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Entries in Maryland (16)

Friday
Mar112016

Cooperative Efforts Focus on Preserving, Enhancing Chesapeake Bay Bass Fisheries

Guide Steve Chaconas in front of Capital Wheel in Potomac River's National Harbor

Cooperative efforts are not only bettering Chesapeake Bay bass fisheries. They're also laying the groundwork for future strategies to sustain and enhance these waters that are vulnerable to erosion and saltwater intrusion, as well as projected sea level rise (SLR) related to climate change.

"We're partnering with Maryland B.A.S.S. Nation (MBN) and others to build a reef in tidal freshwater at National Harbor on the Potomac River, the first tidal freshwater reef in Maryland," said Joe Love, tidal bass manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "That type of work might help provide stable reproductive habitat if grasses or wetlands are lost over time.

"In general, it's best to protect habitat, but it's hard to fight the tide," he added. "As habitats change over time, I'm optimistic that innovative work will undoubtedly be accomplished to help protect our tidal freshwater fisheries."

Love also pointed out that  MBN has been working with his agency to stock bass in tidal areas of the Middle and Gunpowder rivers. "While Middle River used to be a great bass fishery, urbanization of that watershed likely led to greater saltwater intrusion, nutrient influx, and reduced productivity for bass," he said.

History confirms that good bass spawning habitat can be lost over time in coastal fisheries. For example, SLR, nutria, and saltwater intrusion have degraded a once prime area in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore, the biologist explained.

And it is the Eastern Shore that will be punished the most by future intrusion and SLR. "More wetland is predicted to be lost from our Eastern Shore than anywhere else in the bay," Love said.

But the most valuable habitat for bass lies in the Potomac River and upper bay (Susquehanna River). Unfortunately, it also is the most vulnerable, according to an extensive survey of 141 nursery habitats on the Chesapeake Bay watershed that Love conducted with the help of other MDNR biologists and funding from the federal Sport Fish Restoration Act.

"They have highly productive nurseries, and are the two biggest fisheries in Maryland tidal waters," he said. "Because of those things, even a relatively small impact form SLR on the Potomac River and the upper bay can have a bigger impact on the fisheries there than on the Eastern Shore, where habitat quality and availability already severely limit population growth rates for largemouth bass."

For the study, Love added that he focused on "how much impact there could be, worst case scenario" in terms of increased salinity, loss of grass and increased influence by tides.

"To be honest, though, I'm not sure how severe those impacts would be," he said. "Will there only be a little loss of grass? Will salinity only rise a little bit?

"I'm not sure about the degree of influence or even how those influences will affect the fisheries. But we need to start thinking about that for these costal bass fisheries and asking those questions."

Tuesday
Mar082016

Is Stockpiling a Problem for Bass Fisheries? It Depends . . . 

Live-release boats prevent stockpiling of bass in the weigh-in areas.

Prompted by B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott,  anglers of the 1970s began to release their fish instead of kill them. During those early years, only the big picture was in focus, and it revealed bass fishermen to be stewards who cared about conserving the resource.

Then we began to closer examine our actions and their consequences, and we realized that not all of those released bass survived, including many caught in tournaments. We recognized that improper handling led to delayed mortality. We worked to increase survival rates by devising and promoting better ways to handle bass from lake to livewell to weigh-in stand and finally to release. In 2002,  B.A.S.S. compiled a "Keeping Bass Alive" handbook for anglers and tournament organizers.

We're not there yet, and likely never will be in terms of keeping all bass alive after they are released, but we've dramatically lowered delayed mortality rates through innovation and education.

And as we've responded to that challenge, we've noted yet another, this one specifically related to tournament fishing: Stockpiling.

Traditionally, the term referred to what the United States and USSR did with nuclear weapons during the Cold War or what survivalists continue to do with food, firearms, and precious metals. But during the past two decades or so, fisheries managers have recognized it as a phenomenon that occurs when all the bass are released near the weigh-in site following a tournament or two or three . . .

What's the problem with stockpiling? At a meeting last fall with Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) biologists, concerned anglers suggested that when bass are collectively released at a weigh-in site they become more susceptible to meat fishermen who catch and kill, as well as easier targets for future tournament anglers, resulting in increased  chances of stress, injury, and delayed mortality.

MDNR agreed that stockpiling can damage the overall health of a fishery, and Tony Prochaska, Inland Fisheries division manager, added that the issue likely is a national one. As evidence, he pointed out that 6 of 10 northeastern states that responded to questions about this issue said it is a concern.

Telemetry work conducted in the North East and Potomac rivers decades ago revealed that some fish will leave the release area, but about half may remain for a month or more. Out in California, a study conducted during the 1990s on Lake Shasta showed that largemouth bass moved less than three miles from where they were released. 

MDNR's tidal bass manager, Joe Love, says that the issue comes down to two questions:

1) Are too many fish being taken from one area, such as isolated streams and then released at a distant weigh-in site?

2) Are too many fish being released at a weigh-in area?

"We've found that the answer to both of these questions is that it depends on the weigh-in area," he said. "Specifically, it depends on the number of shore anglers fishing the weigh-in area, water quality in the area, and the distance of the weigh-in area from streams where the fish were taken."

Additional variables include the numbers and sizes of the fish weighed and the sizes and timing of the tournaments

Anglers and fisheries managers alike agree that there's an acceptable  loss or mortality of fish, Love added.  Otherwise there wouldn't be limits. But how much does stockpiling add to that loss, especially at popular sites where multiple weigh-ins are staged each season?

