Rockfish: Down But Not Out

Rockfish for blogThe number of adult rockfish (striped bass) has been declining for 10 years and is about to drop below the level that means it is officially "overfished." This is the primary finding of the latest scientific analysis of the striped bass "stock," which includes fish spawned in the Hudson and Delaware Rivers as well as the Chesapeake. In fact, Chesapeake-born rockfish migrate all the way to Maine and make up about 75 percent of the total catch.

Recreational and commercial fishermen pursue striped bass from Maine to North Carolina, making it one of the most sought-after fish along the coast. However catches have been declining steadily in recent years. These states are currently working together under the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to craft a response to the situation that will maintain the stock at a level that will support these valuable fisheries.

But the Bay's rockfish population is far from collapsing. A few things to keep in mind: 

    1. First, while the amount of spawning-age female rockfish (the "spawning stock") is dropping into the overfished range, this does not mean we face reproductive failure. The spawning stock threshold is set conservatively at the level it was in 1995 when the stock was declared recovered from the severe decline of the 1970s and 80s. Scientists knew that this was a level from which the stock could recover, because it did so very well. (In fact, we set a record for reproduction in 1993, and then we shattered that record in 1996.) A favorable spawning pattern continued in the Bay through 2003 and then dropped off until 2011. This period of lower reproduction is the main reason for the stock decline.

    2. Second, in 2011 Chesapeake rockfish had an excellent spawn producing the fourth highest number of juveniles on record. This very strong "year class" will mature in the next few years and join the spawning stock, helping turn the trajectory back upward

How much and how soon we need to conserve striped bass in the short term to boost this recovery is the question currently before the ASMFC. The Commission is deliberating the nature of the fishing restrictions that will be required under an updated fishery management plan for striped bass.

A draft striped bass management plan that includes a number of options for cutting back the catch is available for public comment through September. The goal is to reduce the amount of fishing to the level that will bring the population up to a healthier, more stable state over time (AKA the target level). The main decision among the options presented is whether to do it in one year, which would require a 25 percent cutback, or spread it across three years at a rate of 17 percent. We at CBF believe that the three-year phase-in at 17 percent is an appropriate management measure. It provides the same level of conservation after three years without inordinate socio-economic impacts. Click here for more information and to submit your own comments about this important issue.

Perhaps more critical for Chesapeake Bay is the quality of the habitat the Bay provides for rockfish during their first four to six years when they are year-round residents in the Bay before joining the annual coastal migration. Exposure to low dissolved oxygen, high summer water temperatures, diminished grass beds and oyster reefs, and lack of sufficient food, especially their favorite forage fish, Atlantic menhaden, has taken a toll on these fish. In fact, scientists have documented widespread occurrence of a serious disease called mycobacteriosisamong resident stripers that likely results from poor water quality and nutrition. And fishery managers now assume a higher mortality rate for those fish in their population modeling—in effect we are having to adjust to a degraded Bay.

Therefore, implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, restoring habitat, and conserving forage fish are essential to maintaining healthy populations of rockfish and all the other Bay fish and shellfish we value.

—Bill Goldsborough, CBF’s Director of Fisheries

Click here for a list of scheduled public hearings on striped bass management. 

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Angler Clean Water Story: Simply Put

Simply put, the single most important variable in my mind to having a healthy fishery not only in my home waters of the Choptank River, but the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, is having clean water. I have been fishing and living on the Chesapeake since I was a little boy. Over the years I have seen how grasses have decreased as a result of polluted water and other various pollutants.

It wasn't too long ago I was able to fish the shallows of the Choptank River and consistently catch white perch, striped bass, and other finned animals. While I am still able to catch some fish, the Choptank is now the second most polluted river in Maryland and as a result, the fishing does not even compare to when I was a kid. While making sure we have sustainable fishing regulations for both commercial and recreational anglers is important, in my mind the single most important variable neccesary for a healthy ecosystem is clean, unpolluted water.

Brandon White, Easton, MD

As an avid angler, what does the Bay and its rivers and streams mean to you? Share your fishing clean water story or read others here!

Angler Clean Water Story: Where Have All the Stripers Gone

Photo by Blair M. Seltz.

