DNR to relax catch, release rules for growing rockfish population

OUTDOORS

May 15, 1994|By GARY DIAMOND

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has announced it is no longer illegal to catch and release rockfish (striped bass) in Maryland's portion of Chesapeake Bay.

DNR Secretary Dr. Torrey C. Brown said, "The DNR recognizes that catch and release is an important part of recreational fishing. Our research has shown that catch and release can be done without damaging the striped bass population."

Brown said the change in policy was motivated by the recovery of Atlantic Coast striper populations and recent studies conducted by DNR.

Although new regulations permitting this activity have not been released, DNR's Chief of Fisheries W. Peter Jensen said, "We've been looking at catch and release for quite a while, but we wanted to thoroughly examine the effects before relaxing existing regulations."

What effect will the changes have on Harford County's striped bass anglers? Essentially, none.

Jensen says most rockfish regulations will remain in place. This includes the prohibition of fishing for stripers in all spawning areas and rivers from March 1 until July 1.

Intentionally fishing for rockfish in these spawning areas is forbidden. In addition, fishermen still will be prohibited from fishing for striped bass from June 15 to Sept. 15 in waters below Conowingo Dam.

By examining a map of striped bass spawning areas, you'll discover that the entire upper bay area north of Pooles Island and all tributaries are designated spawning areas.

Essentially, this prohibits fishing for striped bass until July 1 in the Susquehanna Flats, Sassafras River, Susquehanna River, C&D Canal, North East River, Elk River, Bohemia River, Fairlee Creek, Worten Creek and Romney Creek.

Jensen said anglers are discouraged from fishing for striped bass after July 1, because the mortality rate increases dramatically. According to DNR, striped bass mortalities increase when salinity levels are low, water temperatures rise above 70 degrees and fish exceed 22 inches.

Most rockfish caught in the upper bay exceed 22 inches and during the past few years, many of the estimated 30,000 striped bass killed in the upper bay by catch-and-release fishing were somewhat larger.

Additionally, water temperatures currently average 62 degrees in the bay's main portion. By July 1, the water temperature usually reaches 75 degrees or higher, increasing the mortality by a considerable margin.

The DNR's study shows most striped bass caught and released in the Susquehanna River eventually die. Anglers fishing illegally for rockfish below Conowingo Dam claimed fish they released swam away none the worse for wear. A few hours or even days later, however, these fish were found floating belly up a few miles downriver.

Last year's highest fish kill was recorded during the July 4 holiday weekend. More than 300 large, dead rockfish were counted in an area between the I-95 bridge and the mouth of Deer Creek.

Many of these fish measured 32 to 36 inches and a few were found with fishing lures still embedded in their mouths. Obviously, lines broke and the fish were not landed, yet the stress of being hooked and finally breaking free was sufficient to cause their deaths.

Before relaxing the catch-and-release policy, ASMFC estimated the coastwide mortality at approximately eight percent. This is an average, however, for the entire coastal range. Studies revealed that some areas of the Chesapeake Bay, especially those south of the Bay Bridge, had a catch-and-release mortality of two percent. Some upper bay locations showed death rates 80 percent and higher, regardless of how gently the fish were handled.

Jensen says when fishing in areas where stripers are abundant, and fish are inadvertently caught, anglers are asked to use barbless hooks whenever possible, particularly when fishing with bait.

Try to remove the hook without lifting the fish from the water. Specially designed, long-handled hook disgorgers do an excellent job of this, and they're available at most tackle shops.

If the striper must be lifted from the water, use a rubber-coated landing net, keeping the fish out of the water for the shortest possible time and releasing it carefully. If it's lethargic, grasp the tail and gently move the fish back and forth until it revives and swims off.

If you're intentionally fishing for striped bass, even for catch-and-release purposes, you must have a striped bass permit and a valid Chesapeake Bay Sportfishing License. For additional information on catch-and-release fishing, call 1-800-688-FINS.

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