ANNAPOLIS -- In fishing, as in sports, you can't change the rules in mid-season. So, as of Sunday at 8 p.m., the Maryland charterboat season for rockfish will close 15 days ahead of schedule. By then, it's quota of 161,206 pounds will have been reached, possibly exceeded.
The recreational fishery will continue until its scheduled close Saturday, though chances are fair that it will be reopened to allow the catch of its remaining quota. Last year, the recreational fishery was prematurely closed a week before the charter season.
There are no winners in this unexpected and controversial turnabout. Charter skippers will lose income after another disappointing bluefish run; sports fishermen who booked charters in late season to get their fish will lose out.
The Department of Natural Resources, which had to make the crucial decision is criticized by much of the charter community, and the Striped Bass Advisory Board (SBAB) will also have its turn on the hot seat.
When the two seasons opened Oct. 9, few thought charters could catch their quota so quickly. After nearly a year's deliberations following last year's fall fiasco when both seasons were cut short, the board's goal was to establish seasons that would run their full course so recreational and charter anglers could plan their fishing.
But the fish weren't cooperative. I take that back, they were too cooperative. They took baits more readily than anticipated.
DNR is targeted as the goat among most charter skippers -- many of whom now face returning hefty booking deposits and starting the search for blues to replace rock for parties that still want to fish. Many don't realize, or have conveniently forgotten, that state fisheries scientists cautioned SBAB that their projections indicated that with a two-fish per day limit, they would get in only 19 or 20 days of fishing before reaching their quota.
The board's stood by its request of an Oct. 9-Nov. 11 charter season; cut it short if need be rather than have a shorter season, then reopen to allow the catching any remaining quota. It was just the opposite for the recreational fishery.
Figures don't lie, and monitoring indicates charters are almost at their quota, so DNR had no alternative. And, incidentally, that will come after 19 days of fishing as the biologists projected.
DNR is also accused of failing to offer a more liberal charter season at the offset by those who don't realize the department is required to have Atlantic Coast Marine Fisheries Commission approval of its rock program.
And ACMFC, dominated by states to the north where the lion's share of rockfish are caught though hatched in Maryland, is mighty stingy in granting any liberalization. In rockfish matters, the commission plays God.
No figures are available yet on how close the recreational fishery is to its quota of 456,747 pounds, but last night fisheries chief Paul Massicot said he was hopeful there could be a postseason encore to allow the catch of any fish remaining in the quota. But to make it worthwhile, there would have to be enough fish still available to allow about three days of fishing with the mandated postseason limit of two fish a day per angler -- as opposed to the two a season in the regular season.
Still unanswered is the question of whether private fishermen can book charters to catch their fish if and when an extension is granted. In this there are legal and ethical considerations involved.
Capt. George Crosby of the Four Daughters out of Middle River said the decision hurts, will cost him three trips at least and complains the bay is now overcrowded with rockfish -- the last contention being echoed by Capt. Bruce Scheible of Wynne who said an abundance of rock in the lower Potomac area is ruining the fish bait industry because rock of "overabundant populations" are being caught while feeding in menhaden traps to the tune of 5,000 to 7,000 pounds daily.
"The whole damned thing is a mess," said Capt. Chris Rosendale of the Maverick out of Kent Island. He stands to lose 16 charters at $350 each. Capt. Jack Johnson of Solomons not only will lose bookings, but will have to eat 100 eels he just ordered for bait.
Capt. Eddie O'Brien, a member of SBAB, said he and his charter colleagues are frustrated because they see so many fish, yet endure such a limited season -- while other states catch more.
Rich Novotny, executive director of Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermens Association, said he was sorry to see any user group cut shore, but objected to allowing charters to participate in any extension.
"Good," said Susquehanna River guide Earl Ashenfelter, who after paying $200 for a charterboat license had to cancel all bookings except one because of an inadequate water flow in the Susky.
* Weekend calendar ...
* Today: Opening of the two-day Chestertown Wildlife Exhibition and Sale, downtown Chestertown. Among the features is a duck-calling contest tomorrow, and Sunday, the state goose-calling contest.
* Tomorrow-Sunday: Chesapeake Appreciation Days, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sandy Point State Park.