Anglers can rock the gamefish boat with a large turnout at Statehouse

Bill Burton

March 05, 1991|By Bill Burton

The easy part is over. Now comes the toughest rockfish decision of all.

Should the catching be limited to sportsfishing?

Last Friday, the Department of Natural Resources announced its proposal for a spring season -- and at the last minute tacked on an extra day to allow anglers to fish on Memorial Day. If recommendations gain anticipated approval, we will get 17 days of angling from May 11 through 27 for one fish of 36 inches or more.

The season -- restricted to the Chesapeake from the Bay Bridge south -- will be for sportsfishermen only. Netters opted to sit it out. No way can they justify their time and expense.

So now the big question: Should any rock season ever be opened again to commercial fishing?

This controversy has been around for nearly 40 years. The late George Gambrill, president of the now-defunct Maryland Rockfish Protective Association, fought fruitlessly for a buyout of net interests at a time when sportsfish status for the species was unheard of along much of the Atlantic Coast.

But times have changed. New Jersey is the latest state to designate striped bass as a gamefish. Maryland could be next, but it's an uphill battle. The DNR is cool to the idea, and word is the governor already has alienated more than his quota of Eastern Shore citizens.

Much depends on next Monday night. Though the governor and General Assembly are figured to do things their way, a large turnout for a march on the Statehouse might make them reconsider. In politics, numbers count.

Senate Bill 575, which would grant gamefish status, is gaining momentum. More than 30,000 have signed petitions supporting it, but the spectacle of thousands of anglers converging on government would be more persuasive.

The destiny of SB 575 hinges on the determination of its supporters. To sign a petition requires seconds; to give up an evening to drive to the Naval Academy Stadium, then hike more than a half-mile to the Statehouse is something else.

There are some sobering thoughts about the potential impact of this bill. There is considerable responsibility in legislating a segment of Chesapeake watermen out of their tradition -- though not out of their livelihood, as netters claim.

Long before the moratorium, netting rock was a marginal endeavor, but more recently the same is true of crabbing, oystering, clamming and such. So rock -- even at only a couple dollars a pound with tight individual quotas of 650 pounds a net a season -- means some income. Every little bit helps.

Then there is tradition. Like dirt or dairy farmers, watermen are an independent lot addicted to family tradition, poor as its financial rewards are. It's in their blood, and most like to catch rock as much as the rest of us.

Yet from a practical business point, one wonders why they wouldn't be interested in the bill fostered by the 7,000-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association. They can't really believe the good old days of limitless rockfish hauls will return -- days when the market was glutted and dockside prices fell to a couple cents a pound. Once landed, many fish were wasted.

HB 575 offers them a graceful way out, and though not with much profit, without much loss. MSSA sweetened the pot with a Watermen's Economic Revitalization Plan that over five years would compensate those eligible for lost income, grant them priority in state bay projects, aid in obtaining loans to switch to other marine species and even buy their rockfish nets.

Sportsfishermen would pay the bill: $15 for an individual rockfish stamp; $30 for a boat stamp, and $125 for a charterboat permit. In return, rockfish would be their exclusive property, and never again need they fear repetition of the big hauls that wiped out their fishing in much of the bay.

It's a bargain, so maybe the pie should be sweetened a bit more. Why not a 10-year plan? And allow, as Massachusetts did, hook and line commercial fishing? It would still be a bargain.

Marchers will gather Monday at 6:30 p.m. and start their hike at 7. For information, call 768-8666.

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