Reel in money with licenses

January 20, 2008|By CANDUS THOMSON

Anglers, go out and buy your fishing licenses now.

The more you buy, the more money Gov. Martin O'Malley will put in the Fisheries Service budget.

The administration's proposed spending plan includes $750,000 in new money, with the possibility of $500,000 more.

When the General Assembly doubled fishing license fees last year as a way to increase the Fisheries Service budget by $2.3 million, it was with the understanding that the governor would come up with some kind of financial match.

The new fishing license fees kicked in July 1, but the match looked doomed when the state budget deficit required a special session late last year.

O'Malley put $750,000 in the budget with the promise to monitor license sales and increase the amount if activity is high.

"The governor is fully committed to a 50 percent match," said Eric Schwaab, deputy secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.

Schwaab said agency managers would discuss priorities with the sport fisheries and tidal fisheries advisory commissions, and with the task force that is revising fisheries management policies.

"We want to take a systematic approach to using the new money. We don't want to throw it at the first thing that comes down the pike," Schwaab said. "There are holes we need to plug."

The proposed $31.5 billion state budget unveiled last week by the governor will mean more good things for DNR: additional fish and game cops; no increase in camping fees; and more than 50 positions upgraded or filled.

While Secretary John Griffin & Co. won't be taking a cash bath anytime soon, the money definitely will help the dirt-poor agency fix some festering problems.

For example, the budget includes money for 25 to 30 new Natural Resources Police officers. Except for training officers from other agencies, the enforcer of fish and game laws hasn't had an academy class since 2002.

Oyster restoration work is getting $3 million from the governor's capital budget. That money will be used to expand sanctuaries and fix some of the historical oyster bars. At $15,000 to $40,000 an acre, that won't upgrade a vast expanse of Chesapeake Bay bottom, but it's a start.

"We are pleased with how we fared, given the very tight circumstances," Schwaab said. "We held the line for the most part and kept status quo, but got some help in critical areas."

One fish, two fish

Maryland's flounder anglers will have to make do with 56 percent fewer fish this summer, as nine Eastern Seaboard states try to restore a population that has been overfished.

How that goal is reached is the subject this week of two public meetings, during which biologists will explain the regulation options.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, reauthorized by Congress last year, extended the deadline to rebuild the flounder stock by three years to 2013. But states are finding it hard to dial back fishing effort, and Maryland is no exception.

Last year, the state's recreational target was 61,000 fish, a number exceeded by 79,000. Chesapeake Bay anglers were allowed two fish daily, minimum size 15 inches, while coastal anglers could keep four fish at 15 1/2 inches.

This year's target is the same, so biologists are devising more restrictive regulations to drive down the harvest. Options include 16 1/2 -inch and 17-inch minimums with differing daily bag limits.

"We're doing this now to get back on track," biologist Mike Luisi said. "Whatever the [Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission] gives you is what you have to live with."

Restoring the flounder population coastwide has been a struggle. During the mid- to late 1980s, the number of spawning adults plummeted 75 percent, and commercial and recreational anglers saw catches dwindle. In 1988, the federal government took over management of the fishery and adopted the state quota system five years later.

The flounder population rebounded, with the spawning population rising 700 percent from 1989 to 2001, but the upswing was not enough to meet the goals in Magnuson-Stevens.

The feeling is that with five years remaining until the deadline to restore flounder, ASMFC might be reluctant to approve separate regulations for Chesapeake Bay and coastal waters because of the difficulty in assessing which part of the regulations is working.

Ocean City anglers seem to favor a 17-inch, four-fish creel, but Chesapeake anglers would like a smaller minimum to reflect what they believe is the size found in the bay.

"Hopefully, we'll get a better feeling for what anglers want within the commission's framework," Luisi said.

The first meeting is at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Ocean Pines Library, 11107 Cathell Road, Ocean Pines. The second one is at 6 p.m. Thursday at DNR headquarters, 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis.

If you can't make it, send your comments to: Mike Luisi, Fisheries Service, Tawes State Office Building, B-2, 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis 21401; call 410-260-8341 or e-mail mluisi@dnr.state.md.us.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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