"Pinpointing the relative impact of a single factor is nearly impossible, making successful mitigation of that single factor improbable," the biologist said. "In combination with other factors affecting a fishery, though, stockpiling may affect a fishery if it increases the number of fish caught and released at the weigh-in site and the number of fish caught and eaten at the weigh-in site, both of which increases fishing mortality and reduces the proportion of big fish in a population."

Unlike habitat loss and other factors affecting the quality of a bass fishery, stockpiling likely can be managed. MDNR hopes to do that by having tournament directors specify what management practices they intend to use, such as spreading around weigh-in areas during a tournament trail and/or reducing possession limits.

"We also are working with some tournament organizations such as B.A.S.S. and PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America) to redistribute fish when they request assistance because of otherwise significant, undue harm to bass survival," Love said.

Because of so many variables, stockpiling is a more complex problem than delayed mortality, but fisheries managers and concerned anglers are working on it to better protect and enhance the nation's bass fisheries.

Thursday
Jul302015

Exotic Catfish Are in Our Waters Too

Asian carp are the exotic fish species that we hear the most about, but plenty of others are established in our waters as well, mostly because of an under-regulated exotic pet industry and irresponsible aquarium owners. Clinton Richardson recently caught this unusual catfish while fishing the lower Susquehanna River.  Biologists identified it as a hybrid catfish from the aquarium trade, a cross between a redtail catfish and a tiger shovelnose catfish. Both grow large in their native South America.

"Irresponsible aquarium owners continue to introduce exotic and at times invasive fish to our waterways when their pet fish become too large or they tire of them," noted the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "The introduction of the northern snakehead is a perfect example."

The big question now is whether climate is too cold for such exotic catfish to establish breeding populations that far north, if they haven't already.

USGS photo

In Florida, meanwhile, the suckermouth armored catfish, also from South America, is firmly entrenched over much of the peninsula. And almost certainly it came from the aquarium trade as well, as it often is labeled a "plecostomus" or "algae eater."

The burrows that they make for spawning likely cause or exacerbate erosion on shorelines of canals and rivers, although no quantitative data is available on that. Additionally, they have been observed browsing on the algae that frequently grows on the backs of manatees.

"Manatee responses varied widely; some did not react visibly to attached catfish whereas others appeared agitated and attempted to dislodge the fish. The costs and/or benefits of this interaction to manatees remain unclear," said the U.S. Geological Survey.

Monday
Sep152014

What's Ailing Susquehanna River Smallmouth Bass?

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission photo

Despite its refusal to declare the Susquehanna River impaired last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) says that it will continue intensive sampling of what was once a world-class smallmouth fishery.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission asked for the designation, as fingerlings continue to die, adults carry ugly lesions, and eggs show up in the testes of male fish. Additionally, an estimated 80 percent of the bass seem to have disappeared from the central part of the state, where the North and West Branches meet, down to Conowingo Dam in Maryland.

The 2014 plan calls for analysis of fish tissue for pesticides, PCBs, and metals. Also biologists will look at insects, mussels, and other invertebrates, as well as sample the water for sediment, pollution, and pesticides.

At 464 miles, the Susquehanna is the largest river to drain into the Atlantic, and its massive watershed of 27,500 square miles includes portions of New York and Maryland, as well as nearly half of Pennsylvania.

“Over the last two years where we tremendously enhanced our examination efforts, DEP has learned a great deal about the health of the Susquehanna River,” said Secretary E. Christopher Abruzzo.

 “It is important to continue these efforts so that DEP can create policy and regulation based on facts and sound science.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation believes that a “perfect storm” of conditions have contributed to the sick and declining smallmouth population, with pollution from farms and sewage plants, low dissolved oxygen, rising water temperatures among the contributors. These stressors make the fish more susceptible to bacteria, parasites, and diseases that might not have affected them in the past.

(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)

Wednesday
Aug062014

Maryland Launches Campaign Against Invasive Catfish

Photo from Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has launched a statewide campaign to minimize the impact that invasive blue and flathead catfish are having on state fisheries.

“Increasing in population and range, both blue and flathead catfish now are abundant in the Chesapeake Bay, threatening the natural food chain of our ecosystem and causing concern among fisheries manager,” said DNR Deputy Secretary Frank Dawson.

The new outreach strategy will help anglers identify and catch these invasive species, and, resource officials hope, will encourage them to keep the fish instead of releasing them. As a part of the campaign, more than 150 education/cautionary signs will be placed at access areas and kiosks across the state. Additionally, the state will help promote Maryland’s fledgling commercial catfish fishery.

“Blue and flathead catfish are long-lived, voracious predators,” added Tom O’Connell, DNR fisheries chief. “They grow to enormous size, have many offspring, and dominate other fish populations wherever they take hold.

“We want everyone to aware of this significant problem and to know that it is illegal to transport these fish between bodies of water in Maryland.”

Both species were introduced by anglers into the Chesapeake Bay watershed during the 1970s and 1980s. Today, blues are in most of the bay’s major tributaries. Flatheads are in the Lower Susquehanna and the Occoquan Rivers and recently were identified in the non-tidal Potomac near Willamsport. The state record blue, weighing 84 pounds, came from the Tidal Potomac in 2012.

And they are present in huge numbers. Biologists conducting a survey for stripers in Mattawoman Creek found their nets clogged with catfish. A Port Tobacco commercial fisherman collected 300,000 pounds in one haul.

Also, stomach sampling reveals that the catfish will eat just about anything that they can swallow, including blue crabs.  “Looking in the guts of these fish, we find really astounding differences in the range of species they consume, suggesting that, if left unchecked, they could potentially start to impact our ecosystem,” said Peyton Robertson, director of the Chesapeake Bay office for the National Oceanic and  Atmospheric Administration.