The impact of pollution on the Chesapeake [and its] fish is very significant. Pollution in the form of too many nutrients causes low oxygen levels during the warmer months and this causes the stripers to move around quite a bit. The areas where they can find tolerable oxygen levels seem to be shrinking each year which makes the Bay less habitable. Traditional locations where stripers have been caught for years are no longer productive.

You can have wonderful structure with loads of baitfish on it but no stripers because there is not enough oxygen in the water to support them. Finding fish consistently in the warm months has become much more challenging because they are moving all the time and one cannot see nor determine oxygen levels without expensive test equipment. An area may look good and have lots of bait but there is no way to tell if the oxygen levels will support the [top] predators.

Capt. Richie Gaines, Queenstown, MD
Capt. Richie Gaines has been guiding anglers in the region for more than 20 years and has earned a reputation as one of the top light tackle guides on the Bay. Richie is a "guerilla" guide and fishes the entire Bay, moving with the fish to follow the best bite. Fishing the Bay year-round from the Susquehanna Flats to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel has provided a great deal of experience and taught Richie how to be versatile in applying techniques and locating the fish.

As an avid angler, what does the Bay and its rivers and streams mean to you? Share your fishing clean water story or read others here!

Angler Clean Water Story: Clean Water Laws Need to Have Teeth


Photo © Neil Ever Osborne

I am a brook trout enthusiast. The fish is arguably one of the most striking freshwater fish to be found. Brookies need clean, cool water to survive. Loss of forests and runoff that carries sediment into streams are major threats to brook trout. I've watched the stream behind my house decline over the past 20 years, due mostly to development and farming along small feeder streams. The trout are fewer in number and smaller. If the declines of the past 20 years occur for another 20, I wonder whether brookies will even live there anymore. The laws protecting streams should have teeth.

Dave Wise, Lititz, PA

As an avid angler, what does the Bay and its rivers and streams mean to you? Share your fishing clean water story or read others here!

Angler Clean Water Story: No Brainer

19052267_25244661_Banditby_Lynda_RichardsonClean water is a no brainer when it comes to anything in life, including the ability to sustain life. Fishing or not, clean water is essential for everyone and everything . . . striped bass, bald eagles, osprey, otters, mayflies, and crayfish, just to name a few.

For those making a living on the water, clean water will ensure these professionals will be able to continue developing and producing recreational and educational programs for the public, who may be interested in buying fresh local fish, hiring fishing and ecotour guides, and traveling on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Yeah, the need for clean water is a no brainer.

Capt. Mike Ostrander, Richmond, Virginia 

As an avid angler, what does the Bay and its rivers and streams mean to you? Share your fishing clean water story or read others here!

Angler Clean Water Story: A Sorry Situation

George M - HeadshotIt really bugs me that the fish I catch from the Chesapeake are "toxic fish." Chesapeake rockfish and white perch are some of the best tasting fish to be found anywhere. Yet I am afraid to eat them! The Bay is so polluted that these fish have been declared unhealthy to eat because of the toxic chemicals contained in their flesh, such as mercury and PCBs. What a sorry situation . . . This has to change!

—George Maurer, Annapolis, MD

As an avid angler, what does the Bay and its rivers and streams mean to you? Share your fishing clean water story or read others here!

Angler Clean Water Story: Fishing for Happy Fish

Photo by Krista Schlyer/iLCP.

I like to fish for "happy" fish. In the fall when the water is clear there are some areas in the Bay where you can see the bottom in ten feet of water. You can see fish on structure and they are obviously feeling frisky and "happy." In this type of environment they take your lure or fly with enthusiasm, they are simply "happy." If you release them they quickly scoot back to their temporary homes no worse for the experience.

However in the warmer months of the summer. You can see fish on your sonar huddled in the top five to fifteen feet water in holes more than 30 feet deep. They are there because it's the only depth where the dissolved oxygen is sufficient for them to survive. All depths below that are essentially "dead zones" due to nitrogen pollution. Even when fish are in the upper tier of the water column, it is obvious that they are stressed out by how slow they move and respond to various fishing tactics.

