ROCK HALL -- A full moon was just beginning to set on a still-dark Chesapeake Bay yesterday when, for the first time in five years, commercial fisherman Ronnie Fithian and his crew laid off their drift nets just south of the Bay Bridge.
It took only a few minutes for the 400 yards of white nylon mesh net to disappear off the stern of the fiberglass workboat. Lead weights quickly pulled it 65 feet down into some of the deepest and warmest waters in the Upper Chesapeake, where schools of rockfish once were commonly found in the dead of winter.
Two more nets went overboard as a light overcast hid the sunrise. Then the crew relaxed in the warm cabin, waiting for the last of the flood tide to drift the nets a half-mile or so, maybe snagging a few big rockfish along the way.
"Been so long since we've fished, might be a lot of 'em now," Mr. Fithian said.
Mr. Fithian was one of only a handful of commercial fishermen who returned to harvesting rockfish yesterday, the first day in five years the state has permitted drift-netting for the fish in Maryland.
"Ain't too many of 'em will fool with it. Ain't worth it," said crew member Tim Nordhoff as the four fishermen waited patiently for the tide to wash their nets.
An hour later, they took up the nets the way fishermen have for centuries -- by hand.
After laying off and taking in their nets throughout the day, the fishermen headed home to Rock Hall with 51 of the biggest rockfish they've netted in a decade, but with little hope for a decent market price.
The fish were expected to get only $1.60 per pound, far below the $3.50 per pound they got right before the ban.
About 300 fishermen, who bought special $250 commercial licenses to drift-net for rockfish this month, will find a highly regulated version of the industry they were forced to abandon in 1985.
dTC On Jan. 1, 1985, the state, reacting to fear that overharvesting would make the fish extinct, banned the harvesting of striped bass, known locally as rockfish.
While the controversial moratorium was in place, rockfish flourished, thanks in part to restocking efforts by state hatcheries.
Today, the rockfish population is "about what it was in the mid-'70s," allowing the state to open a limited season to fishermen, said W. Peter Jensen, director of fisheries at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
But the long-awaited return of the commercial rockfish season is a bittersweet victory for commercial fishermen, who have argued all along that the ban was unnecessary, Mr. Fithian said.
"The commercial season is a joke," said Mr. Fithian, who is president of the Kent County Watermen's Association.
"It's just a way of pacifying us," agreed James "Jim Bob" Jacquette, another Rock Hall fisherman and vice president of the association.
Before the moratorium, the state regulated the length of the season, the size of the fish watermen could harvest and where they could fish.
But DNR regulations this season are "100 times worse," Mr. Fithian said.
The biggest issue is the catch limit of 650 pounds a person, which is equivalent to seven days' work.
"There's no way to make any money out of it," lamented Mr.
The fishermen don't expect the limits to improve.
"I don't think we'll ever get any more than we got this year," Mr. Fithian said.
Mr. Fithian believes commercial fishermen, faced with a strong lobbying effort and a petition drive by sport fishermen to restrict or ban the commercial harvest, are losing the political battle to save their livelihoods.
Wayne Grauer, a former director of the Maryland Fly Anglers, an association of sport fishermen, said he would like to see the state pay watermen not to harvest rockfish.
"There is a much greater profit for the state in sport fishing than in commercial fishing," he said. "I think the commercial fisherman has a tendency not to worry about tomorrow. They're here for today and the devil with tomorrow."
Many sport fishermen blame the commercial fishermen for the overharvest that led to the rockfish moratorium.
But DNR figures indicate that the rapid growth of the sport fishing industry is as responsible for the overharvesting as commercial fishing.
Before the early 1960s, the impact of recreational fishing on the striped bass population was negligible. By 1985, when the ban took effect, the sport fishing industry was taking as many pounds of rockfish from the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic Coast, where the fish migrates, as commercial fishermen, according to Mr. Jensen.
"Now you had two fisheries competing for what had been one. The combination was too much," Mr. Jensen said.
For now, DNR has given the sport and commercial fisheries equal quotas: 318,000 pounds of rockfish each, which makes up 85 percent of the 1990-1991 fish quota. The remaining 15 percent was allocated to charter boats.
Mr. Fithian, who says he sees "more rockfish today than there's ever been in my lifetime," can't understand why the catch limits are so low.