DNR ponders limited opening of flats

Catch-and-release season for rockfish considered

opponents criticize plan

February 07, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

A popular fishing spot at the head of Chesapeake Bay, which has been off limits for nearly a decade to protect spawning rockfish, could be opened for a limited, catch-and-release season this spring.

The Department of Natural Resources proposes to allow anglers to again enjoy the Susquehanna Flats, a light-tackle fishing area that has been included among protected spawning areas for rockfish since Maryland lifted its five-year moratorium on the state fish.

If approved by the state, the season could run from as mid-March through the end of April, DNR secretary John R. Griffin said late last week.

But, he said, "all the pieces are not quite in place yet." The proposal has been taking shape for more than a year to take into account differing viewpoints of commercial fishermen, charter-boat captains, guides, recreational fishermen and fisheries managers.

Opponents include the Maryland Charter Boat Association. "We are adamantly opposed to opening the Susquehanna Flats," said Glenn James, president of the association. "You don't fish in the nursery."

Robert Bachman, director of DNR's Fisheries Service, said the flats, a resting area for rockfish (striped bass) that spawn in deeper waters nearby, present an opportunity for a fishery unlike most other areas of the East Coast.

A properly managed, limited fishery, Bachman said recently, would be an asset to the state, drawing anglers from around the region and perhaps from around the country to fish only with artificial lures or flies.

"I appreciate the potential economic impact of this fishery," he said. "But if there are adverse effects in any way, I would not want to allow the fishery to continue."

Saying the "imponderables are many," Bachman explained some of the unknown factors.

"People are concerned that lots of boats and not really good fishermen who don't know how to handle the fish properly will converge there and the effects will be disastrous," he said. "But there is evidence that if lots of boats do go up there [in shallow water], the fish will spread out, just disappear, and no one will catch them."

James, of the charter-boat association, criticized the proposal and the fisheries chief. "Bachman has taken it on himself to be the warrior on this, ignoring the opinions of every advisory committee and charging forward," he said.

The key element in the department's proposal is a catch-and-release study completed on the flats last spring. The study found that very few rockfish caught on artificial lures in late April and early May died as a result of being hooked. The proposed fishery would be earlier in the year, when mortality rates can be expected to be even lower, Griffin said.

Since the reopening of rockfish seasons at the start of this decade, much of the upper Chesapeake Bay has been closed to anglers in April and May. The closure was initiated to help rebuild a species that was severely threatened by overfishing in the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s.

Sources on the state's Sport Fish Advisory Commission, Striped Bass Ad Hoc Committee and the Tidewater Fisheries Commission told The Sun that each group had serious reservations about the proposal.

Sources said concerns focus on whether a catch-and-release season on the flats will disturb the spawn and whether the proposal will have the blessing of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. It approves commercial and recreational catches of rockfish in the Mid-Atlantic states and New England.

DNR's study found that few spawning-age rockfish are present on the flats during the spring, when mature rockfish that have returned from their coastal migration spawn in Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

Rudy Lukacovic, leader of the Fisheries Service indirect loss project and co-author of the study, said the flats have been included among the spawning areas since the 1960s, after a small percentage of rockfish eggs were documented there.

"More recent studies show that the major spawning occurs in areas to the south that are adjacent to the flats," Lukacovic said.

According to DNR, those areas are the main stem of the bay above Worton Point, the Elk River and the C&D Canal.

Bill Windley, president of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association and former president of the MSSA's Northern Bay Chapter, has fished the Susquehanna River and flats for many years. He is a strong advocate for the catch-and-release season.

"I have felt from experience that no harm was being done to the fish by catch-and-release in the cold-water periods," Windley said. "But I was not satisfied with the science available before last year."

Under current regulations, only the main stem of the bay south of the Patapsco River can be fished for rock during April and May. Rivers and the upper bay are closed because they include spawning areas and spawning reaches.

Spawning areas surround the spawning reaches, where peak reproduction occurs.

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