautical miles. However, you can still catch some rockfish. So from May 16th to June 15th in the Bay, you can catch two fish between 20 and 28 inches. And then on the coast you can catch one fish over 28 inches.
NNAMDIWhy only the emphasis on trophy size rockfish? What's the state of the rockfish population in the region overall?
BOLENThe state of the rockfish population in the region overall or throughout the range of the species so it runs from North Carolina up to New England is that it is at an unsustainable level. It's unsustainably low. And the reason that Virginia took this first action -- and again, this will likely be one of many actions. We are looking at taking future measures that would affect both commercial and recreational sectors, but this goes after the big breeding females, which are the corner stone of any fishery populations. We want to protect the core breeding females of this fishery.
NNAMDISo when we say trophy sized rockfish, we're talking about generally the larger females?
BOLENCorrect. So 36 inches and above is what we define as trophy.
NNAMDIHow have local anglers responded to the emergency cancelation?
BOLENBy and large people have been pretty supportive of this. So at the Marine Resources Commission Meeting last week we heard from an angling group that 70 percent of anglers supported this measure.
BOLENSeventy percent. So the Virginia Saltwater Sportsmen's Association ran a poll and 70 percent of the anglers that responded to their poll supported the closing of the trophy season.
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Chris Moore, Senior Scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Chris Moore, thank you for joining us.
CHRIS MOOREThank you for having me.
NNAMDIChris, what do you think of Virginia's decision?
MOOREWell, I think one of the most powerful things about the decision is the fact that the Commonwealth getting out ahead of this issue. The Atlantic State's Marine Fishery's Commission, which is meeting this week has not mandated that any states actually take action yet, but seeing the scientific data out there knowing the importance of this fishery and these fish to the Commonwealth, Virginia is taking a step to show that, you know, we're going to take strong conservation measures to protect this species. It's particularly important given the fact that the Chesapeake Bay is home to about 70 percent of the stripers that are born. And end up living along the Atlantic Coast. And so this shows that Virginia is serious about protecting those large fish that are our most important breeders as Ellen mentioned.
NNAMDIChris, what are the causes behind the declining fish populations? And are rockfish the only species affected here?
MOOREWell, you know, fishery's populations are always rising and dropping and things like that. And it's hard to pin down any one problem or thing that maybe causing any specific fish population in decline. I think of the things that the stock assessment has showed that is kind of most troubling from a management perspective is the fact that we actually are releasing a lot of fish that eventually perish, that die and don't remain part of the population. And we sometimes we refer that as to release mortality. And it can happen for a variety of factors. You know, stress, hooking, things like that. And efforts really need to focus on making sure we do a much better job of protecting that component of the resource that we catch and we throw back, because the estimate that the population assessment is actually showing that more of those fish are actually dying and not being kept than fish that we're actually keeping.
NNAMDIChris, do you know what role climate change might be playing in the falling population of rockfish?
MOOREWell, there's a couple of interesting kind of connections to that. One of the issues is, you know, striped bass here in the Chesapeake Bay region were at the very southern end of their range during the summer time. And so they would rather be generally in a little bit cooler waters. So as our waters continue to warm here in the Chesapeake Bay region due to climate change that does tend to possibly put more stress on the fish throughout the summer time. Another is one of the most important habitats especially in the Bay for very young striped bass is eelgrass. And again, we're kind of the southern end of the range for eelgrass. And so as eelgrass, as we've lost that habitat and especially in the southern Bay, that basically is a loss of very valuable foraging habitat and kind of hiding habitat for some of those young striped bass when they're in the Chesapeake Bay.
NNAMDII know there have been instances of rockfish poaching in the Chesapeake Bay. Is that still a problem?
MOOREWell, we have poaching in a lot of our various fisheries and there were some very high profile cases a couple of years ago that, you know, some very large number of fish were poached. I think both Maryland and Virginia are working very hard to make sure that poaching is reduced as much as possible. And hopefully it's not a big component of the loss we see here. I think if we you look at, you know, the rate of harvest that we're seeing in the population overall, I think that's one of the things we really need to focus on is making sure we're not catching too many of these fish and allowing them to replenish as Ellen said.
