Increase in rockfish allocations help cast aside complaints about restrictions


September 15, 1991|By PETER BAKER

On Oct. 9, the madness begins again -- rockfish season, such as it is, opens for recreational and charter boat fishermen in Maryland -- and perhaps there are those among us who will find fault with creel limits, size limits, tag and permit requirements and the ban on nighttime fishing.

Got a gripe? Express it. Write the DNR, your state legislators, your congressman, your senator. Heck, put in a call to the White House. There's at least one person there with little else to do.

But before you uncap the Bic or lift the phone, take a moment to understand that the restrictions and red tape that have come with the resumption of a rockfish fishery seem to be beneficial.

For the uninitiated among us, rockfish -- also known as striped bass -- once flourished in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. In 1985, fishing for rock was banned because the population had been depleted. Last fall, a limited fishery was reinitiated under a quota system that allowed some 750,000 total pounds to be caught by recreational, charter boat and commercial fishermen. This year, 1,074,000 pounds have been allocated.

And maybe that expanded allocation is the first clue that something is going right.

But, the below average 1991 young-of-the-year index of 4.4 notwithstanding, there are other indications of improvement.

* The spring spawning survey reportedly found there are numbers of adult fish on site that compare with the spawning runs of the early 1970s, the boom days for stripers.

* The spring trophy fishery was managed successfully, and as frustrating as it may seem to fishermen limited to a catch with a minimum of 36 inches, the big spawning females will be the key to the continued success of the fishery.

* To supplement natural reproduction, hatchery programs have stocked some 5 million rockfish in the bay and the project is beginning to pay off.

* The fall season quota is larger and the minimum size limit is the smallest on the East Coast -- 18 inches rather than 28.

* Once the stocks of rockfish have been deemed recovered, the allocation of the catch may double for recreational, charter and commercial fishermen.

L * The possibility of a return to a year-round season exists.

While natural reproduction has been low since the controversial index of 25.2 in 1989 triggered the reopening of the fishery, the hatchery program may be on the verge of taking up some of the slack.

As an example, the Patuxent River was virtually void of spawning fish a few years ago. But now, hatchery fish are reproducing and the result is an abundance of wild rockfish in that river.

A micro-tagging system that has been refined through the operation on the Patuxent will be used starting next year on the Nanticoke River, which currently has the least successful reproduction rate of any of the major spawning areas.

If the Patuxent can be revitalized, then there is hope that the Nanticoke can be reborn, too.

The fall season and its 18-inch minimum size limit is the result of both enlightened thinking and conservative management.

Maryland's Chesapeake Bay waters and tributaries are the spawning and nursery grounds for a large majority of the rockfish that migrate up and down the East Coast and provide other states with harvestable stocks.

However, by the time the fall fishing season rolls around here, the larger fish, those in the 28-inch range, are long gone. So, Maryland has a season compatible with its resident population of stripers.

The business of the split recreational season (two fish per person per season from Oct.9-Oct. 26 and then an extended season at two fish per person per day), is the result of conservative thinking of fisheries managers, who would prefer to guard the new frontier rather than throw open its borders.

The business of separate creel limits for charter boat fishermen (two per day) and recreational fishermen (a minimum of two per season), well, that is a matter that encourages a gripe or perhaps more.

This business of rockfish recovery is a two-phase operation, the first phase of which we are in now. Should the operation prove successful, then within a couple of years we might expect the allocations to double, which would put us in line with the harvests of 1979 and 1980, when some 2 million pounds per year were taken.

A return to a year-round season also is subject to the conservative views of fisheries managers, who are reluctant at this stage to act before they have a reasonably accurate understanding of what is going on with the fishery.

But if reproduction and hatchery supplementation work as they should, the spring and fall seasons prove manageable, then year-round fishing will follow.

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