Striped bass management poses challenge

December 17, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

One of my favorite bumper stickers asks: "Where are we going and why am I in this handbasket?"

The state's fisheries managers must be thinking something along those lines as they face, perhaps, their greatest challenge since the five-year striped bass moratorium ended in 1990.

Maryland recreational fishermen exceeded their striped bass allocation by 60 percent in each of the past two spring seasons, creating a situation that raised not only eyebrows but also the ire of the regulatory board that sets quotas and assesses punishments for exceeding them.

By the end of January, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) meets, state fisheries chief Howard King will have to come up with a spring striped bass management plan that:

Protects the state fish;

Keeps charter boat captains from going bankrupt;

Gives recreational anglers a reason to buy a license, thereby providing revenue for the Department of Natural Resources;

Appeases the regulatory board, which came within one vote last February of rejecting Maryland's season.

If anyone can keep the spring season alive, it's King. But if he fails, we're going to need a bigger handbasket come April.

King and his team will take the first public step tomorrow night when they meet in Annapolis with two citizens groups - the Sport Fish Advisory Commission and the Tidal Fish Advisory Commission - to lay out options.

There aren't as many as you might guess.

King's fish counter, Alexei Sharov, has been through this exercise often enough to be able to estimate what each conservation measure should reap. But for reasons that aren't exactly clear, his crystal ball has been cloudy the past two years.

Weather conditions don't seem to matter in the equation, and we learned this year that raising the minimum size from 28 inches to 33 inches and pushing back tournament fishing two weeks didn't slow fishermen, either.

King could bump up the minimum and fiddle with the length of the tournament season again. But if that fails, it's going to be hard to beg for mercy from the ASMFC.

One option not tried since the first post-moratorium season is requiring fishermen to purchase a striped bass permit, good for one fish. When the tags are gone, fishing stops.

King himself hinted at that possibility at the ASMFC meeting last February.

But that option has the potential to pit anglers against charter boat captains, some of whom derive almost 50 percent of their annual income during the spring season.

Several anglers have suggested eliminating planer boards, the devices used by fishermen to keep the lines from multiple rods from becoming tangled while trolling. Others have suggested limiting the number of rods per angler.

For the sake of argument, I'll toss out another untried option: the "inverse slot," which would prevent anglers from keeping a certain-sized fish.

If it's true that the striped bass population is being driven by the 1996 year-class - the largest ever recorded - then what happens if you place off-limits fish from 33 inches to 38 inches?

The inverse slot keeps alive the possibility of getting to catch and keep a striper from the very large 1993 year-class (think fish in the 40-inch range), along with the 28-inch fish we've become accustomed to reeling in.

Maybe that doesn't do it, and folks at tomorrow's meeting will probably give me 100 reasons why it won't.

You can add your two cents at 6:30 p.m. at DNR headquarters, 560 Taylor Ave.

Strong striper season

If we don't have much of a spring season next April, at least the fall striper season went out last week with a bang.

Charlie Stewart of Mechanicsville caught a 47-inch, 42-pound striper Tuesday about a mile north of Buoy 70.

After launching his boat, Ida Mae, from Buzz's Marina on St. Jerome's Creek in Ridge, he and a friend, Ron Cornet, rolled out tandem and single rigs and began trolling in a zig-zag pattern in 80 feet of water. All around them, bait fish darted.

At about 8 a.m., the big one hit a custom-made, single white parachute rig. The rest of the day wasn't shabby, either, with the anglers catching 11 stripers, the smallest 35 inches.

Christy Henderson, who owns Buzz's, said it's been a great fall season.

"We have stayed pretty busy this whole month and almost everyone who has gone out to that same area has been getting stripers from the high-30s to mid-40s," Henderson said.

Remember, from now until spring, you can catch stripers in Maryland waters, but you can't keep them.

Flounder wiggle room

There's a bright spot on the coastal fishing horizon.

Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act by the lame-duck Congress and a decision by regional fisheries managers means Maryland's summer flounder season likely won't be facing cutbacks.

The old Magnuson-Stevens law required the end of overfishing and the rebuilding of the flounder stock by 2010. That hard deadline put the squeeze on regulators, who said the flounder population was on the mend, but couldn't recover that quickly.

The only option was to create a virtual moratorium by drastically reducing the quota for coastal states from North Carolina to Maine from 23.6 million pounds this year to 5.2 million pounds next year.

But the new version of the Magnuson-Stevens law gives regulators wiggle room by extending the rebuilding time frame to Jan. 1, 2013, as long as flounder are not being overfished.

Last week, while setting the 2007 quota at 12.98 million pounds, the ASMFC announced that it will raise the total to 17.11 million pounds by March 1.

Magnuson-Stevens also includes provisions to establish a federal angler registry, but prohibits any fee until 2011, and exempts states with licenses that provide adequate data to NOAA. Further, the law requires an overhaul of the much-criticized Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey by 2009.

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