Rockfish catch tops state quota by 60%

Numbers disputed

DNR mulls tighter rules

September 28, 2006|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN REPORTER

Maryland's striped bass fishermen had too much of a good thing this spring on the Chesapeake Bay. Now the bill comes due.

Recreational anglers vastly exceeded their early-season quota for the second year in a row, despite efforts by state fisheries managers to curb their enthusiasm through tougher regulations.

Over the four-week season that began April 15, anglers caught 67,000 striped bass, 25,000 more than the allotment set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), or 60 percent above their quota for the second straight year.

"Anglers are becoming more proficient," said Howard King, fisheries director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "We have to control the effort. We have to fish responsibly."

To make amends, the state next season will have to take a stricter approach - perhaps increasing the minimum size, shortening the spring season, or restricting the type of fishing equipment. According to Charter Capt. Ed O'Brien, vice president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association, such steps would "be the death of some of us."

O'Brien said he doubts the validity of the numbers compiled by the annual Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, but he knows there's no getting around them.

"We're really in a corner," said O'Brien, who has been fishing on the bay for more than 30 years. "That [spring] fishery means the world to us. For many of us, that's 45 to 50 percent of our business. We're really dead right now."

O'Brien isn't the only one skeptical of the numbers.

Earlier this year, a national science panel that advises Congress recommended a complete redesign of the annual survey because of "serious flaws in design or implementation and use of inadequate analysis methods."

King, who also finds the numbers suspect, is compiling spring fishing reports from anglers and 124 charter captains for presentation to the commission next month. Those reports come to a different conclusion.

The striped bass - or rockfish - is the state fish, and the bay is the spawning ground and nursery for at least 70 percent of the Eastern Seaboard population. Migratory rockfish enter the bay in early spring to spawn, a visit that corresponds with the earliest days of the fishing season.

The opening day of rockfish season is as much a part of Maryland's spring tradition as the Orioles returning to Camden Yards and the running of the Preakness, with tens of thousands of anglers on the Chesapeake Bay from north of Baltimore to Calvert County.

But the popularity of rockfish led to overfishing and triggered a five-year moratorium that ended in 1990. As a result, the state DNR and the ASMFC are particularly sensitive to the health of the stock, and other states often complain that Maryland isn't a good steward.

Last year, after anglers exceeded their spring quota of 55,000 fish by 33,000, the ASMFC decided to subtract the overage from Maryland's 2006 and 2007 allotments.

Fisheries managers raised the minimum size from 28 to 33 inches for the first two weeks of this season. They also banned tournaments from April 15 to May 1 to ensure that big female fish were not harmed during spawning.

Now King must find another way to satisfy the 15-member commission. In a series of meetings before the commission convenes in late October, King will ask anglers and charter captains for their advice.

He'll get a little assistance from the calendar next year, when the third Saturday in April falls five fishing days later, a savings of about 11,000 fish.

"We may have a very high minimum size, 38 inches or possibly more," King said. "My goal is to get us out of this jam we face each year and by 2008 not be fishing under a quota." candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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