Conservation efforts from Maine to Florida have brought the striped bass back from near extinction, a commission said.
In declaring the fish recovered, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission cleared the way this week for relaxing catch restrictions that have protected the species since the early 1980s.
Striped bass, also known as rockfish, spawn primarily in the rivers of the upper Chesapeake Bay, though some reproduce in the Hudson and Delaware rivers and in North Carolina. Most from the bay migrate to the ocean and swim the Atlantic from Maine to North Carolina until they reach spawning age in three to six years.
The recovery, said Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, "demonstrates that through strong management and coordinated action we can improve the health of the living resources in the Chesapeake Bay."
W. Peter Jensen, fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the recovery was a bit of a surprise.
"I don't think anybody anticipated we were going to achieve this great a success in this short a time," he said.
The declaration on striped bass came this week during a meeting of the 15-state compact in Washington. It affirms what skippers have suspected.
"They have been recovered for at least a year and probably longer," said Bruce Scheible, who runs a charter boat business in St. Mary's County, near the mouth of the Potomac River. "The other day down here, there was a school of 10- to 20-pound rockfish four miles long, just moving and feeding on the surface."
There were few of the fish left 10 years ago because of over-harvesting and a lack of concerted conservation by Atlantic Coast states. Maryland imposed a moratorium on striped bass in 1985. Other states imposed their own bans and catch limits.
Maryland lifted its moratorium in 1990 after a big spawn of young striped bass in the upper Chesapeake but imposed tight regulations. Last summer, Maryland biologists found newly spawned striped bass in the Chesapeake in numbers as great as in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Projections indicate that the population will continue to grow by 15% a year, even if fishing regulations are relaxed, Jensen said.
Some conservation efforts will continue, however. Recent studies found that the fish were even closer to disappearing than scientists thought when the bans were imposed.
"Fishing will still be tightly controlled," said Phil Coates, chairman of the commission's striped bass management board and director of marine fisheries for Massachusetts.