NNAMDIChris Moore is a Senior Scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He joins us by phone. Ellen Bolen joins us in studio. She is Deputy Commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Here now is Mark Eustis in Alexandria, Virginia. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me on your show. I'm a recreational fisherman and care about the Bay. I've lived around here for decades. One of the things that I like to track are the data on how bass are doing. And the Maryland Juvenile Bass Index is about as old as I am. And it's showing a steady decline over the last 25 years. So we know that the fish aren't surviving to replace the harvest. And perhaps worse yet even after the ASMFC has mandated less harvest the data from NOAA in their latest assessment show that over the last five years Maryland has actually increased catching and killing more fish than any other state. So this points to the fact that ASMFC commissioners have a difficult time making and enforcing the hard choices that impact our home states. And in fact states have little incentive to comply with their plans.
MARKSo I would say, what do we do next? We immediately cut harvest coast wide and implement a new management plan. Virginia showed us that states don't have to wait to do the right thing. And Virginia should follow through by doing more and reducing their early spring commercial harvest. We should radically update the technical approach and manage by ecosystem. So striped bass, Menhaden, and Chesapeake water quality are all managed together. And the ASMFC charter should be revised to compel action and give the commission the legal tools need to enforce their mandates. Thank you.
NNAMDIWell, several points were made there. I'd like Ellen to respond, because the Virginia Marine Resources Commission has encouraged other states to take action here. What responses have you been getting? And, of course, when he used the acronym, the ASMFC, he's talking about the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
BOLENOf course, so the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is actually the body that's responsible for managing striped bass throughout their range. And Virginia is a member of this body. A couple of weeks ago, both Massachusetts and Connecticut joined Virginia in calling on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to take a two pronged approach to management. And I think some of this gets at what Mark was saying.
BOLENWe want to see two things at the meeting, which starts tomorrow. The first thing is that we want to see swift action and that's action taken this year that will be enacted by October. And the second prong of that is also to develop a more long term plan to really get at some of the root causes of the issue in the overfishing. We also really want the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to incentivize and encourage other states to follow Virginia's lead and not wait for that plan to come out. And not wait until they tell us again what we already know, which is the stock is not doing well and it's in decline. So we encourage other states to take swift action and we really hope the commission will also incentivize that.
NNAMDIHere's Travis in Falls Church, Virginia. Travis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TRAVISHi, there. Thanks for taking my call. The first thing is, you know, I'm a recreational fisherman. I fish on average, you know, about once, twice a week particularly for striped bass. And I do a lot of catch and release. And I think, you know, it's worth noting that the catch and release issue regarding, you know, post release mortality it's a complicated issue. And the study has shown that, you know, on average that the number they use is nine percent mortality. And what that factors in is, you know, an average of different, you know, hook sets and how fish are released, temperature, which they all affect post release mortality.
TRAVISSo the reports that have come out that have sort of shown as a, you know, I think it's close to like 48 percent of fish die after release. It's not true that every time you release a fish it has a one in, you know, two chance of dying. That's taking that nine percent factor in, you know, that average. And what that shows is that a lot of people actually like to fish for stripers for catch and release. So, you know, more people are doing that than versus just catching keeping. So if anything, you know, we should look at ways to prevent that, But we should also not discourage catch and release, I think.
NNAMDIChris Moore, care to comment on that?
MOORESure, no, the caller is exactly right. You know, striped bass especially, when water temps are high and air temps are high, those fish tend to already be stressed to some degree and therefore your release mortality is much higher. And the caller is exactly right. Doing things that will promote the best environment for the fish once they're actually released is going to be helpful for reducing that release mortality. And educating anglers as well, for years, Chesapeake Bay Foundation has had a careful catch program to try to help anglers understand how to catch fish and release them with the least harm so they're most likely to survive and be part of that population moving forward and be able to basically connect with future generations as well, who like to catch striped bass.