Fishing in or around polluted water is not a good experience in terms of visual enjoyment or quality of results. Wether you take out a new angler or someone who fishes a lot, they enjoy the "happy" fish experience much more than the stressed fish experience.

Ed Liccione, Queenstown, MD

As an avid angler, what does the Bay and its rivers and streams mean to you? Share your fishing clean water story or read others here!

Angler Clean Water Story: Clean Water Is Simply a Must

6 Sunset Fishing
Sunset Fishing on the Rappahannock River. Photo courtesy of CBF.


I began fishing as a young boy in the ponds and creeks around my home for mainly bluegill or more often whatever would bite. Those early years instilled a love of the sport that I still have today.

I now do most of my fishing in the Bay and for different species. I have found that the health of the Bay and more specifically clean water has a tremendous impact on my success. I prefer low light, early and late, shallow water fishing for rockfish and trout. Recently with water clarity being impaired this method has become more and more challenging. Clean water is simply a must for increased and consistent catches from day to day. I seek out the water that appears to be the cleanest and clearest to fish and often it works for me.

A cleaner Bay would provide all of us and those to come, better fishing opportunities and hopefully create sportsmen and women for years to come.

Bart, Crofton, MD

As an avid angler, what does the Bay and its rivers and streams mean to you? Share your fishing clean water story or read others here!

Photo of the Week: Hooper's Island Fly Fishing

ByJohnRiordanPhoto by Jack Riordan.

I go to school in upstate New York and with the semester coming to an end, I can always look forward to the summertime fly fishing in the Bay! This photo was taken last year off of the Hooper's Island Bridge. To me, the Bay is a getaway where I can leave my worries on the dock and spend the day with my friends adventuring through this incredibly unique area. Some of my fondest memories have been forged around Hooper's Island, and I can't wait to get back for a visit later this year!

—Jack Riordan, Conservation Biology Student at St. Lawrence University 

Ensure that Jack and future generations continue to enjoy extraordinary sights like these. Support the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint!

Do you have a favorite Bay photo you'd like to submit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Photo of the Week contest? Send your digital images to CBF's E-Communications Manager, Emmy Nicklin, at enicklin [at sign], along with a brief description of where and when you took the photo, and what the Chesapeake Bay means to you. We look forward to seeing your photos!


Karen's Clean Water Story

KarenWathen_19052253_rockfishGifts of the Chesapeake 

In a deep slumber, I feel a hard, calloused hand grab my foot and vigorously shake it. This is Dad's traditional signal to communicate to me that it is time to go. Neither of us utters a single word; just a simple shake of the foot and I know exactly what to do. Like clockwork, I leap out of bed, throw on a few layers of clothes and sprint to the 18' Carolina skiff tied up to our dock. I jump into the boat where my Dad is impatiently waiting for me to untie the bow so we can cast out on our usual Saturday morning adventure.

There he sits in his captain's chair, with his arms folded tightly and perched atop his belly, giving me the "you're-almost-late" look. In a crumpled up 7-Eleven bag, I spy two cream-filled doughnuts atop the steering console: our usual Saturday morning treats. I rush to release the bow lines as I anticipate biting into a creamy, chocolate covered doughnut while watching the sun perch above the Chesapeake. My seven-year-old spirit bubbles with excitement as I hear the roar of the outboard motor gear up for another big day. Racing the rise of the springtime sun, we chart out through the cool and misty open waters.


When the calendar falls on April 20th in Southern Maryland, people drop their boats in to the frigid, brackish waters and set out to stalk the king of the Chesapeake: the striped bass. The morone saxatilis, better known as the rockfish, striper, and/or striped bass is a highly respected and cared-for population. In 2007, President George W. Bush issued an executive order that the coveted striped bass be considered a protected game fish. The striper is one of Maryland's most vital commercial and recreational fish; so important, in fact, it has been declared the Maryland state fish. The rockfish provides the people of the Chesapeake Bay watershed with delicious meals but also a challenge that fosters intimate relationships amongst those who seek to catch this special species.


