Gulls cry softly in the calm tidewater creek as the diesel engine revs up, and you head out at the crack of dawn for a day of chasing trophy striped bass in the lower Chesapeake Bay. The air is chilly but thatâ€™s good. Thatâ€™s what â€śrockfishâ€ť like.
When the first fishing rod bobs and then bends deeply in its holder, though, suddenly the cold doesnâ€™t seem so bad. You grab the heavy-action rod and begin what may turn out to be many long minutes of battling one of the greatest fish that swims â€“ the saltwater striper. If luck is with you, this â€śrockfishâ€ť may tip the scales at 30, 40, even 50 pounds.
Sadly, this scene above, which many Northern Virginia Daily readers along with this columnist have enjoyed for decades, will be missing this spring. Striped bass in the Chesapeake and along the East Coast are declining precipitously, and they have been since 2010. Realizing this, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission has taken the major step of canceling the spring season for trophy striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay and nearby Atlantic Ocean waters. The season was to have run from May 1 to June 15.
This laudable step will immediately reduce the pressure on large striped bass, particularly spawning females, which have been drastically overfished in recent years.
â€śStriped bass arenâ€™t doing well,â€ť said Ellen Bolen, deputy commissioner for the VMRC. Hundreds of 50-pound fish have been caught during recent years. Those fish could have spawned thousands of eggs. But few of them did. Even when released.
Recent studies have shown that among the trophy rockfish anglers caught, almost half died even if they were carefully released.
Maryland officials say that they too are concerned but are not contemplating regulation changes or season closures for this year at least.
From catches of 368,000 in 2010 by Virginia recreational anglers, the haul has dropped to 52,000 fish in 2018. How it could fall that far that fast with no dramatic step being taken to rectify the situation is hard to figure. At least now our state has stepped up to the plate and done something.
Letâ€™s just hope this is the first of many steps by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and member states, including Maryland. With care, and sacrifice among sport fishermen and charter captains, this fishery can be brought back to its former glory days. But it wonâ€™t happen overnight, or even in a year. It will take multiple years of reduced fishing pressure, especially on the larger most important fish that lay tens of thousands of eggs each spring.
Older anglers and conservationists will remember that almost this exact same thing happened before. In the early 1980s, striper stocks had plummeted so badly that emergency steps were taken. In 1985, Maryland led the way and instituted a total ban on striped bass fishing. Virginia followed Maryland later, and gradually the fish stocks rebuilt themselves.
By the 1990s and early part of this century, striped bass fishing in saltwater was back and thriving with stricter regulations.
It looks like at least Virginia is taking the steps needed to once again revive this fishery. It was done in the 80s and 90s. It can be done again. Those scenes described earlier, though, of heading out for a day of trophy striper fishing will have to be curtailed for a while. Most of us will be glad to take that step.
Hopefully, the Virginia closure will spur future reduced quotas for both sport anglers and commercial fishermen by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, actions that will cover more states for a greater impact and quicker recovery of the depleted resource.
The smaller striped bass are not suffering as much. Because of that, Virginia will allow the season for those fish from May 16 to June 15 to proceed. During that period, an angler can catch two striped bass measuring between 20 and 28 inches. Anything smaller or longer than that must be released.