Sports anglers stung by clipped rockfish season


Frustrated by the premature shutdown of Maryland's recreational rockfish season, sports fishers vow to return to the legislature next year to seek exclusive rights to catch the prized fish.

"A lot of anglers haven't even had a chance to fish yet, and they're going to walk away from this mad as hell," said Richard Novotny, executive director of the 6,000-member Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen's Association.

He and other fishers were surprised by the announcement late yesterday that the recreational rockfish season in Chesapeake Bay would be closed Sunday night, only 10 days after the state had relaxed its nearly 6-year-old moratorium on fishing for rockfish, or striped bass.

"I thought for sure we would go at least another week, if not longer," Novotny said.

The bay season had been scheduled to run for five weeks through Nov. 9, but Secretary of Natural Resources Torrey C. Brown said the chance to take home a rockfish has proven so popular among rod-and-reelers that they appear likely to hit the quota set by the state by Sunday.

Recreational fishers were allotted 318,750 pounds of rockfish, which the Department of Natural Resources had tried to parcel out by limiting each angler to no more than two fish a day.

Recreational ocean catches of rockfish were not affected by the bay ban.

On the other hand, Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said today, "We're glad to see that DNR has been able to monitor it well enough to know when to shut it off. . . We know they are going to be looking at it conservatively for us."

The state has scheduled a brief commercial rockfish season for next month and another for January.

The state's charter fishing fleet, which has a quota of 112,500 pounds, will be allowed to keep fishing, Brown said, but the daily catch limit will be lowered Monday from five fish per person to two. And, he said, the charter fishing season also would be cut short, though he could not say how soon.

DNR officials had said earlier this week that few anglers appeared to be catching their daily limits of legal-sized rockfish despite an apparent abundance of smaller fish.

However, surveys taken on the water, from the air and at dockside over the long Columbus Day holiday weekend revealed that many more anglers have jammed the bay than expected, and that they had better luck than DNR officials had predicted, Brown said.

Brown estimated that roughly 70,000 fishers, or about 30 percent of all licensed fishers in Maryland, flocked to Chesapeake Bay in the first five days of the season. Rockfish were caught on one in every three fishing trips made since the ban was lifted, he said.

The surveys suggested that recreational fishers landed roughly half of their quota by Tuesday night, Brown said, while the more than 415 charter boats working the bay had caught about 40 percent of their limit.

Before the state imposed the moratorium in January 1985, rockfish had been seriously depleted by overfishing and pollution. The bay's rockfish have since made a dramatic comeback.

Brown, who went fishing himself Friday with a party that caught only six legal-sized fish out of 60 hooked, said he had "mixed feelings" about ending the season early.

"On the one hand, I am delighted that everybody had such a fabulous time," he said.

The announcement produced the first cracks in the fragile truce among competing fishing groups over how to divide the catch.

Larry Pruett, a charter boat captain from Essex, predicted some recreational anglers would complain about the state's decision to let charter boats go after rockfish for another week or so.

Novotny, however, said sports fishers do not begrudge charter captains, but they do resent having to share the limited catch with about 700 commercial fishers, who get to take an equal quota of 318,750 pounds between Nov. 12 and Jan. 2.

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