Hoping to protect spawning striped bass from early season fishing, state fisheries officials are proposing a regulation for the Chesapeake Bay that limits the type of hooks that can be used and the number of rods on trolling boats.
The regulation would cover catch-and-release fishing from March 1 to the third Saturday in April, when the spring season begins. However, the proposal stops short of limiting trolling each week to four days, an option considered by the Fisheries Service and endorsed by the Sport Fish Advisory Commission.
"We've come off a good run," Fisheries Service director Tom O'Connell said of the years since the end of the striped bass fishing moratorium in 1990. "But we don't want to put ourselves in the dangers we experienced in the 1980s and '90s."
O'Connell called the regulation "a precautionary measure" to deal with a significant increase over the past seven years in catch-and-release fishing in March and April and address concerns that released fish might not spawn successfully.
Charter boat captains, who pushed for limiting preseason fishing, were upset that the Fisheries Service did not curb the number of days recreational anglers could troll.
"I'm extremely disappointed that politics takes precedent over the well-being of the fish," said Capt. Brian Keehn, president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association. "I have the utmost respect for the department. It's just a crying shame that so-called conservation groups work the process."
Bowing to requests from groups such as Coastal Conservation Association Maryland and the charter boat association, O'Connell said his agency will "vigorously investigate" all aspects of the bay's recreational striped bass fishery, including the winter fishing effort by boats from Virginia and North Carolina, which catch and keep an estimated 200,000 to 800,000 fish each year.
"That's a large range, but either number is of significant magnitude to require monitoring. ... Those are the same fish we're trying to protect," O'Connell said. "There's money to study the January-February fishery. That's the first step in figuring out what's going on."
Three-quarters of the Eastern Seaboard's striped bass population comes from Maryland's spawning grounds. That distinction has put fisheries officials and recreational and commercial interests in the position of having to defend the state's regulations and annual harvest before regional regulatory agencies.
States north of the Chesapeake Bay have complained that they are seeing fewer fish and place some of the blame on Maryland's preseason fishing and spring season, which comes near the end of the spawning run. They note that the spawning population has declined in recent years and the past two annual surveys of year-old striped bass have been below average.
But Maryland biologists believe that in a worst-case scenario, preseason fishing harms just 1 percent of the Atlantic coast spawning stock population.
Specifically, the proposed regulation would:
* Prohibit the use of stinger hooks
* Mandate the use of barbless hooks when trolling
* Require the use of non-offset circle hooks or "J" with a gap of less than a half inch when using bait
* Limit the number of lines to six when trolling, regardless of how many people are on the boat
The Fisheries Service will take public comment from Jan. 4 to Feb. 3. The regulation would take effect March 8.
In addition to the proposed regulation, O'Connell said the Fisheries Service will not extend the recreational striped bass season to the final two weeks of the year, which it did in 2008 to help a charter boat industry rocked by the bad economy.