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Dire Forecast for Rockfish

Trouble all over again in 2019

      The 2019 rockfish season is going to be challenging. Last year signaled population problems with warning signs we hadn’t seen before. 
     First was the unexpected failure of the trophy season. Fishing boats crowded Bay waters on the opener, but few reported legal catches. The opening day catch-and-release tournament held by Boatyard Bar and Grill — attended by well over 100 boats and crews — had only about two or three qualifying entries.
     The first two days of the 2018 opener, I spent hours combing local marinas and fishing areas trying to get a picture of a trophy-sized fish (34 inches or more) for my column. I discovered only one and that at the 11th hour.
     Fishery officials blamed the weather, the unusually cold temperatures, Mother Nature and that dreaded culprit, “Anne Anomaly,” for the widespread disappointment. The Young of Year Survey, taken months later, indicated average or better spawning success so population problems were pooh-poohed.
     Later in the summer, big schools of bottlenose dolphin were blamed for a sudden paucity of rockfish over 20 inches. The dolphins had, so the theory went, chased the bigger fish far up into the Bay and its tributaries, where they remained. The dolphin invasion was not seen as a sign of few rockfish in their more distant migratory ­locations.
      Months ago, the former chief executive officer of Maryland’s Coastal Conservation Association, Tony Friedrich, warned that we were actually on the verge of a rockfish population collapse (
     His report was brutal, placing responsibility on the shoulders of conservation officials and recreational anglers. We should have known better, he wrote.
His claims were discounted with rolling eyes and the muttered defense, “Well, you know Tony.”
      I do know Tony, and he was exactly right. From all indications, and according to the latest Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Status Report, striped bass are once again in trouble.
      The trouble is not said to be as bad as back in 1985, when rockfishing was closed for ten years. Still, striper stocks are now officially considered overfished and, apparently, have been for a number of years. That situation has been compounded by years of frequently disappointing spawning success. Even federal officials are calling for drastic measures to allow the striped bass stocks to rebuild. That means shorter seasons and significantly reduced harvest, at least for recreational anglers.
      The good news is that stripers can definitely rebuild themselves and can do so relatively quickly. After just five years, the 1985 moratorium resulted in some of the finest subsequent rockfish seasons in memory. The sooner we begin a period of angling austerity, the faster we’ll have great seasons again.
      We will have to change our habits, our harvests and, I fervently hope, the policy of exposing roe-bearing fish to catch-and-release anglers. Release mortality will have to figure more prominently in our future analyses.
     We need to start now, perhaps even this year. Our rockfish deserve the opportunity to recover. And they deserve maintenance at such a level as to preclude another such unexpected crash. 
Fish Finder
      The yellow perch run is underway. At the top of the Bay on the upper Bush River try Gray’s Run. The Belle Grove Ponds on the Patapsco and Joppatown on the Gunpowder are possibilities. Working south, try Allen’s Fresh and The Cedars near the headwaters of the Wicomico. Wayson’s Corners on the upper Patuxent, Bacon Ridge Branch on the upper South River, Severn Run on the upper Severn and Beechwood Park on the upper Magothy could fill your cooler.
     Across the Bay on the Eastern Shore look to the Wye Mills spillway, the Tuckahoe at Hillsboro, the Greensboro, Goldsboro and Red bridges on the upper Choptank. Farther south, the Blackwater and Nanticoke rivers have some good spots.
     White perch should be staging as well as crappie. We’re only four weeks from rockfish season.