Photo by John Surrick/CBF Staff
Speaking for the Fish
The fish and shellfish of the Chesapeake are the most tangible symbol of the Bay, but people have taken them for granted. Historically, we've done a poor job as stewards of these valuable resources. As a result, many of the Chesapeake Bay's fisheries have been reduced in diversity and productivity. Water pollution affects all of the Bay's fisheries, undermining efforts by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other stakeholders to work with government agencies to rebuild the stocks.
CBF seeks to apply the lessons learned from this history to restore and maintain the Bay's valuable fisheries. To do this, CBF attempts to represent the interests of the resource itself in the fisheries management process. CBF takes pride in "speaking for the fish" at legislative hearings, in regulatory forums, and directly to fishermen.
Fisheries management is comprised of two basic functions: conservation, determining how many fish, crabs, and oysters can be caught without harming the resource, and allocation, determining who gets to catch these resources.
Historically, conservation has been compromised to satisfy allocation pressures, with the result being depleted fisheries. CBF believes these two functions must be separate, and to advance this fundamental concept, we focus on conservation issues. For conservation to be successful, we believe it must be based on science with input from fishermen. CBF promotes the use of the best available scientific information as the basis for conservation decisions, but when information is incomplete, we advocate "erring on the side of the resource."
American Shad & River Herring
Topping catches in the 1800s, but absent from today's top ten list, are shad and herring—anadromous species that travel up coastal tributaries to spawn in fresh water. The largest, American shad, had such prolific spawning runs that it was the dominant Bay fishery for nearly two hundred years. Largely forgotten now because overfishing and dams blocking their migrations finally snuffed out these runs, American shad have been under catch moratoria for decades.
Atlantic menhaden have been the number one fishery by weight for decades. It is caught primarily to be rendered by the ton into oil and meal for dietary supplements and animal feed. Whether this is the best use of this ecologically critical species—it is essential food for a variety of fish, birds, and mammals—is open to debate. Although the homeport of the Bay’s menhaden fleet—Reedville, Virginia—is one of the top ports in the country in weight landed annually (#2 in 2010), its rank in value of catch was only 25th in 2010 and the fish's population is now at an all-time low. Catches were cut back 20 percent beginning in 2013. A new population assessment will be completed in the winter of 2015 and will guide future management of the fishery.
Crabs continue to be down as indicated by the 2014 winter survey and the poor catches of crabbers. Bayside communities dependent on crabs, like Smith and Tangier Islands, are struggling. Cutbacks in the catch of female crabs in 2008 to meet new, science-based guidelines for the fishery helped to double the population by 2010. But the population has been unstable since then and dropped back to its previous low level. Part of the problem is degraded habitat, in particular the Bay's grass bed coverage hovering at about 20 percent of what it once was. Blue crabs need grass beds for nursery areas and protection from predators. New management approaches also need to be explored. The continuing instability in the crab population re-emphasizes the need to stay the course with science-based limits.
The oyster fishery was at its height in the late nineteenth century, but unrestrained harvest destroyed the reefs that had accumulated over millennia. Fifty years ago the catch still ranked third, but today it barely makes the top ten. On the bright side, oyster harvests have bounced back lately and hit almost one million bushels in 2013. Both the public and private fisheries are growing, indicating increased numbers of wild oysters and a growing new aquaculture industry. Good spat sets (baby oysters attaching to shells or more mature oysters) in 2010 and 2012 are part of the story, but good survival of those oysters is even bigger news. Heightened mortality from disease has hurt the Bay’s oysters since the 1960s, but has been a diminishing concern for the last decade. Oyster restoration programs have ramped up in recent years and may be boosting the population. State and federal efforts are focusing on creating healthy reef systems in target tributaries, an enlightened strategy that should be continued.
Striped Bass (a.k.a. Rockfish)
The rockfish fishery was devastated by overfishing in the 1970s, but was later restored to historical levels by intensive conservation efforts. However, this favorite fish of both anglers and watermen has now been declining for ten years. The latest scientific assessment of the population says that the "spawning stock" (mature females) is down to the same level it was in 1995 when it had just recovered from the early 1980s' low. Fishery managers from Maine to North Carolina, the migratory range of Chesapeake rockfish, are planning to cut back the catch starting January 1, 2015, to help reverse the decline. The good news is there was a very good spawn in 2011, and, as those fish grow, they will help replenish the spawning stock. However, concerns remain that striped bass may not have enough food in the form of Atlantic menhaden—an ecologically rich little fish and the prefered food of striped bass.