For a short time last October, rockfish again captured the fancy of Maryland fishermen. In the time since, there has been much ado about a recreational season for stripers this year. It would be split between dates in May and October or November.
A fall recreational fishery is virtually certain. What will transpire this spring, however, is questionable.
Under the Maryland management plan, which has been submitted to and approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the spring season must be held between May 1 and May 31 -- and fishing efforts must be limited to minimal catches of trophy-size stripers.
As it stands, according to sources at the Department of Natural Resources and on the Striped Bass Advisory Board, the Maryland plan makes no provisions for an expanded spring recreational or commercial fishery aimed at smaller striped bass and with more traditional creel limits.
The May trophy season, which would not have to run the full month and might be opened at any time during that month, would be restricted to stripers of at least 45 inches total length and subjected to a creel limit of one fish per boat per day.
To change the guidelines that would regulate the spring fishery, sources said, Maryland would have to submit an amended proposal to the ASMFC, which is responsible for setting the framework for striped-bass management along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to North Carolina.
"Since Maryland departed from the ASMFC's generic plan and instituted a quota system with smaller minimum sizes, etc., they originally had to get their proposal OK'd by ASMFC about a year ago," said a source on the advisory board. "They got it OK'd with the inclusion of the possibility of a May trophy fishery.
"The catch here is that ASMFC has only OK'd a trophy fishery in May; they have not OK'd a regular season at a lower minimum size with a more typical creel limit."
Sources said the ASMFC has not reviewed any revised plan for Maryland's spring fishery.
Sources with the DNR's Tidewater Administration said that the management plan submitted to the ASMFC also covered the recent recreational fishery and the commercial fishery.
"Could we reapproach ASMFC and say we'd like to alter it and have a trophy season and a recreational season on smaller migratory fish?" a source in the Tidewater Administration said. "I guess anything is possible, but, under the current proposal to ASMFC, there are provisions only for a trophy fishery between May 1 and May 31 -- and that is not to say that it would run a full month. It could be more restrictive."
The May fishery is a sensitive issue because in the late spring the bay and its tributaries are filled with large female rockfish still laden with roe or fresh off the spawning grounds, the fish largely responsible for the continued prosperity of the species from North Carolina to lower New England.
A fishery targeted at these rockfish, biologists say, must be carefully managed to prevent the taking of fish that have yet to spawn in the low-salinity areas of the bay's tributaries or in the largely fresh areas of the upper bay.
Toward that end, it is probable that a line will be set across the bay -- perhaps from Swann or Love points, perhaps from Bloody Point -- and no fishing for stripers will be allowed north of that line during a spring season.
"Above that line, you couldn't guarantee that a fish wasn't still heading toward the upper bay, the last spawning area," one source said.
The Department of Natural Resources, sources said, still is determining how long a season will be allowed and where the line across the bay might be drawn.
The Striped Bass Advisory Board, which has been grappling with the variables of spring and fall fisheries for several months, has yet to make a recommendation to the DNR.
Sources in the Tidewater Administration and the advisory board said several scenarios are being discussed and that each is subject to different levels of fishing effort, catch rates, availability of certain sizes of fish, different areas of closure and variable lengths of season.
"And once that is done, we still have to regulate it," one source said. "That is, get the regulations approved and in place."
At this point, sources said, it is likely that the standard process of implementing such regulations will be bypassed and emergency regulation procedures implemented.
That rockfish have commanded the attention of biologists, private fishermen, charter-boat operators, commercial fishermen and conservationists is not unusual. Historically, rockfish were the mainstay of the Chesapeake Bay fishery -- until the decline of the species necessitated the implementation of a moratorium on fishing on Jan. 1, 1985.
When fishing resumed last Oct. 5, the season was allowed because the species had recovered enough to be considered in need of conservation but no longer could be termed threatened.
"Still, I think they [ASMFC] would not allow anything more than a bare-bones trophy fishery in May," one source said.
First three days, Oct. 5-7 Licensed fishermen 194,847
Trip rates 0.23 trips per angler
No. of licensed fishermen trips 44,409
No. of unlicensed fishermen 547
Total trips 68,701
Catch rate 0.326 fish per angler
Total fish caught 22,396
Wt. of average fish 6.92 lbs.
Wt. of catch, boat fishing 154,980 lbs.
Wt. of catch, shore fishing 5,475 lbs.
Oct. 8-14 Licensed fishermen 194,847
Trip rates 0.256 trips per angler
No. of licensed fishermen trips 49,003
No. of unlicensed fishermen 547
Total trips 75,808
Catch rates 0.433 fish per angler
Total fish caught 32,825
Wt. of average fish 6.73 lbs.
Wt. of catch, boat fishing 220,912 lbs.
Total catch, Oct. 5-14 381,367 lbs.
Charter-boat season, Oct. 5-21 Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Anglers on boats 6,019 6,231 4,283
Avg. wt. of catch 6.89 6.89 6.89
Total weight of catch 114,568 lbs.
Source: Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association and Department of Natural Resources.