Spring is here, with rockfish close behind

On the Outdoors

April 14, 1996|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

In the spring of the year, rockfish capture the imagination and, hopefully, the hooks of recreational and charter-boat fishermen in Maryland's waters of the Chesapeake Bay, as a series of three seasons begin to unfold into the summer and fall.

This year is no different for recreational and charter-boat fishermen, who most likely can look forward to 32-inch minimum trophy season from April 26 to May 31, a split second season at a 28-inch minimum from June 1 to June 16 and 26-inch minimum from June 17 to July 4, and a fall season at an 18-inch minimum running from early September into November.

The daily limit is one with a maximum of five over the April-May period. In June and July there is a limit of one per day, and in the fall the limit is two per day.

The seasons have not been approved by the state yet, but should be enacted as emergency regulations before opening day. Extended discussions about the proposed size of the commercial catch were a major cause of the delay in approving the proposed seasons.

Since 1990, when rockfish seasons reopened after a five-year moratorium in Maryland waters, the annual catch has been divided among recreational (42.5 percent), commercial (42.5 percent) and charter-boat fishermen (15 percent).

Last year, according to the Department of Natural Resources, the total catch for recreational and charter-boats was about 3 million pounds. The commercial catch was 1.2 million pounds.

This year, the commercial catch would be allowed to rise to 2.1 million pounds, and this increase has been the concern among recreational and charter-boat fishermen.

The rhetorical question among non-commercial fishermen has been: "If they get that much more, what do we get?"

The answer, according to DNR fisheries managers, is that recreational and charter-boat fishermen will have a shot at catching a similar increase in poundage, thanks in large part to the rockfish hatched in the spring of 1993.

Biologists say that year class, which was very strong due to almost perfect climatic and water conditions, will produce a 65 percent increase in the number of catchable rockfish in Maryland waters.

Pete Jensen, head of Tidewater Fisheries for DNR, said by the fall the greater majority of the 1993 year class will have reached the 18-inch minimum.

Under guidelines recommended by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a Federal panel which oversees interstate fisheries from North Carolina to Maine, 28 percent of the legal-sized fish could be caught annually while still ensuring prosperity among the rockfish population.

Some of the confusion among fishermen about which group is getting how great a share of the fish is the result of the different natures of the segments of the fishery and how each portion of the catch is measured.

Commercial fishermen are assumed to be able to catch so many pounds per type of gear -- pound nets, hook and line, etc. -- over a given period, and to land them dockside in bulk, where the catch is directly measurable.

Recreational and charter-boat seasons are measured by season length, daily creel limit and minimum size limits, under the theory that a given number of fishermen are likely to catch so many

legal-sized fish over a period of so many days.

"The needs of the constituents are different," said Robert Bachman, deputy director of DNR's Fisheries Service. "Recreational and charter-boat fishermen want to know the season dates and size limits so they can schedule vacations or line-up parties.

"A commercial fisherman wants to know how many pounds he can catch so he can set up his business."

There is still concern among some fishermen that increases in catch limits might harm the future of the fishery, which was closed from 1985 to 1990 because overfishing and environmental factors threatened the species from the Carolinas to Maine in the 1980s.

In January of this year, the ASMFC declared the rockfish recovered.

Bachman said that the increases in catch allotments this year probably can be expected to continue, based on spring spawns the past several years that have been above the long-term averages.

"But, you know, you still get those people who think they aren't catching enough fish," said Bachman, adding that the 18-inch minimum in the fall season is a half-foot larger than the year-around minimum before the five-year moratorium. "But the difference is that we are catching older and larger fish."

And letting 72 percent of the rockfish population escape.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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