Md. told to halve rockfish catch

Regulators impose 30,000-fish quota

boat captains fear economic effects

January 30, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Maryland's lucrative and popular trophy striped bass season will be a shell of its former self this spring after regulators decided yesterday to drastically reduce the state's catch.

By a vote of 7-6, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission rejected a proposal by Maryland to eliminate the spring quota and allow recreational fishing under regulations similar to other Eastern Seaboard states.

Instead, it overwhelmingly approved a target quota of 30,000 fish - about half the total catch in each of the past two years.

"This cripples us," said Rich Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, which represents thousands of recreational anglers. "We imposed a moratorium to save the species. We've done a lot for conservation, and now they've penalized us."

Charter boat captains in the audience looked stunned after the vote. Many of them derive almost 50 percent of their annual business during the four-week season that begins in mid-April. There were nearly 260,000 tidal licenses sold last year, but many more people fish on charter boats, where a license is not needed.

"I don't know what the new regulations will look like, but it's not good," said a grim Ed O'Brien, vice president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association, shaking his head as he walked out.

Maryland is treated differently from other coastal states because the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are the spawning grounds and nursery for more than 70 percent of the East Coast's striped bass population. Fish migrating up the coast swim into the bay to spawn before continuing north.

Bay anglers in the past two seasons exceeded by more than 50 percent the annual quota set by the ASMFC, despite the state's effort to curtail the harvest by imposing tougher regulations that included raising the minimum size from 28 inches to 33 inches and delaying by two weeks the start of the tournament season.

Maryland fisheries chief Howard King told the commissioners that rules set for the state in the 1990s were no longer needed because the striped bass population has rebounded from overfishing.

The recovery occurred because the state imposed a five-year moratorium in the late 1980s after the number of fish plummeted to record-low levels. State biologists believe anglers exceeded the quota in 2005 and 2006 because there were more fish to catch, especially the large fish hatched immediately after the moratorium.

King also noted that the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey, the method used to estimate the spring recreational harvest, has been discredited. The National Research Council last year labeled the survey "fatally flawed" and urged its replacement.

But the commissioners, who represent two federal agencies and states from Maine to North Carolina, were unmoved. Several of them said if Maryland were to get a better deal, their state should, too.

"I don't think anyone around the table wants to end Maryland's right to fish," said Pat Augustine, a New York commissioner. "But it boggles my mind that you went to 60,000 fish."

In an attempt to save the season, King then asked commission members to approve a target quota of 30,000 fish but forgive the overages of the previous years. The vote was 10-3 in favor, with two commissioners abstaining.

Afterward, King said the Department of Natural Resources will have to "do some housecleaning" of regulations to ensure compliance and will meet with anglers and conservation groups to sort through the options.

"We have a wealth of tables prepared that can calculate a specific reduction based on minimum size, season length, number of rods on a boat and such," he said. "We'll have regulations moving though the process by early March. There's enough time to work this through."

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