Early last week, perhaps 100 fishermen and retailers gathered in Salisbury to hear the Department of Natural Resources' proposed changes in regulations for sea trout and spotted trout catches in the Chesapeake Bay and the state's coastal waters.
There were two primary responses -- that, yes, all wanted to ensure that the species could survive and multiply, but in the process, wasn't there a way to be less restrictive in the proposed creel limits for recreational fishermen.
In a nutshell, DNR needs to be within the catch parameters assigned to all coastal states by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. And that means the overall catch -- recreational and commercial -- has to be reduced by 29 percent by the end of 1994.
To achieve that reduction, DNR proposes to assign both species a 12-inch minimum length and daily creel limits of 10 fish for the balance of this year and five starting next year.
Commercial fishermen would be restricted to net mesh minimums of three inches and coastal netters would be prohibited from fishing from July 1 to Sept. 30.
An unusual thing happened during discussions of the proposals -- a contingent of netters from the coast said that the net mesh
would be sufficient to reduce the catch and that the recreational fishermen should be left alone.
In essence, the commercials could bear the burden alone.
"Now that, in itself, is virtually unheard, of," said Shad Edwards, president of the Somerset County Charterboat Association. "When we have been here [n hearings] in the past, we have been at each other's throats."
This time, however, the argument was made that Maryland's recreational catch of sea trout, and even more so spotted sea trout, is minimal.
"You could take away all our catch," said Capt. Butch Tawes, a charter boat skipper from Crisfield, "and it wouldn't be a grain of sand on Assateague to the coastal total."
From biological and regulatory standpoints, however, it is the coastal catch that must be considered. Sea trout, said Harley Spier, program leader for Maryland's marine and estuary fisheries, are considered one coastal population and are managed as such.
Therefore, what applies from Maine to North Carolina applies to Maryland as well.
"So the stock condition is considered to be the same from Maine through North Carolina," Spier said. "It is also considered to be very much overfished."
Overfished to the extent that of all the catchable-size fish that are alive at the beginning of any one year, fishing will remove about 78 percent of them.
"That is an increase of a removal rate of about 50 percent for the period 1982 through 1987," Spier said. "It is estimated right now that the maximum spawning potential is only about 7 percent of what it should be. If current fishing levels continue there is some danger of stock collapse and reproduction failure."
The target rate of catch reduction set by the ASMFC is 29 percent, which Spier said would bring the spawning rate up to an acceptable 20 percent.
Maryland's proposal for 1993 is calculated for a 25 percent reduction in catch rate, with the balance of the target rate made up next year.
Sea trout spawn through the summer months and have to make it through their second year to reach sexual maturity, when they are larger than 10 inches. The 12-inch minimum would allow that growth.
Sea trout management is largely in the hands of others because of the nature of the fish.
Where Maryland has made gains in rockfish management because the fish breed and grow in the upper bay and its tributaries before joining the coastal stocks, sea trout breed largely in the more southern expanses of Maryland waters.
The stock assessments, in fact, are made off the North Carolina coast, where virtually the entire Atlantic Coast population spends the winter.
Few will argue that the species will benefit from conservative regulations, but there also is the matter of practicality.
The chances of any but the truly dedicated sea trout fisherman -- those who repeatedly seek the flats and grass edges of Tangier and Pocomoke Sounds in the hours just before dawn or just after dusk -- catching a limit are minimal.
Edwards maintains that there already is a natural limit in place, so why take away the passion of a relative few.