As the new year began, the Chesapeake Bay received a D+ grade on the 2020 biennial health report, largely due to a drop in striped bass (also known as rockfish) populations.
The last time the bay was evaluated was in 2018 when it first scored a D+. In the 2018 report, contributions to the low grade included the health of seagrass, low number of oysters, and high pollution levels.
In 2020, the seagrass continues to recover. The oyster population itself received an F grade, although the numbers in the population have increased greatly since the last evaluation. And, the pollution in the majority of the states that are a part of the Chesapeake watershed has improved. However, despite what could be taken as good news, the Chesapeake Bay still received a D+ grade.
The Baltimore Sun had reported that in the State of the Bay report, the Chesapeake Bay had dropped by 17 points. One of the main culprits for this was the management of striped bass.
“The striped bass is the Chesapeake Bay fish,” said Ms. Amy Mongano, Mt. Hebron’s environmental science and marine science teacher.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, or CBF, mentions on its website that although striped bass migrates up and down the east coast, most are born in the Chesapeake Bay. In the bay, they are a top predator and play a crucial role in the bay’s ecosystem.
Due to this, the decreasing population is a serious concern. The rockfish was on the brink of extinction in the 1980s, resulting in a ban on fishing this species. Though the population seemed to recover enough for the ban to be lifted, soon the striped bass became the fish everyone relied on again.
Senior Samantha Williams, a member of Mt. Hebron’s Environmental Club said, “If you limit the fishing then the population gets the chance to recover and they say, ‘Okay the population’s doing well, we don’t need to ban this anymore.’ And then, it’s like the problem comes right back.”
Recreational fishing has also played a part in the population decline. The CBF website mentions that fishing causes striped bass to get injured or stressed, and those that are released tend to die.
To combat the population decline of rockfish, as mentioned in the Baltimore Sun article, the Department of Natural Resources decided to revise the regulations for the striped bass, including date changes when there is a summer-fall closure on recreational fishing of the species. Many fisheries had complaints regarding this break.
According to Lead Dog charter boat captain Brian Hardman, the two-week shutdown would hurt his business, as mentioned in the Baltimore Sun.
Many fisheries in Maryland opted not to extend their fishing standstill and instead continued to fish. Though this wasn’t beneficial to the striped bass, it was beneficial to businesses.
“If the bay’s health keeps deteriorating then we’re gonna lose a lot of other economical benefits that it might provide for the bay’s community,” said junior Leah Nath, also a member of the Environmental Club.
A break in the fishing season might be enough to solve the overfishing problem that hurts the population, but there are other dangers within the bay that add additional obstacles for the rockfish population.
“It also has to do with the fact that there’s habitat decline as well, which kills off species. It might not have been fishing, but also habitat degradation,” said Ms. Mongano.
If there is a decline in habitat, there is no longer a safe place for female striped bass to lay their eggs. Furthermore, the population will continue to decrease. Another contributor to not only the rockfish population, but also the Chesapeake Bay’s health overall, is pollution.
Williams also recalls the storm drains at school being painted. These painted drains are a reminder for people to be careful of littering. Anything that gets into the drains will eventually end up in the Chesapeake Bay.
Other ways to prevent pollution have been implemented in our own school. Mt. Hebron students may recall discussing the Chesapeake Bay watershed in their science classes, going on field trips to clean up the community, and picking up trash.
Remembering these events, Nath said in response to the health of the Bay, “It’s just interesting that as a community we’re pretty aware that it’s not great. We just can’t seem to figure out how to fix it.”
In terms of pollution, this was not the main culprit in 2020. Luckily, due to increased awareness, the bay was able to improve its grade on pollution levels.
To continue efforts such as pollution and litter clean-up, the Environmental Club asks everyone to do whatever they can to spread the word about the health of the bay overall.
“I feel like first-hand people should take the opportunity to educate themselves so they can know the basic facts and issues,” said Williams.
Some may remember hearing about a decline in both the oyster and blue crab populations in previous years. After some time and growing awareness, the numbers began to replenish and neither species has gone extinct. And there is still hope that the rockfish population could see rising numbers once again. Mt. Hebron’s Environmental Club encourages open conversations and advocacy for the health of our bay.