Watershed Voice
Fall 2011
Beyond Books

Fisheries Update: Striped Bass, Menhaden, Blue Crabs

By Bill Goldsborough, CBF Staff

Blue crab
The iconic Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab is almost double its 2008 population size.

The Bay's critters—its crabs, oysters, and rockfish—are among the most tangible things we love about the Bay. Their numbers fluctuate constantly, and while some change occurs naturally as in the influence of climate on rockfish spawning success, man's activities—pollution, habitat destruction, and over harvesting—can influence their numbers, too. Below is news on the three populations that man is attempting to expand through fisheries conservation.

Striped Bass
The number of striped bass (rockfish or "stripers"), coastwide, has declined steadily since its peak in 2004. The recreational catch has dropped over 60 percent since its peak in 2006. Rockfish have been stressed by low-oxygen levels and a reduction in menhaden, their primary food source. The population drop has been noticeable particularly in the Gulf of Maine where striped bass annually migrate from the Chesapeake. These are both signs for concern and have prompted regulators to consider cutting back on rockfish catches by up to 50 percent.
Poor reproduction is a possible factor in the decline, but a more likely culprit is poor survival rates of rockfish while in the Chesapeake Bay because of mycobacteriosis—a disease that infects up to 70 percent of the Bay’s rockfish. Stresses from poor water quality and poor nutrition are thought to impair their immune systems and encourage the disease.

Menhaden
Atlantic menhaden are at their lowest level on record—about eight percent of their original abundance—and overfishing has occurred in 32 of the last 54 years. Such was the conclusion of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's (ASMFC) new scientific assessment of the population. As a result, ASMFC is preparing to tighten its standards for menhaden fishing to rebuild the population.
Often called "the most important fish in the sea," menhaden filter plankton from coastal waters and serve as a major food source for striped bass and a range of other species. The public has until November 1, 2011, to offer comments to the commission regarding its menhaden management plan that would set a target population level of 20, 30, or 40 percent of its original level. Letters and e-mails to ASMFC and to coastal governors’ offices urging strong menhaden conservation standards will help. For more information visit www.asmfc.org.

Blue Crabs
The 2011 Chesapeake blue crab population is almost double its 2008 size—when science-based crabbing rules were put in place. The increase has meant greater catches for crabbers even at the conservative catch rates now allowed. But we still have a long way to go "...to achieve our goal of having a biologically stable stock with a robust harvest," according to Virginia's Fisheries Chief Jack Travelstead.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released a new scientific assessment of the crab population. NOAA's report shows that if Maryland and Virginia stay the course, the Bay's crab population could return to levels not seen since the 1960s. This will benefit both the crabs and the economy in the long run.

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