Rockfish quotas stir controversy

Maryland assigning commercial fishermen catch shares

December 25, 2013|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Sharing is often considered a good thing. But ask fishermen to share their catch, especially of Maryland's state fish, and things can get testy — with seafood consumers on the hook for how it plays out.

Maryland is changing the way striped bass are caught for sale, ending decades of regulating the popular Chesapeake Bay fish by limiting the times when it can be harvested. Starting Jan. 1, commercial fishermen will have individual quotas of striped bass they can catch almost any time, not just in the relative handful of days permitted this year.

State officials say the change to catch shares, as the quotas are known, should help fishermen make a better living while improving oversight of harvests of the much-sought-after fish with distinctive black stripes — known popularly as rockfish.

Some of the state's watermen welcome the flexibility of being allowed to fish when it suits them, rather than compete in all kinds of weather in one- or two-day fishing "derbies."

But others complain that the quotas rob them of initiative by limiting the amount they can catch, in some cases well below what they've been landing lately. They warn that the cutback could drive them into oystering or other pursuits, making the tasty fish — a holiday staple for some — pricier and harder to come by in local restaurants and at seafood counters.

"Back in the old days — which wasn't really more than five or six years ago — we could fish five days a week and catch 1,200 pounds a day," said Don Marani, a commercial fisherman and proprietor of Don's Seafood in Fells Point. "Now we can catch in a year what we used to be able to catch in a day. … I mean, rockfish is a great fish, but you can buy red snapper cheaper."

At least one local chef, though, anticipates that the change will let his restaurant carry rockfish on the menu more frequently, and often at more reasonable prices.

"I think now it'll end up being more of a mainstay once it goes into effect, because I'll be able to get it a lot more regularly," said Chad Wells, executive chef at Alewife, a downtown restaurant. Wells predicted that prices, which have gyrated between $7 and $22 a pound, also should stabilize.

State fisheries officials say they're not trying to hurt watermen. "Whenever you have a major change like this … you have winners and losers," said Tom O'Connell, state fisheries director. "It sorts itself out."

Catch shares are catching on worldwide, covering 15 major fisheries in the United States. Advocates, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say shares help eliminate overfishing, produce more fish at lower costs to consumers and improve fishermen's safety and profits.

But individual quotas have drawn criticism from some commercial fishing organizations and even from some environmentalists, who argue that dividing up the catch can drive small fishermen out of business and harm traditional fishing communities.

This is Maryland's first major venture into catch shares, though they've been used in a few smaller fisheries.

The stakes are high with rockfish. They are Maryland's third-most-valuable seafood after blue crabs and oysters, with a dockside value of nearly $6 million.

Overfishing so depleted them in the 1980s, however, that the state imposed a five-year catch moratorium. With continuing concerns about their health and fishing pressure, they're tightly regulated.

In recent years, said Michael Luisi, director of estuarine and marine finfish, the total allowable catch has shrunk by 25 percent, reducing the season at the end of the year to a couple of days a week for a couple of weeks in November and December.

The final day for striped bass harvest this month was Dec. 18, when temperatures hovered around freezing and winds gusted to 25 miles per hour.

Frigid, even snowy weather often proves best for catching the fish, said Donald C. Pierce, 65, a veteran fisherman from Rock Hall. He and his two helpers were on the water from 2 a.m. until 9 p.m. on the final day, he said, but they netted nearly 1,000 pounds.

"This is not a 9-to-5 job," Pierce said, with no guarantee of catching the quota on any given day. "The fish hold the upper hand."

State officials say they were prompted to end the derby tradition after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates near-shore fishing, decreed that all striped bass caught for sale be individually tagged. State regulators concluded it would be an administrative nightmare to continue the on-again, off-again season for those who harvest the bulk of the state's striped bass, Luisi said.

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