Staying the course isn't rockfish-friendly

March 12, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

It's not what you do to people that matters - it's what people perceive you are doing to them.

That was true when Machiavelli wrote his version of that warning in the 1500s, and it's true in today's world where natural resources and politics meet.

Maryland came within one vote last month of essentially losing its cherished spring trophy rockfish season. One vote.

Because Maryland recreational anglers exceeded their allotment of stripers last spring by 29,720 fish, this year was payback time. The question was how.

State fisheries chief Howard King argued before the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board late last month for a repayment schedule spread over more than one season. He suggested raising the minimum size from 28 inches to 33 inches, holding to the daily creel limit of one fish and eliminating tournaments until May 1 to ensure that big female fish are not hauled in during spawning. He also promised to institute a better way to account for fish caught.

Had board members from Connecticut or New York or one of four other states sided with the federal agencies that voted against King's plan or had the Massachusetts representative changed his abstention to a no, this would be a pretty dismal spring on the Chesapeake Bay.

It still isn't going to be very pretty, what with the bulk of the bay's stripers suffering from disease and politicians lacking the gumption to do something serious about the pollution that is attacking them. And keep in mind that Maryland is still on the hook - no pun intended - for the other 16,000 fish.

But by one vote, anglers will be able to pursue the state fish April 15.

That's not because of anything good or noble anglers did. We will be fishing on King's dime: his straight-shooter reputation built over the years with fellow fisheries bosses.

So how do we go about showing the rest of the Eastern seaboard that we can take care of the Chesapeake Bay, its biggest striped bass spawning grounds and nursery?

It sure isn't by putting our stewardship responsibilities before our own pleasure.

We go along with a proposal to extend the catch-and-release area in Susquehanna Flats up to Lapidum near the Conowingo Dam. We use bait in that area, when it was clearly established with the idea of using artificial lures to keep fish mortality low. And many anglers baywide resist using less lethal non-offset circle hooks because of fears that they allow fish to wiggle free.

Meanwhile, the states that let us slide on the striper payback watch.

DNR fisheries biologist Marty Gary acknowledges that the flats was opened based on a study using single hooks with artificial lures but adds that cold spring waters and the use of circle hooks keep mortality to a minimum. And, he notes, most of the fish caught in the flats are young males, not egg-bearing females.

But Russell Dize, a member of Maryland's Tidal Fish Advisory Commission, calls last month's management board vote "a break" and warns against business as usual this season.

"Other states wonder why Maryland is fishing on spawning grounds," he says. "It's the perception."

Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Watermen's Association, calls the liberalized striper rules "going in the wrong direction."

"We shouldn't be expanding the area until a study is done on the effects of live bait," he says.

Dize and Simns pushed through a vote Thursday at the monthly meeting of the tidal fish commission to halt the expansion of the flats fishing area. The vote, however, is merely an advisory action.

Like those two men, I'm concerned about the perception that could develop elsewhere if the state acts as if nothing is wrong.

Who knows what other states will think if Maryland exceeds its spring allocation this year or how they'll vote when King goes before the board with a payback plan for the other 16,000 fish.

It may all come down to a matter of perception, and right now we're not looking too good.

Changes afoot

DNR Wildlife and Heritage staff had the public surrounded yesterday afternoon at the final hearing on the proposed hunting and trapping regulations for the next two seasons.

The one-to-one ratio of sportsmen (12) to staffers reminded me of a remedial trigonometry class I once attended. It didn't take, hence this job in the words sector instead of building Hubble telescopes.

But hunting boss Paul Peditto and his biologists have gotten a lot of feedback online and from the hearings in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

Peditto says that after a review, he anticipates adjustments in the start of the dove season. Hunters in person and in Web site comments almost universally opposed moving the start of the season from Sept. 1 to the first Saturday in September. That was in sharp contrast to hunters surveyed before the proposal was drafted.

With a sliding opening date, opponents are worried about lost hunting days, especially around Labor Day weekend. They also voice concerns about migration being over before opening day arrived.

Less likely to be changed is the department's proposal to begin the season for resident Canada geese - the so-called golf course and park birds - on Aug. 1 on private property and DNR-managed tracts as a means to reduce the burgeoning population. Biologists estimate Maryland has 86,500 non-migratory geese, more than twice the desired number.

Hunters worry that summer temperatures will result in meat spoilage and waste, but Peditto says the regulation gives landowners battling agriculture and waterfront damage a tool to fight back.

Expanding the black bear hunt to add eastern Allegany County to the western half and all of Garrett County is expected to be approved. For the second year, a bill in the Legislature to prohibit the hunt was killed last week by a House committee.

And hunters can expect to see a single $35 Managed Hunt Permit this year for certain DNR lands and waterfowl blinds to replace the cumbersome and confusing system that varies from site to site.

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