Rock season likely to run uninterrupted

January 21, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Maryland's recreational and charter-boat fishermen probably can look forward to an uninterrupted rockfish season this year from late April through November, and fisheries biologists are hopeful that size limits and dates can be standardized for several years to come.

Dr. Robert Bachman, chief of fisheries for the Department of Natural Resources, said yesterday the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission unanimously approved extended seasons and creel limits for rockfish. However, he said, the state legislature still must approve the changes.

"Maryland's recreational [and charter-boat] fishermen haven't come anywhere close to catching their 57.5 percent of the state's rockfish quota," said Bachman, "and the only way to give them a chance to do so is to increase the number of days they can fish."

Maryland's annual rockfish quota is 5.5 million pounds, and the recreational and charter-boat portion is 3.1 million pounds.

The rockfish season still would be divided into three segments, and the limits for the spring season from April 23-May 31 would remain at the 28-inch minimum and one fish per day. DNR will monitor the catch and cap the fishery at 30,000 fish.

During the spring season, fishing will continue to be limited to the main stem of Chesapeake Bay from a line between the mouth of the Patapsco River and Swan Point south to the Virginia line.

But on June 1, the geographic restrictions would be lifted, and through June 13 anglers would be allowed one fish per day between 18 and 28 inches and another 28 inches or larger, with no maximum size limit.

"The purpose of this change is that during that period the large fish are leaving the bay and anglers may be running through a lot of smaller fish to get one 28-incher," said Bachman. He added that anglers are encouraged to release apparently healthy lip-hooked stripers. "This way, if you catch one 18 to 28 inches, especially one that is deep-hooked and bloody, you can keep it. Chances are it is going to die anyway."

Starting June 14, the minimum size would drop to 18 inches throughout the Maryland tidewater and the creel would be two through Nov. 30. In previous years, the fishery has been closed during all or parts of the summer months when water temperatures are high and hook-and-release mortality has been high.

But based on the strength of three large year classes of rockfish this decade, Bachman said, the additional summer days do not pose a danger to the rockfish population.

"We know we can allow anglers two fish to take home," Bachman said. "It's not that difficult, and you don't have to catch a lot of little fish before you catch one 18 inches or bigger. But we are asking fishermen to use some discretion."

Richard Novotny, executive director of the 7,000-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, said the new summer regulations would be a plus for recreational fishermen -- especially for those above the Patapsco River who must travel south for rockfish early in the year.

"It gives us a chance to catch a few more fish earlier, of course," he said. "And for upper bay fishermen, who had a disappointing season last year, some of those 16-inch fish they were catching will be 18 inches and above this year."

The changes also will allow bottom fishermen who are targeting white perch, sea trout, spot, croaker and other species to keep a limit of legal-sized rockfish.

"You will still have incidental catches of rockfish [by bottom fishermen]," said Novotny. "But this way you can put one or two in the box and not worry so much about the mortality being high."

If the state approves the changes and this first uninterrupted season proves to be within the 3.1 million pound quota, Bachman said, it could become standardized.

"We have been changing these seasons every year," said Bachman. "My guess is that this might hold over for a couple of years."

The Atlantic Coast and back bay regulations will remain unchanged, with a 28-inch minimum year around and a creel limit of two per day.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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