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Reading between stripes on bass cap

The Baltimore Sun

In less than two weeks, the Chesapeake Bay will be filled with boats filled with anglers, as the spring striped bass season gets under way.

This one will be a tad different and not without some angst. After overfishing in three of the past four years and grossly exceeding the quota set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission the past two seasons, Maryland had to find a way to stay under a 30,000-fish cap.

There was a back and forth between the Department of Natural Resources and ASMFC. Finally, a regulation was accepted.

We ask Fisheries Service chief Howard King to answer questions and respond to criticism of the process:

What did the ASMFC technical committee like about that particular slot and "super fish" size?

The committee advised that a slot was more risk-averse than simply a large minimum-size fish. We then had to find a slot that would stay under the 30,000-fish target and still provide some opportunity for landing a super-size fish. It was a complicated mathematics exercise that produced the specific slot and large fish size.

Some anglers are using the word "punish" to describe the spring regulations. Is that a fair assessment?

I don't think so. Although the spring quota of past years was not biologically based, it was still binding under the interstate striped bass management plan. Our spring harvest has exceeded our quota three years out of the last four, and the interstate plan requires repayment, which all of the interstate species plans require of states that exceed quotas.

Doesn't adopting a "slot" introduce more chances for anglers to run afoul of the regulations?

I only think it will be different, not chancier. Remember, in the season that begins May 16 we have two fish at 18-inch minimum size, but only one can be over 28 inches. That's a slot for the one fish, 18 inches to 28 inches.

Is the striped bass survey to be conducted this year the answer as to the status of the population or just one of the answers? In other words, what will the survey prove and which arguments will it settle?

The non-quota management approach proposal for our spring 2008 season will be somewhat independent of the outcome of the striped bass population assessment. The biomass estimates will relate the effect of past fishing rates on the coastal migratory population and prompt discussion on whether changes are necessary or not. Maryland has been a minor participant in the harvest of large migrant striped bass and would not be affected by potential change as much as other states along the coast.

What are the chances that under these regulations, Maryland will be able to stay under its cap?

Very good. We would only exceed it by any appreciable amount if the number of striped bass available in the Maryland bay in the slot size and over 41 inches increased by more than 15 percent, the weather was absolutely perfect, the number of private anglers increased dramatically, and anglers and charter boats took more trips per day. The Fisheries Service is conducting its own intercept creel census and telephone survey of licensed anglers from April 21 through June 8 of private angler boats to better assess the estimates derived from the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey. We are also asking purchasers of bay licenses to state at the time of purchase if they intend to fish for striped bass.

Given all the back and forth, what happens if Maryland, having proposed in good faith a set of spring regulations, exceeds the cap again?

I think integrity and good faith are the keys. We have a good working relationship with other states along the coast, in spite of the discontent over the spring striped bass season and the feeling of many Maryland anglers that we are disadvantaged. Other states have suffered similar recreational disadvantages with flounder, scup and black sea bass particularly, so they know the feeling and the situation in Maryland. The role of ASMFC is to manage healthy, self-sustaining, shared fish resources and help solve regional and state specific fisheries management problems.

How important is it for anglers to take part in DNR's online and mail-in striped bass survey this spring?

Our estimates of the recreational harvest this spring will not be defensible without the cooperation of private anglers in the survey and accurate and timely reporting by charter boats.

What are Maryland's chances of getting off the quota and being treated like the other Eastern Seaboard states?

If we manage our 30,000-fish target responsibly in 2007, the chances of moving to a non-quota management of the spring fishery in 2008 should be excellent.

The benefit of getting off the quota means the Maryland spring cap is history. But isn't it true that ASMFC will insist on ending the 18-inch minimum anglers are allowed post-spring and replace it with a 28-inch minimum?

No. That would essentially eliminate the Maryland striped bass fishery. The bay is the producer and growing waters for juvenile and pre-adult striped bass. Those are the predominant size classes of striped bass that we have in the bay.

Already, some anglers are chafing under the recommendation that "once a striped bass has been taken into possession, the department strongly encourages that angler to cease fishing for striped bass for that day." Those folks believe that given the cost of a boat, the price of gas and the sacrifice of taking a day off from work to go fishing, quitting after catching one fish is hardly worth the effort. How do you respond?

I believe ethical anglers can responsibly catch and release striped bass, particularly in cooler waters, and not create significant bycatch mortality. I also believe that ethical anglers would not illegally "cull" or replace an already landed dead striped bass for a fresh larger one if confronted with that situation. The recommendation is intended to be the most risk-averse management for the fish this spring.

There's a small group of fishermen who believe that the best way to reduce mortality is to prohibit trolling during the spring season. Is there anything to that theory?

We don't have study data to estimate bycatch mortality due to trolling methods. Some mortality is likely but is probably not as high as the general 8 percent bycatch mortality assigned by ASMFC to recreational fishing for striped bass.

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