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DNR ponders limited opening of flats; Catch-and-release season for rockfish considered; opponents criticize plan

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A popular fishing spot at the head of Chesapeake Bay, which has been off limits for nearly a decade to protect spawning rockfish, could be opened for a limited, catch-and-release season this spring.

The Department of Natural Resources proposes to allow anglers to again enjoy the Susquehanna Flats, a light-tackle fishing area that has been included among protected spawning areas for rockfish since Maryland lifted its five-year moratorium on the state fish.

If approved by the state, the season could run from as mid-March through the end of April, DNR secretary John R. Griffin said late last week.

But, he said, "all the pieces are not quite in place yet." The proposal has been taking shape for more than a year to take into account differing viewpoints of commercial fishermen, charter-boat captains, guides, recreational fishermen and fisheries managers.

Opponents include the Maryland Charter Boat Association. "We are adamantly opposed to opening the Susquehanna Flats," said Glenn James, president of the association. "You don't fish in the nursery."

Robert Bachman, director of DNR's Fisheries Service, said the flats, a resting area for rockfish (striped bass) that spawn in deeper waters nearby, present an opportunity for a fishery unlike most other areas of the East Coast.

A properly managed, limited fishery, Bachman said recently, would be an asset to the state, drawing anglers from around the region and perhaps from around the country to fish only with artificial lures or flies.

"I appreciate the potential economic impact of this fishery," he said. "But if there are adverse effects in any way, I would not want to allow the fishery to continue."

Saying the "imponderables are many," Bachman explained some of the unknown factors.

"People are concerned that lots of boats and not really good fishermen who don't know how to handle the fish properly will converge there and the effects will be disastrous," he said. "But there is evidence that if lots of boats do go up there [in shallow water], the fish will spread out, just disappear, and no one will catch them."

James, of the charter-boat association, criticized the proposal and the fisheries chief. "Bachman has taken it on himself to be the warrior on this, ignoring the opinions of every advisory committee and charging forward," he said.

The key element in the department's proposal is a catch-and-release study completed on the flats last spring. The study found that very few rockfish caught on artificial lures in late April and early May died as a result of being hooked. The proposed fishery would be earlier in the year, when mortality rates can be expected to be even lower, Griffin said.

Since the reopening of rockfish seasons at the start of this decade, much of the upper Chesapeake Bay has been closed to anglers in April and May. The closure was initiated to help rebuild a species that was severely threatened by overfishing in the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s.

Sources on the state's Sport Fish Advisory Commission, Striped Bass Ad Hoc Committee and the Tidewater Fisheries Commission told The Sun that each group had serious reservations about the proposal.

Sources said concerns focus on whether a catch-and-release season on the flats will disturb the spawn and whether the proposal will have the blessing of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. It approves commercial and recreational catches of rockfish in the Mid-Atlantic states and New England.

DNR's study found that few spawning-age rockfish are present on the flats during the spring, when mature rockfish that have returned from their coastal migration spawn in Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

Rudy Lukacovic, leader of the Fisheries Service indirect loss project and co-author of the study, said the flats have been included among the spawning areas since the 1960s, after a small percentage of rockfish eggs were documented there.

"More recent studies show that the major spawning occurs in areas to the south that are adjacent to the flats," Lukacovic said.

According to DNR, those areas are the main stem of the bay above Worton Point, the Elk River and the C&D; Canal.

Bill Windley, president of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association and former president of the MSSA's Northern Bay Chapter, has fished the Susquehanna River and flats for many years. He is a strong advocate for the catch-and-release season.

"I have felt from experience that no harm was being done to the fish by catch-and-release in the cold-water periods," Windley said. "But I was not satisfied with the science available before last year."

Under current regulations, only the main stem of the bay south of the Patapsco River can be fished for rock during April and May. Rivers and the upper bay are closed because they include spawning areas and spawning reaches.

Spawning areas surround the spawning reaches, where peak reproduction occurs.

DNR's study, Windley said, proves that a cold-water, catch-and-release season is feasible. And if catch-and-release works on the flats, he said, it could work as easily in other areas of the tidewater.

"I feel we are erring on the side of conservation by getting into it carefully and taking it one step at a time," he said. "I would never advocate fishing in the spawning reaches, but eventually I would like to see all rivers and areas opened to catch-and-release fishing throughout the bay."

Ben Florence, chief of the Fisheries Service restoration and enhancement project and co-author of the study, described the flats as "a resting place that aggregates young males where the water is a little warmer. These are males that dash into adjacent areas to spawn and then go back to the warmer flats to wait for more females.

"There are very few spawning-age fish on the flats, and those that are there are primarily males," Florence said. "There are enough large fish to make it a potential trophy fishery, but there are very few large, large females."

A downside indicated by the study's findings is the increased mortality among hooked fish as water temperatures rise. At the start of the study, when water temperatures were between 57.5 and 59 degrees, only 1.6 percent of the test fish died. By the end of the study, when water temperatures were 64 to 71 degrees, 15.9 percent of the test fish died.

"The idea of the study was to see what would be the harvest rate and what would be the result of catching and handling the fish," said Florence. "And while mortality was higher after the water warmed, most of what big spawning females there are long gone by then."

Rockfish begin to spawn when water temperatures reach 54 degrees, Florence said, and the spawn peaks when temperatures are 62 to 63 degrees.

"In terms of [catch and release], mortality would appear to be low," said Lukacovic.

Bachman said the number of spawning females on the flats is so small, "it pales in comparison to those that spawn in other areas. And this [proposed fishery] can't conceivably have any impact on the young of the year index or the spawning population."

James and the membership of the charter-boat association are concerned that opening the flats will not only harm the fish and alienate the ASMFC but also pave the way for freshwater guides to lobby for opening other spawning grounds to limited, catch-and-release fisheries.

"Already there are groups on the Eastern Shore who want to open the Choptank," said James. "The Susquehanna Flats are still a spawning reach, and you can't open the door to this. The whole thing stinks to high heaven."

Windley said he expects the proposed season to be approved.

"There seems to be a new atmosphere of cooperation among the stakeholders and a new relationship with [DNR]," said Windley. "Though it might take some time, we can work things out."

In order for the flats to be opened to fishing, Griffin said, the state's Administrative Executive Legislative Review Committee would have to approve it as part of emergency regulations that will apply to all rockfish seasons this year.

"The only way to know for sure what the impacts [of this season would be] is to have a limited catch-and-release area and a limited season and to monitor it closely," Griffin said.

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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