NNAMDIEllen, I've got a two part question for you. How much of striped bass fishing is recreational versus commercial? And have the same limits been imposed on commercial fishermen that are currently being imposed on those, who fish recreationally?
BOLENThroughout the range of striped bass it's about 90 percent recreational, 10 percent commercial. So the vast effort, again, throughout the range the population comes from the recreational anglers. In Virginia, it's a little different. We actually have a little bit more effort on the commercial side than on the recreational side right now. And, again, the closing of the trophy season was just the first step Virginia is going to take. You know, working with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission we are look at a suite of further conservation measures, both the commercial and the recreational side to get at this issue.
NNAMDIHere's Patrick in Philadelphia. Patrick, your turn.
PATRICKTwo part question. First what enforcement mechanisms exist such that you're ensuring compliance with the prohibition that is in place as we speak? And second has there been any thought given to simply a long term moratorium on the taking or catching of rockfish to give the population a chance to recover to a sustainable level? I'll take my answers off the air.
BOLENWell, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission has a robust Marine Police force that is out on the water every day working to educate anglers and also enforce the laws. There are always going to be more anglers than Marine Police. And so we do look to the recreational anglers to uphold the conservation ethic that many many of them have in following the law. The second question regarding a moratorium. So there was a moratorium in Maryland in the late 80s and Virginia was part of that for about a year.
BOLENVirginia Marine Resources Commission as stewards of the resource really tries to balance the fishing opportunities for today with ensuring that we have fishing opportunities for the future. And so we think this action of closing the trophy season while working through the commission to ensure long term measures hits that balance of being able to still have fishing today and fishing in the future. So we're not looking at a moratorium.
NNAMDIGary, in Maryland, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GARYKojo, I thank you for your -- what a timely timely subject. I am on my way back. Just pulled up, I've been fishing for the last two weekends in the Potomac River on the Maryland side. I have a house in Virginia and I think what our officials, who aren't on the water, what they're not addressing are two things. Number one, the pound and gill nets, pound nets are a labyrinth of nets that accumulates fish and they fill. And gill nets are maybe 20 yards. I've been on my boat trying to weave in and out of these pound and gill nets, which she said only 10 percent. That is way way off. They are responsible for thousands and thousands of fish.
GARYAnd what they're not addressing is the elephant in the room, is the Omega Protein, seine purse netting. It's not allowed in Maryland, but it's allowed in Virginia. And as a fisherman, I do most of my fishing in Maryland, because of the seine purse netting. And the lawyer -- not lawyers, but the government, you know, Mr. Whitman is the representative in Virginia. He was a waterman himself. He worked on the Omega Proteins boats. His son is a fish captain on one of the boats. Where do you think his interests are going to be?
NNAMDIOkay. We're running out of time very quickly. And I'm going to have Ellen Bolen respond, because what Gary seems to be saying is that there's way more commercial fishing than you estimate.
BOLENAs I mentioned, in Virginia commercial and recreational is much more even. And there's actually recently there's slightly more commercial effort than recreational and we do hear this concern from other people. But, again, you know, we are -- this measure for this spring was just the first action. And we are looking at a suite of options for both commercial and recreational sectors to address decreasing catch and decreasing fishing mortality.
NNAMDIThe Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, you mentioned is meeting tomorrow. What's at stake here if no action is taken by the commission?
BOLENWhat's at stake here is the future of this fishery. Science is telling us it's not in good shape and that we need to take swift and enduring action to get this fishery on the road to recovery.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Ellen Bolen is Deputy Commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Thank you for joining us.
BOLENThank you for having me.
NNAMDIChris Moore is a Senior Scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Chris Moore, thank you for joining us.
MOOREThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Mark Eustis, thank you for calling in. Later in the broadcast, how migrant children are acclimating to schools in the Washington region. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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