Panel has hook in rockfish season

The spring day when Marylanders can start fishing for striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay is anticipated the way kids wait for Christmas and baseball fans yearn to hear "play ball."

But on Monday, the fate of this year's striped bass season will be determined by a regulatory board.


The 15-member Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission could decide to penalize Maryland for catching too many striped bass in each of the past two years by restricting the state's allocation to a level so low that it, in effect, cancels this season.

Maryland officials hope that, instead, the commission allows the state's fisheries managers to operate under rules similar to those in other Eastern Seaboard states.


Sanctions against Maryland would hurt small tackle shops, marinas and the charter boat fleet, which derives almost half of its annual income from the 30-day spring rockfish season.

"That would be the end of a lot of little people. It would be a killer," said Capt. Ed O'Brien, vice president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association, who fishes out of Chesapeake Beach.

It also would affect the Fisheries Service of the Department of Natural Resources, which derives a large chunk of its budget from the sale of tidal fishing licenses - close to 260,000 last year.

State fisheries chief Howard King said that - after being overfished for decades - the East Coast's striped bass population is now robust and the arbitrary cap placed on Maryland's spring season after a five-year fishing moratorium is outdated.

"The spring trophy season is culturally and economically important," King said. "We sacrificed greatly to restore the stock. ... We're not proposing to take the brakes off regulations. It is important to manage that fishery."

King will ask the commission for two things: eliminate the hard cap on Maryland's spring season and allow state fisheries managers to regulate the catch and waive the overages of the past two years to keep the recreational season viable.

In a rare show of unity, Maryland's three fishing advisory panels appointed by the governor are in unanimous agreement with King's plan.

But his proposal will be put to the test before a commission that, last year, came within one vote of rejecting the state's spring season.


"I think there's going to be some contentious people there," O'Brien said.

When it comes to the species nicknamed rockfish, Maryland is both blessed and cursed. The bay and its tributaries are the spawning ground and nursery for at least 70 percent of the East Coast's stock. The silver-sided fish with black stripes migrate here each spring on their way up the coast to produce another generation.

So while anglers here see the big fish the earliest each season, they also face the most scrutiny in protecting the spawners.

It wasn't always that way.

By 1985, the striped bass population was so depleted by overfishing that Maryland imposed a moratorium to allow the stock to rebuild, and Virginia followed.

After the ban was lifted, the fisheries commission set Maryland's quota at 3,000 fish and later raised it to 30,000 fish when the species recovered.


For the 2004 season, the commission agreed to adjust the cap annually, based on the estimated fish population.

Everything worked as planned the first year, but in 2005 anglers exceeded their spring quota by 25,040 fish. The commission voted to subtract the overage from Maryland's 2006 and 2007 allotments.

To avoid a repeat, last year Maryland raised the minimum size for catches by five inches and delayed all tournaments. The commission approved that plan 7-6, with two states - Maine and Massachusetts - not voting.

The two federal agencies on the commission voted against Maryland's plan, as did New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New Jersey and North Carolina.

Nevertheless, anglers went 26,283 fish over the quota in 2006.

Maryland's fish biologists say the problem wasn't greedy anglers, it was because there were more fish to catch. Spawning surveys indicate that 1993 and 1996 produced huge numbers of striped bass, fish that are now approaching trophy-size 40 inches in length.


They note that the state's spring harvest of migratory fish is less than 4 percent of the total coastal catch.

Further, biologists say, the survey used to count Maryland's harvest was designed to produce an annual picture, not a snapshot of the spring season. Last year, a federal panel of scientists called the Marine Recreational Fishery Statistics Survey "fatally flawed" and urged that it be overhauled.

"It's an estimate, not a census. It was never designed for the application we've been pigeonholed into," said King, Maryland's fisheries chief. "It's just as likely we were under the harvest as over the harvest."

He concedes that he faces a difficult challenge Monday.

"Some states and commissioners have long memories," he said. "I feel we have a fairly unique case and a valid argument. I think we will win the day."