Divvying up the Rockfish

October 08, 1990

The resources of the Chesapeake Bay are not unlimited. The desires of fishermen to bring home prize catches every day cannot be fulfilled.

That is why the Department of Natural Resources banned catching rockfish in 1985 until the 20-year decline of the species had been reversed. In the past year, Chesapeake rockfish have reproduced in their most abundant numbers since 1970. So the state announced it would allow recreational fishermen to pursue rockfish from last Friday to Nov. 9.

That should not be an invitation to hold a movable feast for those who would exploit rockfish and reverse gains the state has made. Yet the DNR, under renewed pressure from charter-boat owners, is leaning toward opening a season for fishing off charter boats next May, about the same time that rockfish spawn. The danger of this proposal is obvious. Secretary Torrey VTC Brown says the DNR would try to protect spawning rockfish by establishing a 380,000-pound rockfish quota.

Interestingly, many recreational fishermen -- those who do not use charter boats -- say they would give up their own privileges rather than see an all-out assault undercut the state's restocking plan. A deep political gap is developing. Charter boat captains are hurting economically. Bluefish and other seasonal fish have been in short supply, cutting back charter boat income this season. Many sports fishermen, on the other hand, show a deeper concern for conserving the species.

Not all sports fishermen are willing to sacrifice for healthier stocks. Some boaters report heavy pursuit of rockfish near Conowingo Dam and elsewhere in the upper bay. That is a violation of state policy and we would like to see more marine police put pressure on renegade fishermen.

More important, the state should adopt policies based on accurate fish counts and sound analyses. The bay may be loaded with rockfish, as Dr. Brown points out. But this year's spawn is quite low. A succession of assaults by fishermen may prematurely decimate an important part of marine life that we have put so much care into rebuilding.

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