A lot of effort goes into striped bass management in the Chesapeake. Every possible user group clamors for just a bit more of the pie, whether to sell these fish commercially, leave as brood-stock, or carry clients to the fish. Was a SSB (spawning stock biomass) graph available going back to 1980, when the fishery was at an all-time low? Maryland's John Griffin stepped up, went where no regulator had ever gone before in saltwater, and closed the fishery. That was in 1985. Regulation flourished for this important fish from that point on. Stripers reopened in Maryland to recreational and commercial extraction after just five years.
At that point the feds closed the EEZ (the ocean fishery outside three miles). Though stripers are proudly boasted as "fully restored" in every segment of professional restoration and conservation, we ocean anglers hadn't been allowed to catch any since the fall of 1984. If stripers are "inside the line" today (meaning inside the three mile line, the marine state waters line—a line determined by how far a shore-side cannon battery could shoot in our country's earliest days and having absolutely nothing to do with fisheries biology,) I could fish for them with clients. But they're usually offshore, at what essentially were all the lumps and ridges where white marlin were targeted before the ocean started turning green with too much algae. Not just the Bass Grounds, Sugar Lump, SE Ridge and the Third Lump; I've seen stripers thick on Jackspot, the 20 mile shoal that made Ocean City famous for billfishing.
When it was blowing a near-gale out of the North-West one Saturday, I paddled on up to CCA's Fishery Symposium in Annapolis, MD. Spearheaded by Dave Sikorski, a lot of effort goes into this 'fisheries immersion' event. There was a lot of talk about stripers at this symposium. That's what the people there wanted to hear about. There was even a presentation by two of MD DNR's best and brightest, Jim Uphoff and Tom Parham. This was one of the best pieces of fisheries work I've ever seen - a WhoDunIt expressed from the vantage point of fisheries science and ecology.
What struck me was multi-year low oxygen events. Science expects parts of the bottom of the Chesapeake and major tributaries to go anoxic (without oxygen) during the year. Why? Algae.
Simplified here: Algae bloom uncontrollably in over-nutrified waters. As they die off, they are consumed by bacteria down deep. This process uses up all (or too much) of the oxygen in the water. Fish can flee water with low or no oxygen (dead zones), and some crabs too, but what of all the critters those fish feed on? The worms, clams, and host of other animals needed for every stage of life?
Jim and Tom's presentation touched on what scientists call a “benthic/pelagic coupling.” Stripers eat clams and worms during part of the year. Some stripers travel the coast, even up into Canada preying on Atlantic salmon smolts in rivers where they've never been seen before. Clams, a star of the benthic (bottom) ecology, ain't going nowhere. And if clams and worms die of suffocation, the stripers go somewhere else or they die, too. This is a demonstrable relationship between the benthic environment, and the pelagic environment—the benthic/pelagic coupling.
Another over-simplification: As I see it; the collapse of oysters is what allows algae to go unchecked. Yes, far too many nutrients feed those algae. But restoring oysters in what must be billions, on reefs we know once existed, would likely go a long way toward lowering the cause of dead zones.
A little later, after our state reef coordinator's powerpoint, Maryland's one-man oceanic reef program, I was able to cheerlead our reef-building off the coast. Told those present we were growing corals like crazy, even on tires. Seemed like a lot of surprise at that, our corals. Corals?
Think about the fact that there was so much surprise over corals, even among this crowd. Who in blazes spends all day listening to presentations on ecology and fisheries? I mean, it was a free sandwich, a good sandwich, but a sunny Saturday in December? All day? This was a 'core' audience. The folks who write letters and do their best to stay abreast of fisheries news. Yet few of them knew of our ocean corals. On the other hand, I myself hadn't considered the importance of benthic species in the Chesapeake's food web. Fewer still ever considered the benthic/pelagic coupling that is oysters and… bluewater pelagics? Oysters can be related to marlin?
The ocean—our ocean, the Mid-Atlantic ocean, is turning green. Been getting greener a long time. Where men once caught billfish by the boatload just a few miles out, today none would even dream of trying. The same algae killing our Mid-Atlantic river and bay bottoms is slowly choking the sea, as well.
To lift fish populations higher will now require far more emphasis on habitat. Green water can be fixed. I think CCA's Habitat Program, their Building Conservation Trust (buildingconservation.org), will be an important part of it.
Meanwhile, I'll take a few volunteers out onto our ocean to build reef, and curse a green sea.
By Captain Monty Hawkins