Maryland's popular and lucrative spring striped bass season will be one week shorter and a bit more complicated for Chesapeake Bay anglers this year to prevent the overfishing of the past two years that raised the ire of regulators.
The Department of Natural Resources is expected to receive permission from state lawmakers and the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission for a season that substitutes a "slot" of 28 inches to 35 inches for a minimum-size restriction. The season will begin later, on April 21, which is expected to save 18,000 fish.
State fisheries chief Howard King also is expected to get approval for a plan to allow anglers to keep one "super-sized" fish larger than 42 inches.
The revised regulations are to keep Maryland from violating, for a third consecutive season, the spring allocation set by the ASMFC, the regulatory board that consists of representatives from eastern seaboard states.
The commission has the authority to alter state regulations or impose sanctions that would, in effect, cancel the month-long season that is worth as much as $7 million to the state economy and represents almost half the income of Maryland's charter fleet.
"It's about the best deal we could hope to get under the circumstances," said Capt. Ed O'Brien, vice president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association.
But charter boat Capt. Glenn James, who fishes out of Chesapeake Beach, predicted that occasional anglers and visitors will take their business elsewhere.
"Virginia is hurting us terribly. They've taken a lot of tourist dollars, and this is only going to make it worse," he said.
The more complicated slot formula is expected to trigger an increase in violations by the state's 260,000 tidal water anglers, many of whom will refer to a DNR guide book printed late last year.
"People are so reliant on the guides. They are unaware of any changes that come after publication. They just go fishing," said Martin Gary, a DNR fisheries biologist. "The charter boat captains are dialed in. It's the rest of the anglers we have to be concerned about, the ones who don't belong to fishing clubs and don't get newsletters."
Sgt. Ken Turner, a spokesman for Natural Resources Police, said patrol officers are likely to cut anglers some slack early on.
"With any new regulation, we're not going to be out there kicking butt and taking names," he said. "You've got to get the word out. You've got to give people a chance to get up to speed."
Gary said DNR staff will work with tackle shops, marinas and other contact points to alert anglers to the new regulations.
Maryland is treated differently from other coastal states because the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are the spawning grounds and nursery for more than 70 percent of the East Coast's striped bass population. Fish migrating up the coast swim into the bay to spawn before continuing north.
Bay anglers in the past two seasons exceeded by more than 50 percent the annual quota, despite the state's effort to curtail the harvest by imposing tougher regulations that included raising the minimum size from 28 inches to 33 inches and delaying by two weeks the start of the tournament season.
Two weeks ago, the ASMFC rejected Maryland's proposal to remove the hard cap and give state fisheries managers the independence to regulate catches the way other eastern seaboard states do. Instead, it agreed to set a target number of 30,000 migrant fish - less than half of what anglers caught the past two springs - and let King and his staff determine the best way to meet it.
King said the plan will be reviewed by the ASMFC technical staff "to make sure our mathematics and reasoning are correct." Then, he will ask the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review to approve it. State lawmakers rarely refuse a DNR request.