Not everyone pleased on rockfish

OUTDOORS

March 05, 1995|By PETER BAKER

Public meetings on proposed seasons and creel limits for rockfish were held in Annapolis and Easton this week by the Department of Natural Resources, sessions that one might have expected to be attended by anglers with very happy faces.

After all, the proposals reflect an almost amazing recovery of the rockfish (striped bass) population in Maryland waters and along the East Coast from North Carolina to New England, and recreational and charterboat fishermen are on the verge of seasons that were a pipe dream 10 years ago.

But in Annapolis last week, not everyone was smiling.

There are still doubts among some fishermen that the rockfish are doing as well as biological studies indicate, concern among others that it is possible to have too much of a good thing and that, well, the timing of the proposed fall season might not be perfect for everyone.

The state proposals, which still have to be approved by committees of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and then enacted in Maryland as emergency regulations for this year, are as follows:

* Spring season -- April 28-May 31, Chesapeake Bay mainstem from Brewerton Channel at the mouth of the Patapsco River to Swann Point and south, including Pocomoke and Tangier sounds; 32-inch minimum length, one fish per day and five per season.

* New June season -- June 1-July 4, Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries; 26-inch minimum, one fish per day.

* Fall season -- Sept. 1-Nov. 19, Chesapeake Bay and tributaries; 18-inch minimum, two fish per day.

* Atlantic Coast season -- Either May 15-June 15 and Sept. 1-Nov. 30 or April 15-Dec. 15. With a split season the minimum length would be 24 inches; with the April-December season, the minimum length would be 28 inches. In either case, the creel limit would be one per day.

"I would like to recommend that we seek to reserve the fishing a bit," said Glen Goodman, a fisherman from Frederick, who was one of a handful of recreational anglers who spoke of their concern about the state of the rockfish.

"Once you get something back like this, it is better to preserve it until you are certain how far it has come back."

Dr. Jim Gilford, chairman of DNR's Sport Fishing Advisory

Commission, said the advisers and DNR's fishery managers are "satisfied these proposals are in the best interests of the fish and those people who fish for them."

Dave Blazer of DNR's Tidewater Fisheries said that the proposed seasons are conservative and are designed to protect the rockfish population, which as of Jan. 1 officially was considered recovered from the decline of the late 1970s and much of the 1980s.

"We are not fully expanding the seasons," Blazer said. "This is a transitional step and we will be monitoring the fishery over the next few years before expanding further."

In the spring and new June seasons, caps will be in effect to ensure that too many fish are not caught. If those caps, which have yet to be determined, are reached, then the seasons would be closed.

In the spring season, recreational fishermen would again be required to report their catches by telephone, and five tags will be issued with the mandatory $2 rockfish permit. The permit will be good for all three seasons.

"The concept behind the May fishing is getting the fish as they are leaving the bay [after spawning in tidal rivers, which are closed to fishing]," Blazer said.

"Our studies show that most of the fish caught are post-spawn, and the season is designed to protect spawning stock to a great extent."

The new June season would be an "unknown" of sorts, Blazer said, and therefore necessitates the use of the cap system. "But 26 inches is a conservative approach, as is a one-fish limit," Blazer said. "This is an evolution of the fishery, and we want to walk in rather than to jump into it."

After July 4, the fishery will close bay-wide through August to protect rockfish from hook and release mortality, which increases markedly as water temperatures rise and salinities change.

The proposed fall season, starting Sept. 1 and nearly a month longer than last year, has created a tempest in a teapot among charterboat operators.

Several lower-bay charterboat captains said Monday night that the start of fall season is too early, and a few others said the season is too long to keep the public focused on catching rockfish and interested in booking trips.

"We need to look at the season length," said one charterboat captain. "Right now, the rockfish have a certain charm. People want to fish for them and they are a good marketing tool for us. The longer seasons would make bookings harder."

Joe Rupp, president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association, said his organization supports the proposed seasons. However, a number of charterboat captains from Solomons south asked that the fall season be restructured.

Peter Latvala, a charterboat operator from Tall Timbers, said he "didn't recall a vote" of the MCBA membership to the effect that the proposals should stand as written.

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