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All those rockfish roil managerial waters

The future of rockfish has been on the minds of many fishermen and fisheries biologists over the past several weeks, as user groups and managers have discussed the status of the state fish and how to deal with its unprecedented recovery.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, numbers of rockfish (striped bass) declined because of poor habitat and overfishing to the point that a five-year moratorium closed the fishery to recreational, charter-boat and commercial interests.

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Since the fisheries were reopened in 1990, however, much has changed.

Strict catch limits and restricted seasons were enacted and enforced, watershed improvement plans were put in place and larger minimum size limits were approved and adhered to.

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As a result, rockfish numbers have increased rapidly, according to Department of Natural Resources surveys of spawning success and recreational and commercial catches; increased to the point that the rockfish has been declared recovered by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a federal watchdog panel that monitors and manages the interstate fishery.

The trouble is that such unprecedented success is hard for some to accept -- and as the future for recreational, charter-boat and commercial fishermen is discussed, the voices heard loudest are those that want to strictly conserve the fishery or those who want to exploit it.

On Jan. 15 at 7 p.m., DNR will hold a public meeting in the cafeteria at the Tawes State Office Building in Annapolis to discuss three options to be considered for the fishery this year.

Option 1 would keep limits for the three segments of the fishery as they were last year.

Option 2 would expand the fishery, with a maximum of 120 days for recreational fishermen and charter boats and a maximum increase of 250,000 pounds for the commercial fishery.

Option 3 would expand the commercial quota by more than 1 million pounds and reduce the recreational season from 93 to 85 days.

A 2-million pound reserve of rockfish is built into all three options, according to fisheries biologists, and the great numbers of hatchery fish produced to augment the natural stocks have never been considered when fishery parameters have been discussed.

All three options will be considered by the ASMFC later this month in Atlantic City, N.J., but Option 3 seems something no one should want, and according to DNR, there has been little support for it.

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The Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association and other conservation groups have thrown their support behind Option 1, which fisheries biologists say would result in a "moderate" increase in the recreational and charter-boat catch and no parallel increase in the commercial catch.

But biologists also say there is a glitch in Option 1. If the fishery is frozen at last year's levels, fisheries managers project the coastal commercial fishery would exceed acceptable mortality rates, which would target the migratory spawning fish that have been responsible for the recovery of the rockfish.

Option 2, biologists say, would still keep Maryland fishing at rates below the conservative level unanimously approved by the ASMFC Striped Bass Technical Committee, while allowing maximum increases of 27 days for recreational and charter-boat fishermen and 250,000 pounds more for commercial fishermen in Maryland.

Under this option, apparently the commercial increase would be targeted at rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay, where the rockfish population, including immature, non-migratory fish, is growing at much faster rate than along the coast.

Recreational anglers who have opposed any increase in the catch rate have expressed concern that last season there appeared to be a dropoff in the number of larger rockfish caught during the fall season.

According to DNR, that dropoff was to be expected and was enhanced by weather conditions throughout the year that produced near-record freshwater levels in the bay and its tributaries.

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Biologists say there are larger numbers of rockfish in the bay now than in the 1950s, and the biomass has been growing at a rate of 18 percent per year, which is "unheard of."

But, fisheries managers say, that growth rate does not directly translate to an easily noticeable increase in the recreational catch. According to DNR, the angler who caught one legal fish per trip in 1995 would have caught 1.25 fish per trip in 1996.

What is right for the rockfish and for anglers is a matter that's open to debate.

But consider what Louis Rugolo had to say last week about the state of the rockfish, when he was asked whether there could be too many of the fish in Chesapeake Bay.

"We might be at that point now," said Rugolo, who has been instrumental in formulating the technical models DNR and ASMFC use to gauge bay and coastal numbers of rockfish. "We could be at the point where they begin to fill all the niches left by other apex predators [bluefish, trout and, to an extent, flounder] that are in decline."

So perhaps it is possible to have too many rockfish. But while we are still in the shadow of the moratorium, that's a hard sell.

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Pub Date: 1/12/97


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