Commentary: Listening to the Rockfish

Environmental Commentary by Tom Horton

“Fishing is great,” is what you’ll hear from the charter captains around the popular striped bass sportfishing port of Tilghman Island in the mid-Chesapeake.

But ask the fish and they’d tell a more complicated story. For years, Jim Price, a rare citizen-scientist in an era where Ph.Ds dominate Bay research, has been listening attentively.

Mostly on his own hook, he catches or buys around 1,500 stripers, or rockfish, annually. He analyzes every one to see what they’re eating year-round, as well as whether they have adequate fat reserves or show signs of disease.

His surveys range from his native Choptank River, to the Virginia Chesapeake and the mid-Atlantic coastal ocean—more than 12,000 fish to date.

“He’s meticulous and his data is incredibly valuable,” said Jim Uphoff, a senior fisheries scientist with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. “Most Ph.D. studies only last a few years and don’t cover the whole Bay like Jim. He is the epitome of the citizen scientist,” Uphoff said.

“I’m curious and I like to fish,” said Price, a retired jeweler from a family of commercial fish netters in the Caroline County river town of Choptank.

In the stomachs of the fish coming to the dock at Tilghman, Price sees little of the menhaden, bay anchovies, and blue crabs associated with rockfish diets. Instead the fish are full of cut-up chunks of spot, used by charter boats to lay a trail of “chum” or “chunks” to attract fish to their clients’ lures trailing behind the boat.

“Essentially, they are doing the same thing I’m doing in my aquarium, running a feeding operation, but on a larger scale,” Price said. Uphoff said there’s no evidence that this is hurting the overall rockfish population, but it shows “great fishing” can be partly the result of artificially concentrating fish.

Similarly, Price said, rockfish can look fat and healthy on casual inspection, but they frequently turn out on analysis to have absorbed water as fat reserves shrank.

His work has convinced Price that rockfish nowadays are getting inadequate nutrition. Body fat’s down, disease is up and bigger fish appear in decline. Only in 2010, when they were able to exploit an unusually large number of small spot—not a big part of their normal diets—did the bulk of the fish he sampled seem well-nourished.

“Of all the threats to stripers I used to worry about, not having enough food was one I never imagined,” he said.

Indeed, Price founded his Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation in the early 1980s to stop the massive overfishing of the bass coastwide by sport and commercial fishermen.

He was a player in Maryland’s leading a virtual coastwide moratorium on rockfishing that lasted from 1985 until 1990. It worked; and the explosion of rockfish by the mid-90s is considered a success story of Bay restoration.

But again, if you ask the rockfish, they tell a more complicated story. It is one thing to bring back a species; quite another to ensure the ecosystem can sustain it.

For rockfish, that ecosystem centers on menhaden, a fish so nutritious and historically numerous that W.K. Brooks, an early Bay scientist, would write in 1893: “All our best and most valued food fishes are only menhaden in another shape.”

Menhaden numbers have plummeted since the 1970s. This has brought pressure on Omega Protein in Reedville, VA, whose fleets of spotter aircraft and factory ships catch them by the hundreds of millions for fish oils and meal. A “cap” enacted on Omega’s catches is fairly meaningless, Price said, as it is higher than current fishing levels.

Uphoff agreed that we aren’t leaving enough menhaden for the rockfish; but their downturn is more complicated than just Omega’s fishing. Food webs in the Bay at the fundamental level of the plankton on which menhaden feed may have shifted toward less nutritious types. Research on this critical issue is “bogged down” he said.

Meanwhile, Price is tracking other shifts: big female striped bass spawners are arriving earlier from the ocean to gorge on eels in December at the Bay’s mouth; bay anchovies, another important rockfish food, are at a low ebb, perhaps from the bass trying to make up for a lack of menhaden; and rockfish are eating more small blue crabs, a relatively poor source of calories.

Have we brought the rockfish back to an ecosystem that can no longer support so many? Should powerful Omega Protein get so large a share of what was recognized by Brooks more than a century ago as the “most important fish in the sea?”

Fisheries managers are struggling to sort it out. When they do, Jim Price, citizen-scientist, will deserve a lot of the credit.

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Baltimore Sun and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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