Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Rock Out For Summer?

Rhode Island Rock, aka Striped Bass
The words "summer rock" can call to mind different things for different people.  Some think of "monumental" summer concerts performed by geriatric legends on their last knee surgery.  Others envision catchy, trending songs with meaningless lyrics that will live on in repeat mode playing somewhere between the fifth and ninth circles of hell.  Or, if you are thinking of your own music tastes (wink wink), you are probably envisioning awesome bands blasting out soul changing lyrics during mind altering weekends with endless stories of how great it all can be.

If you are a Chesapeake Bay fisherman however, when you hear the words summer and rock, your mind most likely drifts off to a place where there's a line in the water and at the end of it there's a big rockfish taking the bait.  Rockfish, or if you are from any state above the Mason Dixon, striped bass, are usually a summer standby for many Chesapeake Bay area natives.  Maryland and Virginia are known as rockfish havens and during the summer season fish are usually landed by the thousands.  During this time of year you typically can't find a menu from D.C. to Ocean City without at least an offering of the tasty bass somewhere on it.  This year is different though, and I thought it might be an important enough issue to at least give some reasoning to the scarcity.

First, the rockfish quota - that is the amount of fish that can legally be taken out of the water - was cut this year by 20% in order to protect the stocks.  It wasn't too long ago that native rockfish were almost fished out, so these measures are necessary, even though you might have to alter your dinner plans.  To dig a little deeper, I spoke with Tim Suhgrue, a biologist and partner of Congressional Seafood, to get a better idea of what was happening on the water.  He explained that during the summer there is a hook and line and a pound net fishery for local rockfish.  The fishermen actually have until the fall and winter respectively to meet their quota.  The fish seem to be on the smaller side right now, so most of the fishermen are waiting until later in the year to target the bass, when they can get bigger fish and bigger prices.

There are a few fishermen still working on the bass, but most have switched to targeting crabs.  Right now blue crabs are on the move, so there is much more profit to be made focusing on the popular shellfish.  The few hook and line fishermen still plying the rockfish don't catch many at a time, so there will be drips and drabs of local rock, but not the glut we have seen in the past.  Another reason fishermen aren't going out is due to the cost of catching the fish.  In the cooler months there's usually bigger fish in the water and they are much easier to handle properly and keep cold sufficiently.  Just imagine how much ice it takes to keep the harvested fish cool during the summer months when temperatures can creep into the triple digits.  Just take a look at your air-condition bill and times it by a thousand to get an idea.

Summer is not lost completely for you rockfish lovers.  Rhode Island is open right now for rockfish, or should I say striped bass, and fishing is good.  Rhode Island is on a quota system, so there is no definite timeline for exactly when the season will close, it can easily happen overnight.  It all just depends on how fast and how much they catch.  Massachusetts' season opens June 25 and Mr. Suhgrue expects that season to last about 3 weeks.  They are also on a quota system and unfortunately their quota has also been cut by 20%, roughly only 700,000 pounds will be caught.  This will barely get us out of July if we are lucky.

The northern fish are usually much larger in size.  Rhode Island fish for instance have to be at least 32 inches or greater in length to keep.  That makes for a pretty thick slice of fish.  I expect rockfish will be offered this summer, though most of it, for the time being, will be from the north.  Unfortunately, I don't expect prices to be in that traditionally low range that we have all come to appreciate and look forward to.  We might have to wait a little longer this year for our local rockfish to come to port, and subsequently, for prices to decrease.  For the next month or so, we may have to make due with that expensive substitute that the yanks call striped bass.


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