Spring rock guideline: Will May season hurt?

OUTDOORS

January 09, 1994|By PETER BAKER

On Thursday evening, the Department of Natural Resources held a public meeting to discuss proposed changes in regulations for the spring rockfish season this year. But while the proposed changes represent a substantial benefit to recreational fishermen, there were those in attendance who were opposed to the proposals in their present form.

Most significant among them is the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, the largest single organization of fishermen in the state.

What DNR has proposed is a season that again would run the entire month of May in Maryland waters of the Chesapeake Bay from the Bay Bridge south. The tributaries and the upper bay again would be closed to keep fishermen off the spawning grounds used by rockfish (striped bass).

The minimum size limit would be dropped from 36 inches to 34 inches, with no maximum. The creel limit would be increased from one per season to one per day, and the catch would be limited to 5,000 fish.

The MSSA, which represents more than 6,000 fishermen, said at the meeting that at a 34-inch minimum, the season never would last the entire month with a cap of 5,000 fish, and asked that the daily creel limit be restricted to a number that would guarantee a 31-day season.

Richard Novotny, executive director of the MSSA, citing early closures of fall rockfish seasons before 1993, said that an early closure of the 1994 spring season would reflect badly on DNR's ability to predict fishing effort and set seasons.

"We think that it could be that by mid-May we might have reached the cap of 5,000 and there would be a premature closure of the fishery," said Novotny. ". . . We would like to make a recommendation of trying to extend the season as long as possible and get the entire spring season in.

"And rather than take one fish per day per person, we would like to do something like issuing three tags per person and allow him to catch three striped bass during the month of May."

While the MSSA's intent -- and perhaps it goes without saying that there also is intent to lessen fishing pressure on the spawning stock that makes up the spring fishery -- is good, there would be considerable expense to DNR and to the taxpayer to manufacture and distribute three tags to every eligible fisherman.

Judging by changes in the language of the regulations for rockfish seasons, DNR is trying to get away from a cumbersome and expensive tag system but reserving the right to implement such a system whenever necessary. A $2 rockfish permit or stamp still would be required of individual fishermen.

As for a guarantee of the length of the season, none of the seasons for rockfish has been guaranteed since the fisheries were reopened in 1990 following a five-year moratorium on fishing for stripers.

"The department has the option of closing a season upon reaching the allowable catch, and we have done that for commercial, recreational and charter seasons in the past," said Steve Early of DNR's Tidewater Administration. "And if the 5,000-fish limit were reached the first day of the season, May 1, we could close the fishery two days later.

"That is not likely to happen."

Last year, for example, 2,000 striped bass were taken during the spring season, when the minimum size was 36 inches.

Novotny and other fishermen in attendance would argue that there would be many more fish available at the proposed 34-inch limit, and still many more from 30- to 33-plus inches that will be hooked and released.

The primary question should not be whether bay fishermen will get a full month of fishing, but whether a spring season under the proposed guidelines will be harmful to the growing population of rockfish.

Early said it will not be, and if bay fishermen want a chance to fish for big rockfish, this is the only time of the year that will do.

"Your basic problem is one of allowing enough spawners to get to the spawning grounds to ensure that you have as good a spawn that year," Early said. "That is one of the primary parts of the coastal management plan, with which Maryland is very closely involved. And if you want to catch the [larger] fish, you have to catch them when they are here."

The life cycle of mature striped bass, those fish that are the target of the spring fishery, brings them into the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean each year and sends them to spawn into the areas of tributaries where salt and fresh water mix.

While anglers in other coastal states may have portions of 10 months in which to fish for mature stripers, Chesapeake Bay fishermen have about two. In order to ensure that the greater majority of spawning fish can reach the spawning areas undisturbed, April has been ruled out as part of the spring fishery.

"So we have a very short window to fish on those fish. . . ." Early said. "The whole management plan [for all seasons] is built on the idea that for each year class you let enough of them escape to reach maturity and to spawn and keep the population healthy over the long term."

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