Rockfish season likely to increase in the fall

August 26, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- In an ambiguous compromise that left some scratching their heads, officials from states along the Eastern Seaboard approved a plan yesterday that Maryland officials said could increase the state's fall rockfish season from 30 to 40 days.

Maryland representatives at the meeting estimated the plan would increase the allowable catch of rockfish -- or striped bass -- by 700,000 pounds. But others in attendance weren't so sure.

"I'm not really clear where it's going," said William Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"They really passed an ambiguous thing," said Ed Kucharski, president of the Maryland Saltwater Fisherman's Association.

Peter Jensen, the state fisheries director, said he estimates that Maryland's tens of thousands of sport fishermen, charter boat captains and watermen will probably be able to pull 2.3 million pounds of rockfish from the Chesapeake this fall.

Last year, the limit was 1.6 million pounds.

The outcome hinges on a complicated formula designed to protect the rockfish from overfishing. Mr Jensen said he would have the precise results in the next couple of weeks.

Maryland had come to the table here yesterday asking for an increase in rockfishing based on a controversial fish-tagging study from 1992. But members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission questioned the study because it was only a year old.

In the compromise, Mr. Jensen agreed to return to a more generally accepted formula for estimating the rockfish population.

The rockfish is Maryland's official state fish and as much a part of the state's culture, economy and identity as the crab and the oyster. It is the most popular fish among anglers in the Chesapeake, which produces the majority of rockfish along the East Coast.

Yesterday's agreement comes as the rockfish continues to make a rapid comeback up and down the Eastern Seaboard. In the past two months, state biologists have seen the greatest numbers of baby rockfish in the bay since they began surveying in the mid-1950s.

Maryland measures baby rockfish by casting nets in 22 different spots from July through September. Last year, the nets brought in an average of nine baby rockfish. So far this year, the average haul has been in the mid-40s.

"It's the highest it has ever been," Mr. Jensen said. "We had to create a new scale."

But many environmentalists have urged caution while celebrating the rockfish's revival. Mr. Goldsborough said he opposed the 2.3 million pound limit because the stock is still recovering.

"Its too much, too soon," he said.

The rockfish population has gone through booms and busts since the 19th century. In the 1960s and 1970s, rockfish supported a large commercial and recreational fishing community that brought in as many as 10 million pounds a year in Maryland.

However, pollution and overfishing decimated schools, forcing a moratorium on rockfishing from 1985 through 1989. In recent years, government restrictions have ushered in the rockfish's return.

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