Spring fishery for rock likely, but will there be enough for all?


ANNAPOLIS -- On the rockfish front, there is good news and bad news for fishermen.

The good news is that there almost certainly will be a spring fishery in Maryland this year. The bad news is that almost certainly there will not be enough fish to go around.

But in the case of rockfish, a species recovering from stock depletion caused in large part by overfishing and loss of suitable habitat, what is detrimental to fishermen this year will be to their benefit in the future.

Monday, the Department of Natural Resources laid out its preferred plan for a spring trophy fishery on migratory stocks of rockfish.

Essentially, that plan would allow one fish 36 inches or longer per person over a two-week season to begin no sooner than May 13. Fishing for rockfish would be restricted to the main bay below the Bay Bridge to protect fish in the spawning reaches of tributaries and in the upper bay.

"This is what we are willing to consider in the spring fishery," William P. Jensen, director of fisheries for DNR's Tidewater Administration, said at a meeting of the Striped Bass Advisory Board. "This isn't to say it is the only thing we will consider. . . . This is what we feel comfortable with and what we feel we can sell to the ASMFC [Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission]."

The ASMFC, a federal body that oversees Atlantic Coast fisheries that impact more than one state, previously had approved a trophy season with a 45-inch minimum. The proposed 36-inch plan, Jensen said, is acceptable to the ASMFC. Other options would be subject to review.

But even at 36 inches rather than 45 inches, statistics show there will not be hordes of suitable fish available to fishermen.

Harley Speir, who heads the rockfish program for the DNR, produced research that showed in the Maryland/DNR sportfishing tournament from 1965 to 1984, the highest number of citation rockfish 15 pounds and over turned in was 848. A sportfishing survey from 1976 estimated 64,000 pounds of citation rock for an entire season.

"None of these figures is definitive in terms of this spring, except to say that it is not a great deal of fish," Speir said.

Ed O'Brien, vice president of the Maryland Charterboat Association and a member of the advisory board, urged that a smaller limit be considered.

"By the department's own charts . . . moving up the line to a 36-inch fish, the chart says that's a fish roughly 24.3 pounds," O'Brien said. "All last season, I caught one fish that weighed 24 pounds.

"In all the years that we fished this migratory fishery -- going back to the heyday -- it just seems to me that most of those fish are out of here in April. . . . I would like the department to consider going down from 36 inches. We [charter-boat captains] are trying to get a policy that fits the resource."

A trophy season, however, is not intended to fit a resource or to boost a sagging charter-boat industry. It is meant to provide the opportunity to catch that one big fish among the many.

"What we're saying is that some big fish can be taken out," Jensen said. "But we want to be safely within the bounds of propriety."

To some, staying within bounds of propriety poses a problem. The spring rockfish in the Chesapeake, which produces the majority of Atlantic stripers, later migrate north and then south along the coast, where less-restricted fishermen in other states get a better shot at them.

At the recently concluded outdoors show in Harrisburg, Pa., for example, more than two dozen sportfishing operations from Delaware, New Jersey and Virginia played heavily on expanded rockfish seasons.

"The people of Maryland don't have this," said O'Brien. "I know what we are trying to do: We're trying to compress our season in the spring and the fall. Talking to the captains in New Jersey, they say they really assaulted these big fish."

In Maryland this year, that apparently will not be the case.

In a recent DNR net survey, Speir said, 7,115 rockfish were captured ranging in length from 8 inches to 52 inches. Of those fish, 13 percent were 20 inches or greater and only 2 percent were 36 inches or greater.

Bob Eurice and Larry Simns, members of the advisory board with interests in commercial fishing, said their season that just ended turned up fish mostly from 30 to 32 inches.

The 10-man advisory board, which is made up of members representing commercial and recreational fishermen, charter-boat captains, tackle dealers, the seafood industry and conservationists, sent mixed messages to the DNR during the three-hour session Monday night.

First and foremost was the desire to continue the preservatio and proliferation of the species.

The board discussed several possible recommendations to the DNR, and the two that passed were:

* To accept the DNR plan for a spring trophy fishery as outlined by Jensen except to rely on the DNR to set a size limit that would ensure a two-week season. The size limits discussed ranged from 28 to 36 inches, although a subsequent motion to ask for a 28-inch limit was denied. It is possible that the size limit may be dropped to 32 inches from the proposed 36 inches.

* To create two two-week spring seasons. The first would star May 1 and be targeted for a 45-inch minimum. The second season would start May 13 or later and be targeted at fish deemed suitable by the DNR. In each session, the creel limit would be one fish per person per season.

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