Overfishing habits go into reruns

October 15, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

If next week's meeting of regional fisheries regulators were an episode of I Love Lucy with Maryland playing the role of the zany redhead, you can almost guess what the opening line would be: "Loocie, you got a lot of 'splainin to do."

It was just seven months ago in a gloomy hotel ballroom in Northern Virginia that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission heard Maryland promise to make good on exceeding its 2005 spring striped bass quota - by 29,720 fish - and to never do it again.

The plan called for the payback of half the fish from this spring's allocation and the rest through a series of control measures, including raising the minimum size from 28 inches to 33 inches in the early part of the season and delaying the start of the tournament season by two weeks.

Maryland fisheries chief Howard King made an eloquent plea to ASMFC to save the 2006 spring season, telling the commissioners that forcing the state to make good on the entire overage would result in a "partial collapse" of the recreational and charter boat fishery.

"It's the fishery that gets people thinking about fishing and it gets them on the water," he said. "And as a result of that, then there are later license sales; there are more bookings on charter boats. And so it really is the engine that drives our annual fishery, this spring fishery for striped bass."

Fishing license fees also provide most of King's budget.

By the narrowest of margins, ASMFC approved Maryland's payback plan.

Just about three months later, however, all that good faith went out the window as Maryland's recreational and charter boat fleet took to the Chesapeake Bay and exceeded the reduced spring allocation by 60 percent. So not only didn't we pay back what we owed, we put another IOU in the cookie jar.

I'm guessing ASMFC is not amused and wants King to do some "splainin."

In order to appease the commissioners, King might have to break out control measures he suggested in February, but did not institute.

"We can and will ... issue a spring striped bass recreational fishing permit at the point of sale where licenses are issued," King told the commissioners. "When that number is reached that is required to cap that fishery, to limit that fishery, then no more would be issued."

A spring permit? That's going to be tough to swallow on the bay, where everyone holding a fishing rod has come to expect that he or she will be bringing home a striper.

Right after the striped bass moratorium was lifted in the fall of 1990, folks were grateful for the opportunity to get back out on the water and didn't fuss too much about the rules. But those memories have faded.

License sales are already dropping about five percent a year. What kind of a dive will they take after all the spring permits are snapped up?

And who is going to spend $800 or $1,000 to book a charter boat if everyone in the party doesn't have a reasonably good chance of hauling in a dinner-sized fish? The fleet is taking on water already; this could sink a lot of skippers.

All that's needed to complete the Chessie Horror Picture Show is another "news report" about a five-year-old study on diseased fish in the bay.

King is a cautious man and a straight shooter. That Maryland was allowed to fish at all this spring is a tribute to his standing with ASMFC.

He had plans to use some of that capital to free Maryland once and for all from the spring quota system. With the exception of Virginia, which shares the Chesapeake spring quota with Maryland, none of the 10 other states that make up the ASMFC is subjected to a cap.

Now, that might have to wait.

Back in February, King told the commission that his control measures would do the trick. "I believe that beginning in 2006, and in future years, this would result in more ... than what is due as a result of the 2005 overage."

The vote to approve the plan was 7-6, with two states - Maine and Massachusetts - not voting. The two federal agencies on ASMFC both voted against Maryland. So did New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New Jersey and that great hypocritical state of North Carolina, where they slaughter thousands of striped bass every winter.

I don't know what King is going to tell the commission now, but if he was a certain zany redhead, he might say, "Waaaaaaaaa."

Politicians not lured

So, what was more depressing, the fact that neither gubernatorial candidate showed at the fishing fandango in Annapolis almost two weeks ago or the fact that no one held out any hope that they would?

It's pretty lame when candidates in a close election can brush off an event sponsored by the Coastal Conservation Association to discuss the future of fishing in a state where 531,000 resident anglers fish (according to the annual U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service census).

The governor did send a stand-in, Paul Schurick, a man who actually enjoys fishing. And Department of Natural Resources poobahs who owe their jobs to the governor fell all over themselves to say how much the governor loves fishermen.

But Baltimore's mayor sent neither a warm body nor an apology.


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