Local Wild Rockfish: To Serve or Not to Serve

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The news headlines lately have been filled with emergency regulations on our local rockfish. It’s clear that their population has been trending downward for the better part of the last decade. A few of our customers have asked if they should continue serving local rockfish on their menus. Before we answer that question with an emphatic YES, it’s important to understand how our local rockfish population is managed.

There are two governing authorities managing Maryland and Virginia’s rockfish population: one state and one federal. The local state agencies, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), implement their harvests of wild rock within the guidelines of the federal agency overseeing the rockfish population at the federal level, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council (ASMFC).

The way a fishery (any fishery) is managed is that the governing bodies conduct a “stock assessment” every 5-7 years to determine the health of the population and to set sustainable harvest levels. If there is poor spawning success, or if harvest levels exceed what was allocated, then fishery managers must make changes. Such is the case currently with our local rockfish population.

We have had little to no reproduction of juvenile rock in the Chesapeake Bay since 2018. Compounding the problem, recreational harvests have been larger than anticipated. So, the ASMFC and the Maryland DNR are stepping in and making changes to the 2024 harvest. Their plan is to reduce the rock harvest by 20% next year. They will achieve this through a variety of proposals now on the table, including shortening the season and implementing a smaller slot limit, which are given at this point.

The good news is, you can still find mile-long schools of wild rock in the Bay today. They are not nearly as scarce as they were prior to the moratorium in the 80s. Back then, when you saw a rock, you took a picture of it because they were so rare. We will “under fish” (under harvest) our local rock and allow their population to recover in the near future. If the local governing bodies think you should not serve rockfish, they would close the season like they did in the 80’s. But we are a long way from that point now.