The commercial rape of Chesapeake Bay's natural resources is something I've written about for more than 4 decades in various publications. It's nothing new, and much like the drug trade, this will probably continue until the resource(s) are decimated to the point where there is no profit, at which point the practice will stop.
There is not a single incidence of a saltwater fishery being wiped out by environmental conditions--not one! Every species that has been decimated has been commercially exploited to the point where it is no longer profitable to fish for it, at which point those that caused the species untimely demise switch to another species. It began with oysters in Chesapeake Bay, which was a goldmine for commercial watermen using dredges, patten tongs and hand tongs to completely wipe out massive bars of oysters throughout the bay's entire length.
During the summer months, when oysters were not viable, power dredgers predated upon soft-shell clams, a species that was rarely consumed by Maryland and Virginia residents, but was considered a delicacy in New England. The beds were wiped out within just a few decades. Dredgers moved to shallower waters in hopes of continuing to ply their deadly trade, but in the process they dredged up massive aquatic grass beds, which rapidly added to the Chesapeake's demise in water quality.
When oysters and clams were no longer available in commercially viable quantities, watermen switched to the bay's famed blue crab, a species know far and wide for it's sweet, white meat that was transformed into some of the best crab-cakes available anywhere in the world. When the crabs were not available, watermen pulled their crab pots and put their nets in the water, targeting anything that swam.
The first finfish species to be wiped out were Atlantic croaker, a fish that ranged up to 4 pounds in weight and was readily available from March through November throughout much of Chesapeake Bay. Early in the season prices ranged up to $1.20 per pound, but after a few short weeks the price quickly dropped to less than 10 cents a pound--the markets were quickly flooded.
When croaker were wiped out, the next species to be targeted was weakfish, a species that entered Chesapeake and Delaware bays in huge numbers during early spring and were easily ensnared in gill nets in the lower bay's deeper waters. Tangier and Pocomoke sounds in Chesapeake Bay, and much of lower and middle Delaware Bay were the prime areas, both of which produced weakfish (also known as sea trout) to 17 pounds. One of the area's most popular fishing tournaments, the Millford Delaware Weakfish Tournament, drew thousands of recreational anglers every year to participate in their 4-day event, a tournament that offered huge, cash prizes to those who managed to land the largest fish. The impact on the local economy was in the millions. Commercial exploitation of the species eventually caused the fishery to collapse, the tournament ceased to exist and Millford's economy went down the tube.
Striped bass was the next species in line. At the time there was essentially no regulation in place to curtail the catch, commercially or recreationally. It took a few decades to wipe them out, but by the early 1970s it was obvious the species was in it's death throes. Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and other federal agencies ignored pleas by recreational anglers to place catch restrictions on the fishery, both commercial and recreational. When the fishery totally collapsed, Maryland DNR decided to impose a moratorium, which lasted just over 4 years. Most other states said the problem was Maryland's alone, and Virginia did not participate in the moratorium during the first few years. Northern states, where migrating, larger fish were target, did not participate at all, but a few did eventually enact catch restrictions when pressured by ASMFC and Maryland DNR.
The striped bass fishery appears at this stage to be headed back to the brink of disaster. Complete year classes are missing from the fishery, and commercial exploitation seems to be the only plausible explanation. Anyone that has spent any time at all on Chesapeake Bay during the past few years will tell you that very few recreational anglers are seen plying the bays water in recent years. While Maryland DNR continues to sell lots of fishing licenses, the number continues to decline every year. The only thing in abundance in Chesapeake Bay seems to be crab pots and commercial nets.