Heading out on the Chesapeake Bay for trophy rockfish season is a treasured rite of spring for recreational anglers. In the Chesapeake, fishermen often call striped bass “rockfish” because these fish often hang out near oyster reef “rocks.”
But this year, the spring season will be a bit diminished in the Chesapeake with a later start, and fewer days, that has been the case in the past. Changes implemented by Maryland and Virginia in 2019 will continue in 2021. This is part of a broader effort to help the striped bass population rebound.
Reports from anglers and fishermen and scientific data both indicate that the population is declining. Analyses by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission show that the striped bass population along the Atlantic Coast is decreasing. Every year, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reports on the species by tracking an index of juvenile striped bass. The survey was started in 1954. Since then, the average index is 11.5 (arithmetic mean catch per haul); the index in fall 2020 was 2.5. In the last decade, six years have been below average. That means there are fewer fish to grow into the spawning stock.
The striped bass population was extremely low in the 1980s. A complete moratorium on both commercial and recreational fishing for rockfish was enacted to let the population rebound. So now, resource managers are taking proactive measures to protect the population. This is especially important in the Chesapeake, because up to 80% of the coastal population is spawned in the Bay’s tributaries.
2021 Spring Rockfish Seasons Changed
What that means for recreational anglers is that the start to the trophy season this year will be about two weeks later than usual. Trophy season starts in Maryland waters May 1, and Maryland does not allow targeting of striped bass at all in April—not even for catch and release. Virginia does not have a trophy season this spring; a season for fish from 20 to 28 inches in the Bay starts May 16.
Striped bass spawning begins in the spring. Chesapeake Bay spawning and nursery areas, like the Potomac, Choptank, and James rivers and Susquehanna Flats, produce most of the East Coast’s migratory striped bass. (The Delaware River and Hudson River also contribute significantly.) Conservation efforts in the Chesapeake can help the entire East Coast population.
States are exploring other scientifically supported ways to help the population. For example, this year in Maryland, July 16–31, anglers are prohibited from targeting striped bass. That’s because at that time of year, air and water temperatures are high and oxygen levels in the water are often low. Even when released, fish that are caught in those conditions are stressed and often do not survive. Virginia does not have a summer season in the Bay.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission keeps an eye on the overall Atlantic striped bass population. In 2019, the Commission determined that striped bass had been overfished in recent years. In response to that determination, they implemented an 18 percent reduction in striped bass harvest beginning in 2020. States up and down the East Coast maintain their own fishing regulations for the species, within the framework set by the Commission. In the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland and Virginia set specific regulations for recreational and commercial fishing for striped bass in their waters that meet the Commission’s targets.
We help make sure that resource managers in Maryland and Virginia have the most up-to-date science to help them as they make their decisions. And we help them work together by facilitating conversations at the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team.
NOAA Fisheries Science Efforts on Striped Bass
At NOAA Fisheries, we’re helping with research to find out more about what may be affecting striped bass numbers. We want to help the striped bass population return to a healthy state. Commercial fishing for striped bass is important because it helps feed people and supports livelihoods and industry. Recreational fishing for these fish is a treasured activity for many Chesapeake residents and visitors. We’re using science to learn more about the species, where they live, and what they need to thrive.
We fund scientists to carry out research into when and where striped bass migrate. This can help resource managers do a more accurate job when they set regulations that are area or time-specific.
Scientists are studying the nursery habitats that juvenile striped bass need to survive and grow. The Chesapeake Bay Program is funding the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to investigate this topic. The project is using data from Maryland and Virginia that was gathered during seine surveys about juvenile striped bass. They are also using information from trawl surveys including the Chesapeake Multispecies Monitoring and Assessment Program survey. Data from these surveys helps scientists identify and map where high-quality habitats are located around the Bay to inform restoration, conservation, and management decisions.
Through the Cooperative Institute for the North Atlantic Region, we are funding Chesapeake Bay-specific population studies on striped bass. Research by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and Virginia Institute of Marine Science will improve understanding of Chesapeake Bay status and trends and help identify what drives population changes. Factors that affect striped bass can include environmental changes, land use, and human activities. This year, the project will explore ways to combine data from fisheries, scientific surveys, and tagging studies. This will help us better understand changes in the striped bass population in the Chesapeake Bay and coastwide.
This year, we will partner with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and Maryland Department of Natural Resources to deploy two arrays of acoustic telemetry receivers. One will cross the mouth of the Bay; the other will be near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Annapolis. These receivers will let researchers know when fish that have special tags attached to them swim near the receiver arrays. That helps researchers learn more about when and where fish migrate.
We also support researchers who are learning more about the food striped bass need to grow and survive. For example, we are working on understanding the Chesapeake Bay’s forage base. We are also developing ways to track the health of Bay anchovy and polychaetes (worms), which striped bass eat.