The Striper Coast
Our resilient rockfish is a Chesapeake Bay icon and a symbol of hope for conservation.
"The oyster restoration we've been involved in more than five years now in places like the Piankatank River really benefits striped bass and people who fish." —Mark Bryer
By Daniel White
The marina parking lot at Rudee Inlet is a sheet of ice. A rare white Christmas in Virginia Beach nearly buried our trip.
But with clear skies and a smooth ocean in the forecast, the rime-covered Midnight Sun is set to leave at dawn. The challenge facing our group of fishermen and charter captain Ryan Rogers, though, is how far south must we go to find the fish — if we find them at all?
Our quarry is the Atlantic striped bass, commonly called striper or rockfish. Its winter range off southeastern Virginia and North Carolina’s Outer Banks represents the southern terminus of a complex migration that can span more than 2,000 miles.
Scientists calculate that 70-90 percent of the Atlantic stock spawns in freshwater tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, described by some as a school preparing juvenile rockfish for ocean life. Most mature fish graduate from the bay in late spring and swim north, meeting Hudson River and Delaware Bay spawners to summer off Maine.
When falling temperatures drive baitfish south, voracious rockfish pursue, resulting in autumn’s legendary feeding “blitzes” that draw enormous rafts of birds to feast on the carnage. The fish’s followers also include millions of people.
The fish’s influence on our culture dates back centuries. “The basse is an excellent fish,” wrote Captain John Smith of the succulent fare gracing Jamestown tables. The Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted America’s first conservation law to protect this vital food source, prohibiting the use of striped bass and cod as fertilizer. The Plymouth Colony later funded America’s first public school through taxing striper sales.
But the 20th century brought the near collapse of our native rockfish. Virginia and Maryland were among several states imposing a moratorium on striper fishing during the 1980s. Careful management, the rockfish’s resilience and favorable climatic conditions are credited for the population rebounding, and fishing resumed in 1990.
Today, the rockfish instills nearly unrivaled passion among anglers. “It’s a big fish, it’s fun to catch and it’s delicious to eat,” says Mark Bryer, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Chesapeake Bay Program. “The striped bass also integrates a whole spectrum of conservation issues we care about, from oyster restoration to river flows to water quality.”
Bryer adds that the name rockfish derives from the habitat — oyster rocks (aka reefs) — where people historically found the fish feeding. “The oyster restoration we’ve been involved in more than five years now in places like the Piankatank River really benefits striped bass and people who fish,” he says.
Managing dams for natural river flows also is key, as the way tributaries like the Susquehanna deliver fresh water and food and affect salinity in the bay is crucial for raising each year’s new bass class. “Our work with state and federal agencies and utilities to balance energy production with river and bay health has a direct consequence on striped bass populations,” says Bryer.
And by investing in natural areas such as Dragon Run, Crow’s Nest and Nanjemoy along key tributaries, the Conservancy and partners are helping maintain water quality for successful spawning.
Biologists keeping tabs on fishery trends are concerned about possible declines in a favorite prey, menhaden. Malnutrition is tied to the prevalence of a potentially lethal bacterial disease, symptoms of which can be seen as angry red lesions marring a rockfish’s silvery sides. Continued vigilance will be required, yet our thriving striped bass fishery remains a paragon of hope.
Hope, of course, springs eternal among fishermen, and my friends and I feel it rising on the Midnight Sun. Captain Ryan is steering toward, he says, “the biggest mess of birds I’ve ever seen in my life.”
We travel nearly 40 nautical miles before earning our dinner — each of us reels in a nice fish — but that’s nothing compared to the rockfish’s epic journey back from the brink.
With your support, we can encourage thoughtful management and continue our strategic conservation work so that many future generations will enjoy the fight and flavor of our iconic Chesapeake rockfish.
Daniel White is a Conservancy senior writer based in Charlottesville, Virginia.