Striped bass are spawning in the river, perhaps in greater numbers than they have in almost a century. Last week, as part of its annual survey of young-of-the-year river herring and striped bass, the Department of Marine Resources turned up 110 1-to 2-inch long striped bass in Merrymeeting Bay.
?That one day already put us ahead of last year?s total catch of young-of-the-year striped bass,? said department biologist Jason Bartlett, who leads the survey on Merrymeeting.
The surveys, begun in the late 1970s, divide the river into four sections and 20 individual sampling sites ? a representative sample of a much greater whole.
Biologists haul beach seines ? large, fine mesh nets ? by hand in shallow coves where young baitfish congregate, then count and measure individual fish captured by hand. It?s laborious work, but the only way to accurately gauge the year?s spawn. Biologists sample every two weeks, from July to October.
According to Bartlett, striped bass captured last week averaged 11⁄2 inches in size. The stripes on their flanks are barely visible, he said.
Juvenile striped bass are most often found in Merrymeeting Bay, the river?s primary nursery area. Every year, a few are discovered between Richmond and Augusta, but only one has been found upriver of the old Edward?s Dam site.
?We still really don?t know where they spawn,? said senior biologist Gail Wippelhauser, who is leading a project to study resident striped bass in the river.
The project, said Wippelhauser, uses acoustic tags and receivers anchored at different points in the river to track the movements of striped bass.
This year, high water flows in June precluded the work. Next year, Wippelhauser said she hopes to plant tags in spawning striped bass and track their movements throughout the river.
?We?re trying to find out where the resident striped bass spawn, where they hang out, where they over-winter, so we can make sure we?re managing properly for them,? she said.
According to centuries-old fisheries reports, resident striped bass were once abundant in the Kennebec ? over-wintering in deep holes in the river and Merrymeeting Bay, then spawning each spring. Scientists believe these fish remained in the Kennebec river system year-round.
Edward?s Dam, constructed in 1837, reduced the population. But it took the open sewer conditions and low dissolved oxygen levels of the 1930s, 40s and 50s before the Department of Marine Resources assumed the resident fish extirpated.
In 1982, after the Clean Water Act of 1977, biologists began stocking the river with Hudson River strain fingerling striped bass. By 1989, they?d stocked 187,560. Not long after, they began catching a few ? very few ? young-of-the-year striped bass in the beach seine surveys.
Only recently have those numbers started to increase, largely after the removal of Edwards Dam in 1999. No one knows why, yet.
?It could be the high water we?ve had,? said Wippelhauser. She said its also possible that renewed bait runs provide cover to baby striped bass, which, outside of a school, were formerly easy prey for the Kennebec?s aresenal of predators.
Restored fish runs also mean more food in the river, which benefits all species, and especially striped bass.
So what does this mean for fishermen on the Kennebec?
It?s good news.
Because striped bass are largely a migratory species ? running up the coast, state by state, from North Carolina to Maine each year, they face countless threats ? besides the millions of sharp hooks and ravenous fishermen along the way.
The Chesapeake Bay, a major spawning ground for Atlantic coast striped bass, is polluted and getting worse.
Mycobacteria, a fish disease which leads to open sores on the gills of striped bass, is spreading at an alarming rate.
And some argue that big, breeding striped bass are being fished at an unsustainable rate.
We?re not taking any chances. We?ve decided to create our own private stock of striped bass.
Of course, eliminating threats to migrating striped bass down coast is the best solution, but imagine: If we had our own population, it would be like insurance against mistakes and mismanagement elsewhere.
For now, fishermen at Fort Halifax Park gripe about the loads of 8- to 14-inch striped bass they?ve been catching this year.
?Where are the big ones,? they ask.
In a few years, after those fish feast on the river?s renewed runs of alewives, shad and blueback herring, I hope we?ll have our answer.
Dave Sherwood ? 621-5648