Anglers net big gain

State to manage rockfish season on own in 2008

November 01, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,[Sun reporter]

For the first time in 15 years, Maryland striped bass anglers will have a spring trophy season designed and managed by state fisheries officials.

By an overwhelming margin, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission yesterday relinquished control of the state's most popular and lucrative season for 2008, thereby eliminating an annual quota that was often exceeded and allowing Maryland to regulate its season the way other Eastern Seaboard states do.

State officials say their management plan will protect the striped bass - Maryland's state fish, commonly known as rockfish - while providing increased opportunities to recreational anglers and the declining charter-boat industry. The monthlong season is worth $7 million to the state economy.

"It's a victory," said charter-boat captain Ed O'Brien, who took President Bush striped bass fishing last month. "It's a step in the right direction. It gives us a positive baseline to work from to rebuild our businesses. We've already lost a lot of business to Virginia."

Next spring, Maryland anglers will be allowed to keep one fish daily, minimum length of 28 inches, from April 19 to May 13. After a two-day hiatus, the season will resume May 16, with a two-fish per day limit. Both can be 18 to 28 inches, or one can exceed 28 inches. Under this plan, Maryland recreational anglers could catch as many as 62,000 fish, nearly double this year's total.

The ASMFC will review the spring season a year from now and decide whether to make the change permanent.

As the vote was announced, tense faces broke into smiles.

"I'm very pleased," said Howard King, the retiring state fisheries director, who has worked several years to restore local control and adjusted Maryland's proposal on the fly to secure approval. "These things do take time."

In January, ASMFC narrowly rejected a similar proposal. But top Department of Natural Resources officials lobbied long and hard this week at ASMFC's annual meeting in Annapolis to change minds and were in the audience as the proposal was debated. During the public comment period, no one spoke against the plan.

"I think they're coming around to recognize the fact that you can't keep Maryland under the thumb," said Bruno Vasta, one of Maryland's representatives on the ASMFC.

Maryland's request comes less than two weeks after President Bush signed an executive order - largely symbolic in nature - to protect the fish and urge additional conservation efforts.

"We've got a good process in Maryland, and that's what I told the president," O'Brien said. "We'll come back next year with the numbers and prove it."

Maryland's fishing regulations come under stricter scrutiny than other Eastern Seaboard states because of its position as the spawning grounds and nursery for at least 70 percent of the Atlantic striped bass population. Each spring, striped bass migrating up the coast stop in the upper Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to spawn.

Striped bass fishing was banned for five years, ending in 1990, after overfishing caused the population to plummet. In 1993, ASMFC permitted a spring season but limited anglers to a total of 3,000 fish. That quota increased over the years, reaching 50,000 fish this year.

But despite efforts to curb the catch by raising the minimum size, Maryland exceeded the cap in four of the past five years, which required a payback out of the quota in subsequent years.

King told commissioners that an artificial quota was unrealistic because seasons are driven by the weather and the number of fish in a particular year-class.

Further, he said, the spring catch had stabilized because the number of charter boats has been capped and the number of recreational licenses is declining.

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