Sportsfishermen favor making rock a game fish


The Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen's Association is organizing a march in Annapolis on March 11 to show support for Senate Bill 575, which is an effort to have the rockfish declared a game fish and thereby eliminate commercial catches or sales of the state fish.

SB 575, which is sponsored by Sen. Mike Collins, is the second effort by the MSSA to get such a bill through the General Assembly.

SB 575 is an interesting proposition in several ways, and what comes to mind first is that it shows a beginning of political organization by groups of recreational fishermen with different interests -- the birth, perhaps, of what could become a voting bloc with considerable clout.

But what also comes to mind is that the relative few might come to have access to a natural resource that has provided enjoyment for many -- on the bay and in dining rooms and restaurants -- and traditionally has been a source of income for commercial fishermen.

From the political standpoint, the rockfish can be a rallying point.

The board of directors of the Maryland B.A.S.S. Federation, for example, has agreed unanimously to endorse SB 575. Previously, the 1,500 members of the federation had largely concerned themselves officially with smallmouth and largemouth bass conservation.

It is a small step, perhaps, but when the membership of the Maryland B.A.S.S. Federation is added to MSSA's more than 5,000, the impact of the forces obviously will become greater.

If the members of the Maryland Chapter of Trout Unlimited were to come around as well, the totals are greater. If all the 500,000 recreational anglers in the state were to form an alliance or council of fishermen, the power increases to a formidable level -- and with more clout, more can be done to improve funding for fishing reefs, fisheries management and conservation, water quality, stocking programs in fresh water. The possible benefits are many.

But there are other aspects of SB 575 to be considered as well.

If the rockfish were declared a game fish, the only stuffed rock served in Maryland restaurants or on dining room tables of Maryland homes probably would be bred on fish farms rather than taken from its natural habitat -- unless it were caught by a sportfisherman, with a guide or aboard a charter boat and served to the fisherman's family or friends.

If the rockfish is declared a game fish, those who benefit economically are the charter-boat operators and the guide services.

One then has to ask: Who are the guides? There are a fair number of them among the membership of the MSSA.

Who are the charter-boat operators? For the past rockfish season, there were more than 300 operators who paid to fish, but the traditional core numbers around 160. They would stand to benefit, too, but according to an official with the Maryland Charterboat Association, it is unlikely they will support SB 575.

Then, what of the handful of watermen who still fish commercially for stripers? The argument against them is that gill nets have done untold damage to stocks of stripers over the years, and undoubtedly the netters have, in times past, been overzealous. SB 575 would eradicate them -- if hard times and varying stocks of crabs, oysters and clams don't eliminate them first.

Perhaps, rather than excluding the watermen from the rockfish fishery, they might be re-equipped or limited to the use of hook and line in the more saline waters of the bay and netters restricted to the use of pound nets, which enclose fish rather than snare them.

This is not to say that one should blindly align with the MSSA -- or B.A.S.S., MDTU or any other fishing organization. It is to say that this issue is worth investigating -- and perhaps you will decide it is worth making an appearance in Annapolis on March 11.

SB 575 at a glance

A synopsis of Senate Bill 575, which would make rockfish (striped bass) a game fish in the state of Maryland:

* Would apply to rockfish caught in tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries and within state boundary waters in the Atlantic Ocean.

* Would prohibit the use of net, trap or hook and line to take rockfish for sale.

* Would prohibit the sale of rockfish in Maryland unless raised by aquaculture.

* Would provide a Waterman's Economic Revitalization Plan and a Waterman's Conservation Corps for those watermen who had fished for rockfish at least one year before the moratorium in 1985 and signed up for the 1990-91 season.

* Watermen would be given priority in state contracts related to bay resources, water quality and management.

* Would assist in credentialing watermen for employment in related marine professions.

* Would aid in loans, grants, conversion of vessels and marine equipment for additional occupations.

* Would compensate watermen for equipment and loss of revenues from commercial catch of rockfish.

* Would create a Rockfish Gamefish Stamp to raise money for the Watermen's Revitalization Fund. The cost of each stamp would be $15 per individual, $30 per private boat and $125 per charter boat.

* Would set a $4 million annual cap on the revitalization fund for a period of five years.

* Stamp fees collected that exceed the annual cap would be allocated to enforcement (50 percent), hatchery projects and fisheries management (30 percent) and environmental improvements on the bay (20 percent).

* Would create a task force to develop a world-class striped bass fishery in Maryland.

Source: Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen's Association

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