Fearful that striped bass may be threatened again by overfishing, East Coast recreational anglers are protesting proposals that would let Maryland watermen increase their catch.
The popular fish, known in the Chesapeake Bay region as rockfish, was declared "recovered" from fishing pressure almost two years ago after the species was nearly depleted in the 1980s.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is weighing whether to allow the commercial catch in Maryland to rise up to 60 percent, with a smaller boost in Virginia.
The federal panel, which regulates fishing in coastal waters from Maine to Florida, has scheduled a public hearing at 7 p.m. today at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis.
Recreational fishing groups plan to oppose the increase at the hearing. They say they see warning signs that rockfish may not have fully rebounded.
"I think we're starting to put a little too much pressure on them," said Richard Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association.
But coastal states' fisheries biologists, who proposed the increase, say that rockfish have recovered so strongly under tight catch restrictions the past decade that there is little to fear.
"We would have to overfish for a number of years in a row to deplete the population we have now," said Mark Gibson, a Rhode Island biologist and chairman of the fisheries commission's science advisers, who recommended a greater Chesapeake Bay catch.
Maryland watermen, in turn, accuse sports anglers of trying to deny them a fair share of the rockfish they say are swarming all over the bay.
"It's a tug of war," said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.
The uproar is the latest round in a long-running battle between sports anglers and commercial fishermen over this species, which is prized for both its fight and its flavor.
"It's a people problem, not a fish problem," said Gibson. "When there were no fish, there were no arguments. Now there's some fish, there's a lot of squabbling."
Warnings from scientists about overfishing, and public pressure from alarmed sports fishermen, prompted Maryland in 1984 to protect the bay's dwindling stock of rockfish with a five-year catch moratorium.
The upper Chesapeake rivers are the major spawning grounds for all East Coast striped bass, which leave the bay a few years after hatching and roam offshore from Maine to North Carolina.
Maryland's ban was eased in 1991, as were other states' restrictions, but fishing has continued to be tightly regulated.
Thus protected, there have been three bumper crops of young rockfish produced in the bay in the last four years, including the biggest spawn recorded in 43 years last spring.
The marine fisheries commission, which had decided earlier this year not to alter current catch quotas, now is weighing at least two proposals for changing the limits.
Under one, the cap on commercial harvest in Maryland could increase from 1.8 million pounds this year to 3.1 million pounds.
Other Atlantic coast states, whose anglers catch older, larger rockfish, say they haven't seen any large increase in the offshore population to warrant loosening limits in the bay.
Maryland and Virginia officials have countered by proposing a smaller increase, which would allow Maryland watermen to harvest 2.4 million pounds.
The joint state plan also would extend the fall recreational rockfishing season from 93 days to 120 days.
Recreational fishermen already get three-fourths of the striped bass caught along the coast, according to commission figures.
But recreational anglers oppose any increase, even for themselves.
They are concerned, said Novotny, because they have had more trouble this fall than in previous years catching legal-sized fish at least 18 inches long.
"I think the scientists should look at the fishery again," said Novotny.
Gibson, the Rhode Island fisheries biologist, said rockfish in the bay may be smaller because their growth may be slowed by competition for food. He speculated the bay is so crowded with fish now that food is scarce. That may prompt some rockfish to migrate out of the bay to the ocean at a younger age than in years past, he said.
"That's not necessarily a problem," Gibson said, but a "natural response."
Pub Date: 12/20/96