Small Fry, Big Deal for Fisheries
Striped bass. Photograph, David Harp
Striped bass like this one can grow to 60 pounds or more, making them among the top predators in the Chesapeake Bay and one of its most iconic fisheries. New scientific research has examined what stripers and other predators eat and how much — knowledge that may assist fisheries managers to ensure that harvests remain sustainable. Photograph, David Harp

THE ANGLERS WERE OUT at their favorite spots on the Chesapeake Bay this summer, as usual, dropping lines in the water. Near Sandy Point State Park on the western shore, some kayaked out to catch black drum under the Bay Bridge. On the opposite side of the estuary, off the Bill Burton Fishing Pier on the Choptank River, others cast for white perch and sea trout. And out on the estuary's mainstem, fishers participated in the world's largest striped bass tournament, the annual Championship on the Chesapeake.

For those of us who like to catch fish for our dinner plates, or to sell, or just for fun to release, keeping Bay fish stocks healthy and sustainable is a vital concern. Many people involved in fisheries management agree that a critical ingredient to ensure that the estuary's fisheries are sustainable is a better scientific understanding of the connections between these popular fish species and the ecosystem where they live. One of these important connections is the abundance of small fish, worms, shrimp, and other creatures that provide food for the larger fish species that we like to catch.

In recent years, those interactions between predators and prey have been the subject of new scientific studies and tools. This issue of Chesapeake Quarterly examines information and approaches that resulted from this research and how they are helping increase the knowledge base needed for effective fisheries management.

The first article ("Who's Eating Whom in the Chesapeake Bay") takes readers aboard a research cruise that's part of a long-running project called ChesMMAP to collect important data about Bay predators and what they eat. Two other articles describe separate efforts: "Counting the Fish in the Sea" examines fresh research findings about the population dynamics of menhaden, a small fish important both for commercial harvest and as a prey species. "Guess Who Came for Dinner?" link describes how scientists are developing techniques of DNA sequencing to identify precisely the stomach contents of the estuary's predator fish.

It's good timing for these efforts. In 2014, officials revised the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, a document that guides regional efforts to improve water quality, and the new version calls for a strategy to assess stocks of the Bay's prey species. In addition, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a regulatory body, is considering a new approach for setting commercial harvest limits for menhaden; it would be designed to leave enough menhaden in the water to sustain populations of predator fish, such as striped bass.

These developments reflect a growing interest among natural resource managers in the Mid-Atlantic region to learn more about the many prey species that the prized, larger predator fish depend on for food — and to apply this knowledge to the ongoing work of managing fish stocks in the Chesapeake Bay and along the East Coast so that they remain sustainable, not overfished, and part of a healthy, balanced ecosystem for years to come.

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