Moratorium on catching rockfish ends tomorrow

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

From Havre de Grace to Solomons, the boats are gassed up and ready to go.

Tackle boxes are stocked with new fishing lures -- bucktails, spoons and surgical hose. Thousands of Marylanders and even some out-of-staters have crossed tomorrow off their work schedules to spend the day on Chesapeake Bay.

Tomorrow morning, the striped bass fishing moratorium will be lifted, nearly six years after Maryland banned catching the popular black-striped fish, commonly known as rockfish. The anticipation among anglers is palpable.

"It's going to be the wildest thing we've seen in years," predicted George Horn, skipper of the Pintail. Horn takes out fishing parties from Edwards Boatyard in Middle River.

"I don't know of a single person that has a fishing rod and access to a boat that won't be out there," he said. "My marina's going to be empty."

Once seriously depleted by overfishing and pollution, rockfish are back, thanks mainly to Maryland's fishing ban and catch restrictions set by other East Coast states, where migrating striped bass can be caught in ocean waters.

Near-record numbers of newly hatched rockfish were counted in Maryland waters of the bay last year, prompting state officials to decide to lift the moratorium. This year's dismal juvenile striped bass census has not deterred the Department of Natural Resources from going ahead with a brief, tightly regulated fishing season this fall and winter.

Recreational fishermen can keep only two rockfish a day -- five if they go on a charter boat -- and the fish must be at least 18 inches long.

But despite those strict limits, DNR police and fisheries officials are bracing for the aquatic equivalent of a gold rush this weekend. Weather permitting, hundreds of boats are expected to jockey for position around the Bay Bridge and other prized fishing spots, primarily in the upper bay.

"It's amazing how the public attitude's changed almost overnight, from one of extreme conservatism to wanting to go fishing again," said W. Peter Jensen, DNR's fisheries director. He himself plans to be on a charter boat with DNR Secretary Torrey C. Brown and ex-Gov. Marvin Mandel.

The rockfish season is a lifesaver to charter boat captains, who have fallen on hard times since bluefish stopped making their annual springtime runs up the bay from the Atlantic.

Some skippers like Horn say they are booked up for every day of the scheduled five-week rockfish season. The Rod 'n Reel Dock in Chesapeake Beach, home port for 28 charter boats and one head boat, has booked more than 500 rockfishing trips.

Fred Meers, president of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, plans to go out tomorrow, too. His 300,000-member group pressured the state to protect rockfish six years ago, but it could not agree this year on whether to endorse or oppose the resumption of fishing.

Harvey Riley, one of the association's directors, plans to "sit it out," however, because he believes it is too soon to lift the rockfish moratorium.

Riley says he is appalled by the fishing frenzy, which he likens to a rape of the bay's rockfish stocks, and he calls others in the sport fishing association hypocrites for joining in.

Head boats from Ocean City -- which sell tickets to individual anglers rather than chartering out to parties -- have been moved into the bay to capitalize on the expected rockfish bonanza, he said. One 24-passenger boat is advertising two half-day fishing trips out of Back River for $26 a person.

"They're going to slaughter the fish," Riley warned.

Jensen dismissed such dire predictions. The state has capped this year's total rockfish catch at 750,000 pounds, he noted, which represents less than a fifth of the legally catchable fish estimated to be in the bay.

Each group of fishermen has been allotted a share of the catch, with recreational anglers limited to 318,000 pounds, while charter boats can take no more than 112,000 pounds.

Jensen acknowledged that DNR officials may have underestimated the public's interest in catching rockfish. Some critics have warned that, with more than 415 charter boat captains signed up, they could catch their quota in less than a week.

But Jensen and charter captains said the figures are misleading, and they predict that big fish won't be that easy to catch. A two-day sampling around Poole's Island earlier this week caught 100 rockfish, but only about two dozen of them were big enough to keep, he said.

Just in case, DNR is geared up to prevent overfishing. Marine police will be out in force, he said, and there will be no warnings issued for fishing violations.

About 80 DNR employees and outside consultants also will be stationed in boats and at docks around the bay to monitor fishing activity, Jensen said. Fishermen will be surveyed by telephone and by mail, and the state will cut short the season on 48 hours' notice if it appears that the catch quota is going to be exceeded.

An even briefer commercial fishing season is scheduled after the recreational season ends in November, and DNR plans to track it daily to guard against overfishing.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said commercial fishermen welcomed the end of the moratorium, though he said the quota set by DNR was too low to yield much income for his members.

"It's a week's work in wintertime when there's not much else to do," he said.

Even before the first rockfish is legally landed, however, fishing interests are arguing over how many they should be able to catch next year.

Charter captains and watermen want to start fishing for rockfish again next May, before migratory fish that have swum up the bay to spawn return to the ocean. But sport fishermen and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation oppose any increase in the catch quotas.

The foundation, in fact, has urged the state to hold up next year's rockfish season until scientists have had a chance to assess the impact of fishing this fall and winter. William Goldsborough, the environmental group's fisheries expert, noted that a lot of dead rockfish have turned up floating in the upper bay, apparently the victims of being hooked and then released.

DNR originally proposed to continue the moratorium on rockfish in the upper bay, where most of the fish kills were observed. But the agency backed down when fishermen protested, blaming the kills on hot weather rather than handling. The issue is still being studied, Jensen said.

The sport fishermen's association, meanwhile, plans to revive a campaign to outlaw commercial fishing for rockfish.

A bill designating striped bass as a "game fish" will be introduced in the General Assembly next year, said Meers, the group's president. Watermen, who succeeded in blocking the bill two years ago, vow to fight it again.

ROCKFISH SEASON

* Recreation and charter, Oct. 5 to Nov. 9, 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Daily catch limits: on bay, 2 per recreational fisherman, 5 per charterboat customer; on Atlantic, 1 per fisherman.

Size limits: on bay, 18 inches minimum, 36 inches maximum; on Atlantic, 28 inches minimum, no maximum.

Penalty for violations: $1,500 per fish, first offense; $2,500 per fish and fishing license revocation for repeat offenses.

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