Rockfish summit is key step toward compromise


March 30, 1997|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

For 2 1/2 days last week, some five dozen fisheries managers, tackle shop owners, seafood processors and recreational and commercial fishermen were sequestered in Montgomery County to learn about themselves and one another and debate the future of striped bass, the state fish.

According to many who attended the Striped Bass Summit, the time spent at the William F. Bolger Center for Leadership Development in Potomac produced the beginnings of greater understanding among the various user groups that derive pleasure or income from rockfish.

Since the end of the five-year moratorium on rockfish, which was initiated in 1985 when the striped bass was on the brink of collapse, recreational, charterboat and commercial fishing interests have fought over who should get which share of an annual allocation of rockfish.

In the years since, there have been skirmishes and battles in hearing rooms, courtrooms and the media. Through it all, the Department of Natural Resources has maintained that commercial and recreational fishermen each would be allowed 42.5 percent of the catch and charter boats would be allowed 15 percent.

"This time around, though, DNR Secretary John Griffin said he was not going to make the allocations," said Duke Nohe, president of the Maryland Aquatic Resources Coalition, whose membership includes fresh and saltwater fishermen's groups. "This time he was going to get all the user groups together and we were going to make the decisions on the allocations."

So for 2 1/2 days these five dozen anglers, packers, biologists and bureaucrats slid down slip lines, walked courses together blindfolded, learned to work together on non-fisheries matters and sat down to debate the merits of each user group's position.

"Some of the guys who have been portrayed as villains turned out to be people who were really willing to pitch in and help out," said Joe Evans, a fly-fishing guide from Annapolis and one of a dozen sport fishermen who participated in the summit.

While the three fishing user groups were evenly represented, DNR's contingent numbered about a dozen and a half fisheries personnel.

When the groups were ready to discuss rockfish, the cooperation carried over, said Glenn James, who runs the charter-boat Bounty Hunter out of Chesapeake Beach.

"We got a lot of communicating done," said James, who is a member of the state's Tidewater Commission. "In my opinion, it was worth it."

One change James said he expects to come out of the summit is an alteration in the makeup of the 2.3 million commercial catch of rockfish, with gill netters losing a portion of the commercial allocation.

Where hook-and-line commercial fishermen have been registering 2 percent of the total commercial catch, their percentage would increase to 25 percent, with 25 percent allowed for pound netters and 50 percent for gill netters.

"It will get done," said James. "But we still have to get the exact percentages worked out."

From a recreational standpoint, limits have not been set for the fall fishery this year, but the recommendations from the summit will figure heavily in DNR's decisions. It is likely, several summit participants said, that the length of the fall season will be increased by more than 20 days and may run as long as 105 days, starting in late August.

The recommendations will be included in public meetings later this year before regulations are set for the fall recreational season and the following commercial season. Maryland's total catch will be capped at 5.5 million pounds.

Participants in the summit also agreed that 400,000 pounds of the spring season for spawning-age fish will be deducted from the recreational-charter-boat quota for the year.

"I think it [the summit] got a lot of our views out on the table," said Richard Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, which has lobbied strongly against extending the rockfish seasons and increasing the allowable catch.

"And right now DNR is learning through the votes we are taking and the discussions we have had that they are not doing a good job. There is need for improvement."

Griffin said he expected that DNR would face criticism, and part of the purpose of the summit was to get that criticism out in the open, where fisheries managers and anglers alike could deal with it.

"For the long term, through consensus of the user groups, we are determining where we want to be," said Griffin. "And you could see through the votes we were taking here that the process was working, because people didn't vote as a block. There was crossover among recreational, charter and commercial interests."

With an eye toward a conservative fishery, the summit called for seasons and limits that would keep striped bass populations at or above historic high levels with stable age and size distribution in balance with other species.

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