Striped bass quotas are on the horizon

September 30, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

The days of the fall striped bass slaughter on the southern Chesapeake Bay are over. It's pay the piper time.

After six years of catching more striped bass than allowed and fearing possible regulatory repercussions, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission cinched up its belt and toughened its fall catch limits.

Federal regulators set a summer and fall quota for the entire bay and Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission divide it up. Virginia's share last year was 3.1 million pounds, split equally between its recreational anglers/charter boat fleet and commercial fishermen.

In each year since the 2001 season, our neighbor to the south has exceeded its recreational allotment. It went over by 1 million pounds in 2004 and, in an impressive display of fishing prowess, the 1.5 million-pound cap was exceeded by nearly 900,000 pounds last year.

On Tuesday, VMRC voted unanimously to put fish between 28 and 34 inches off limits to anglers for the entire fall season, from Thursday through the end of the year. From Thursday to Dec. 9, anglers will be allowed to catch two fish a day. Both can be 18 to 28 inches, or one can be larger than 34 inches. From Dec. 10 through Dec. 31, there will be a one-fish limit per trip.

"We didn't want to risk putting Virginia, Maryland and PRFC over the federal quota," VMRC spokesman John Bull said. "We're pretty confident this will get us close to where we need to be and will reduce stress on the striped bass population."

The payback is similar to the one required of Maryland by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission after a series of spring overages in recent years.

Three things to note here.

The overage can't be blamed solely on Virginia's rod-and-reel community. Plenty of Maryland anglers follow stripers down the bay as the water cools. Warm fall weather in recent years has delayed the migration south and put fish and fishermen at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel at the same time, around the year-end holidays.

Virginia's new fall regulations take the pressure off the big fish, the ones that spawn and keep the striped bass population from New England to the Carolinas healthy. It would be nice to see other states follow suit.

While I don't doubt Virginia was over its limit, it's important to keep in mind that the overage was documented using a now-discredited survey that's in the process of being revamped. The Marine Recreational Fishery Statistical Survey is the same fish count that Maryland fisheries chief Howard King has successfully challenged using information supplied by charter boat captains and anglers.

Yipes, stripes

Speaking of the Marine Recreational Fishery Statistical Survey (and who doesn't?), preliminary figures indicate that Maryland exceeded its spring striped bass target of 30,000 fish by about 5,000 fish.

That's in the ballpark, and "nothing to be alarmed about," said King, who got the ASMFC to substitute "target" for "quota" when Maryland's 2007 allocation was decided.

Unfortunately, recreational anglers did little to help Maryland make its case next month before the ASMFC, which will be setting the 2008 spring season.

Despite DNR's request to fishing groups to participate in the online Maryland Cooperative Striped Bass Survey, anglers stayed away in droves.

Biologists and statisticians have logs kept by charter boat captains of their daily catches and some dockside survey work done by staff, but when it comes to defending against MRFSS, every bit helps.

No complaining to King if the spring season stinks.

Missing plan

So, it has been almost six months since the Legislature instructed DNR to come up with a yellow perch management plan that would allow the fish to reach their traditional spawning grounds and fairly allocate the total catch between recreational and commercial fishermen.

We're still waiting.

There are only so many options out there to achieve that goal. DNR biologists took a stab at management plan two years ago before an unfortunate public relations fiasco reduced it to cinders, so it's not like they're starting from scratch.

If a goal is to allow yellow perch to get to their upstream spawning areas, then the regulation must choose dates when nets will not be permitted.

If a goal is to more evenly distribute the catch (right now it's 80 percent commercial, 20 percent recreational), then DNR must select two new numbers, fairly close together that total 100.

But still we wait.

The agency had a perfect opportunity Tuesday night at a meeting to get public comment on regulations in the pipeline. Waterman and the recreational crowd were well represented and fully expected something to be unveiled.

Yellow perch was on the agenda, in addition to striped bass, razor clams and snapping turtles. In each case, DNR had a proposal for the public to comment on. But when it came time for the agency to put its cards on the table on yellow perch: zippo.

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