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Coronavirus pandemic rules sink spring boating on the Chesapeake Bay

Jesse Bolton of Wild Goose Charters in Deale knows times ahead will be difficult for him and other captains across the state who bank on the revenue derived from the charters.

Although outdoor activities are permitted under Gov. Larry Hogan’s “stay at home" order issued Monday, recreational boating and sailing are strictly limited. And while commercial fishing is not included in the restrictions, Bolton won’t take anyone out until he’s confident his family, crew and customers will be safe.

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“As of right now, this is what we have in writing permitting us to run fishing parties with no more than 10 people on board including myself and my mate," Bolton said. “Is it going to affect myself and the rest of the charter fleet? Absolutely. We run a lot of big parties over eight people.”

The Department of Natural Resources stated this week that because no Marylander should leave their home except for an essential reason, recreational boating is not allowed. Limited hunting, fishing and crabbing for sustenance can continue as long as social distancing rules are followed.

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No permits for fishing tournaments, including virtual tournaments, will be issued until further notice, the DNR states in policies spelled out on its website.

The rules will have a major impact on spring boating, typically the month when fishermen, sailors, paddlers and others venture out on the water for the first time since last fall.

Businesses like Bolton’s, marinas and maintenance shops will also feel the change. The spring boat shows in Annapolis and Kent Island have both been canceled.

Anyone engaging in outdoor activities must follow social distancing and abide by CDC and WHO guidelines, which say only individuals, immediate family members and people who reside together should engage in outdoor activities, and those groups should abide by the current social distancing order.

The DNR says only a few exceptions are permitted, which includes those fishing for food “for you or your family," and that recreational boating is prohibited until the governor lifts the executive order or until the State of Emergency has ended.

Mike Ricci, communications Director for Gov. Larry Hogan, confirmed the restrictions information in a tweet Tuesday.

Kayaking and paddleboarding are permitted as long as social distancing and social gathering rules are followed since they are forms of exercise.

In a FAQ on the DNR website, the department confirmed that charter boats “can continue operating but must abide by social distancing guidelines” and cannot have more than 10 individuals on the vessel at any time.

Bolton hopes the spring fishing season isn’t completely ruined.

“Hopefully, by May 1 when the season opens for rockfish, things will be back to normal and we can go back to normal business and life," he said. "Until then, we will remain positive and continue to follow recommendations from the state, the DNR and the Coast Guard.”

Tom Weaver, owner of Fish with Weaver — a light-tackle charter business, said he doesn’t have any trips booked for April but does have some beginning May 1, the start of the rockfish trophy season, that include trips for those coming from as far away as Michigan and Alabama.

"Now technically, they’re not canceled. But I am seeing that is not going to happen,” he said. “That is more based on whether they are going to be able to travel. Given the current rules of stay at home, I don’t see it happening.

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“But the opposite has happened for me for April. Instead of doing boat maintenance and such, because people have been locked in their house, they are calling and saying they will fish for anything just to get out. All my fees have been paid, so I’ve had a bunch of expenses. Realistically, we’re looking at June as the first time we’re going to somewhat go back on a normal business schedule.”

Rockfish season begins May 1 this year, later than previous years as the state and regional authorities have moved to ease pressure on the popular game species.

The order will affect those anglers seeking a trophy rockfish as well. The 19th annual Boatyard Bar & Grill Opening Day “Catch and Release” Rockfish Tournament, scheduled for May 2, has been canceled, said Dick Franyo, owner of the Boatyard Bar & Grill. Franyo based that decision on the governor’s directives and guidance from DNR.

“We just want to do what is right. Given that our event is a month away, we felt a decision should be made now,” Franyo said. "There is a lot of time and effort that goes into organizing this tournament. It did not make sense to continue to push forward when it seems highly unlikely we will be able to hold the tournament in the manner participants have come to expect.”

Jimmy Michael, an avid recreational fisherman and outdoorsman from Pasadena, said he is worried about the charter fleets and expects the restrictions to have a negative impact on recreational fishermen in the area. Michael noted the start of rockfish season had already been pushed back to May 1.

“I believe there is a lot of residential rockfish in the bay to catch,” said Michael, who has fished the Chesapeake Bay for 35 years. “Even though the trophy season is only two weeks, one can only hope that rockfish under 35 inches can help with the loss of the trophy fish. There are plenty of residential fish to take. We can only hope the crisis ends soon and everyone comes out of this healthy.”

Sailing, along with its many regattas held in the Annapolis, is feeling the impact as well. One area the coronavirus hits hard is those with compromised immune systems and disabilities, like those helped by Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB).

CRAB executive director Paul Bollinger said the work to the organization’s docks at Sandy Point has been put on hold. A refresher training course for volunteer skippers and crew has been canceled. Sailing programs for disabled guests will be postponed until the governor lifts the quarantine.

“CRAB’s older volunteers and guests with disabilities are considered high-risk candidates for the virus, so we are not sailing until everything returns to normal,” Bollinger said. “CRAB’s focus on safety is paramount and we are hyper-vigilant during this virus outbreak."

The Recovering Warrior Sailing Regatta scheduled May 9 will be moved to a later date, and Bollinger hopes the Don Backe Memorial CRAB Regatta, hosted by the Annapolis Yacht Club on June 6, will be the first event of the season.

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“But we have a back-up date in September depending upon the virus,” he said. "Believe me, CRAB guests with disabilities want to get out on the Bay as much as anyone, if not more.”

Chris McCleary, who owns Pier 4 Marina in Annapolis on Spa Creek, said the order will dig deep to not only the launching of watercraft from marinas but also to the dry-docking of boats at the marina as well.

“It looks like the order by the governor is not only impacting the launching of boats but also the repair of boats and any other movement within marinas, so it does have an impact on the business,” he said. “We had some boats coming in for the season and they can’t get moved to get into the water to come up to our slips. So we are impacted and we have a lot of frustrated customers that also believe that recreational boating provides optimal social distancing. If you can take your family out, family only, that’s a relief from some of the distress.”

Staff Writer Bill Wagner contributed to this article.

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