At 5 this morning, fishermen throughout Maryland's tidal waters began in earnest to acquire their piece of the rock, as the first striped-bass fishing season in five years was opened to recreational and charter-boat anglers in the state.
Striped bass, popularly known as rockfish or rock, have been protected by a moratorium on commercial and recreational fishing since 1985, after it was determined that only a ban on their capture would ensure the continued existence of the species.
William P. Jensen, director of fisheries for the Department of Natural Resources' Tidewater Administration, said the first weekend, running through the Columbus Day holiday Monday, is shaping up as a tremendous fishing effort.
Many of the state's 350,000 recreational fishermen are expected to take part in the opening of the fishery, Jensen said, and the charter-boat industry is experiencing an incredible boost, with more than 400skippers planning to participate.
"A lot of people who did not use their [charter-boat] license now do intend to use it to take friends and business associates fishing," he said.
Charter-boat customers will be allowed to catch five fish per day, but skippers and mates are excluded from the fishery while on charter.
The recreational daily limit is two fish per day. The minimum size allowed in Chesapeake tidal waters is 18 inches, with a 36-inch maximum.
The allocation for the charter-boat segment of the fishery is 112,500 pounds. The recreational allocation is 318,750 pounds.
The increase in charter-boat activity has some captains worried that the early catch will be so great that the season will be cut short.
"The season has been unusual overall," said Hank Conley, a charter captain out of Solomons Island. "The blues were in late and small. The same thing with sea trout. So rockfishing is going to help out quite a bit.
"The problem is that the season is going to be cut short. I'm hoping for two to three weeks, anyway."
At 400 boats and, say, 1,600 customers per day, the charter-boat allocation could be caught in fewer than six days if the average fish caught weighs 2.5 pounds.
Jensen said the DNR is gearing up to watch the catch figures closely because of the possibility of reaching the quota early.
"We're anticipating that, in the first days of the season, fish will be easy to catch," he said. "But, as fishing pressure continues to build, the schools will be scattered and harder to catch; the fish will become smarter in fish sense. The first day probably is not going to be indicative of the continuing success rate of the fishermen."
Richard Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, said an early closure of the recreational season is less likely because he doesn't expect most of the state's recreational fishermen to carry through the season or to catch their daily limits.
"Quite honestly, though," Novotny said, "if they [DNR] see that the recreational angler has caught his quota before five weeks are up, then Ifeel we should be closed down just like the other fishermen. We are here to conserve the fishery. That is the most important thing."
The Natural Resources Police also are gearing up to police the activity.
There is a $1,500 maximum fine per fish for violations of creel limit, size limits or possession laws. In extreme cases, said Cpl. Ralph Parker of the Natural Resources Police, there are provisions for seizure of all boats and fishing equipment belonging to those who are found to be in violation of the striped-bass regulations.
"But there will be a lot of discretion used in that area," Parker said. "If a guy has one fish that is under the limit, for example, we don't anticipate seizure of equipment. But we plan to issue no warnings for violations."
While $1,500 is the maximum fine that may be imposed, there also are provisions for prepayable fines of $110, which will be handled in much the same manner as traffic tickets, where a choice is made to go to court or simply to mail in the predetermined fine amount.
"We're going to have 120 officers throughout the bay area on the water and working," Parker said. "That's a lot of territory to cover, but we're hoping that the mere presence of a police vessel will deter anyone who might want to take a chance.
"And, by and large, fishermen are law-abiding, and we are not looking for any major problems."
In addition to the officers on the water, the NRP will have a plane and a helicopter up through the weekend.