Rockfish limit splits anglers and watermen

October 20, 2007|By David Nitkin and Candus Thomson | David Nitkin and Candus Thomson,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- In a move being cheered by recreational anglers, President Bush will announce today new conservation goals for a popular Chesapeake Bay fish that include stricter limits on commercial hauls of rockfish but greater access for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy catching the species.

The new federal policy - largely advisory in nature - will come through an executive order the president is scheduled to issue during a visit to St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore. After signing the order, Bush plans to go fishing on the Chesapeake, he said in a weekend radio address recorded yesterday.

"My administration is committed to protecting the environment that our sportsmen depend on," Bush said in his address.

The president's initiative will encourage passage of state and local laws that would prohibit commercial catches of rockfish, the Maryland state fish (also known as strped bass), and of red drum, a fish that is prevalent in southern Atlantic waters and the Gulf of Mexico. Wild stocks of the fish were severely stressed after recipes for blackened redfish became popular in the 1980s.

If Maryland were to follow Bush's advice, it could place the Chesapeake off-limits and thus remove one of the lone remaining money-makers for watermen who can no longer make a living off dwindling crab and oyster populations. Rockfish is one of the most important agricultural products of the state.

State officials and conservationists said, however, that it was unlikely that the executive order would have much impact.

Existing limits on catches have preserved a sustainable rockfish population, they said, and they saw no need to designate the species as a "game fish" to place it off-limits to commercial fishermen, as the executive order suggests. The White House said yesterday that the administration would not seek to override state laws.

Another part of the executive order appears to fulfill a long-standing desire of sport-fishing groups, which have supported Bush in the past but have been angered by some administration decisions, such as the creation of a marine life refuge surrounding the Hawaiian Islands.

The order is expected to open the door to recreational fishing of rockfish and red drum in federally controlled waters - those between 3 miles and 200 miles off the shoreline of coastal states. Currently, commercial and recreational fishing of both species is prohibited in that zone because of overfishing.

But the populations are making a comeback, and the White House says that if restrictions are lifted, they want only recreational anglers to catch fish in federal waters.

Recreational fishing groups such as the Maryland chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association applauded the order, and said it fulfilled a long-standing objective.

The group "has long held the position that striped bass are game fish," said Robert Glenn, executive director of the Maryland chapter. "This is a result of us working toward that long-term goal."

The White House said the president was directing federal agencies to work with states on "innovative" conservation measures that would include a commercial ban, a proposal that got a cool response from state regulators and watermen.

Bush is "overstepping his bounds to do this," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, who said he was surprised that the president singled out striped bass for protection because the population has been healthy.

Simns said he doubts Bush's measure will get much traction in Annapolis. "We've had a policy that has worked pretty well for 15 years," he said. "It's possible they'll try, but I think we can use science to keep that from happening."

Eric Schwaab, deputy secretary in the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said it would be "premature" for Maryland to ban commercial rockfish fishing.

"We have what we feel is an effective management plan that's working," Schwaab said.

Federal restrictions on rockfish and red drum are established by a federal fisheries commission and are being reconsidered as the population rebounds from lows of two to three decades ago, said Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality.

"There is a scientific process by which those decisions are made, and this provides some further information and guidance as those decisions are made in the event the ban is lifted," Connaughton said.

Some environmentalists are questioning the impact of Bush's policy. Promoting recreational catches of a fish now off-limits in federal waters is "quite the opposite of a conservation measure," said Bill Goldsborough, who heads the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's fisheries program.

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