We finally reach the prime real estate for our hunt of the coveted striper. Dad rushes around the boat, gathering the rods, fidgeting with the lures, attempting to steer clear of neighboring vessels and keeping a keen eye on the depth finder. At the tender age of ten-years-old, I stand in awe as I watch him perfect the process. Flawlessly, he executes the preparation and gracefully drops two lines into the depths of the Chesapeake. With our bellies full of sugary sweets, we sit side-by-side anxiously awaiting a bite from a striper. It is during these idle times that the true pleasure of fishing is elicited.

I listen to Dad tell me about how things were back in his day; he narrates stories of adventures and triumph in an animated and fabricated manner that keeps me on the edge of my cold, plastic seat. He talks about how he walked five miles to school, uphill both ways and tells innumerable tall tales of his childhood. I reciprocate the story swapping by rambling on about the boy in school that I like and how he never waits for me after lunch and how he always pays more attention to my friend Chelsea. He listens intently and advises me to move on; my ten-year-old spirit is devastated but there is a sense of safety in his voice that compels me to take his advice. We sit and talk until we see a sharp bend in one of our rods; the secret sharing stops and the action begins.


Trolling is the most popular strategy used to capture stripers in the Chesapeake. It consists of setting up fishing lines, dropping them over the sides of the boat and slowly cruising through open water as the lures drag behind. The slow glide of the boat gives the tacky, brightly colored lures a lively spin which makes them look quite appealing to the hungry stripers who lurk within the dark waters of the Chesapeake. The infamous striper is known as a "lazy feeder," meaning that when it feeds, it travels with the current and simply eats what it comes across rather than fighting the current and searching for prey; this fact is crucial to ones success in capturing the coveted striper. Within the charter industry, trolling is a very popular strategy because it is a relatively simple and hands-off process. This allows the attendees on the boat an ample amount of time to kick back, enjoy a few beers and simply revel in the beauty of the Chesapeake. It should be noted that even though this is a relatively simple process, when the striper finally bites the trolling lures, a dramatic bend in the rod warrants grown adults to propel themselves into a mass hysteria of excitement. These fish are true fighters and it can sometimes take upward of half an hour to get one striper reeled in.

Other techniques used to capture the striper also include jigging, bottom fishing, and surf fishing. One of the most exhausting and exhilarating strategies used to capture the striper is the jig. Jigging is a technique where a boat anchors near a submerged structure in the water such as pilings or docks. From there, the striper-seekers take a rod with multiple fish shaped lures on the end and bob it vigorously up and down in the water at a considerable depth. This makes an illusion of a school of fish and stripers go crazy at the sight of fast movements and bright colors of the lures. This technique is used less on charter boats more so for the individuals who consider themselves true anglers. Trolling seems to be the charter strategy of choice in the Chesapeake because of the perfect dichotomy between action and relaxation that it provides.


I am looking at a photograph framed in my room. Twenty-years-old, there I stand on that same dock that I raced down each Saturday morning as I anxiously awaited our fishing trips. My Dad and I stand closely with excited eyes after one of these exhilarating mornings spent fishing the depths of the Chesapeake. I am gripping the mouth of my thirty-inch rockfish with both hands, trying to hold back laughter as my Dad cracks a joke about how he can barely hold it up. My face indicates that I am struggling to keep it in my hands; looking at the photo, I can feel my arms quivering and my grip slipping from the slimy coating of the fish. I am reminded of how hard I constantly tried to impress him with every detail of my life; if I drop this fish, I will never hear the end of it. I am the strong daughter; the closest thing to a son that Dad has and I can see myself in this photo filling those shoes.

Dad stands next to me with his entire forearm stuffed up into the gill of a forty-eight-inch striper. Effortlessly, he holds up the humongous fish; he is truly the last John Wayne. Never one to crack a smile in a photograph, I can see the faintest look of excitement in my father's eye and I can see that the times we have spent together on the Chesapeake have given us much more than just a few big fish. Looking at this photo, I am reminded of the striking dichotomy of both the closeness and distance between us; we stand together with only our elbows gracing one another. Close enough to touch but far enough away that it doesn’t appear too "soft."

Karen Wathen
Leonardtown, Maryland 

What does the Bay and its waters mean to you? Share your clean water story here!