As the spring striped bass season opens today, Maryland anglers are walking a tightrope stretched fishing-line thin between short-term success and long-term failure.
In three of the past four years, the state has exceeded its spring allotment of striped bass - also known as rockfish. The 50 percent overages the past two years incurred the wrath of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission regional fishing regulators, who threatened to clamp down on Chesapeake Bay anglers.
In a last-ditch effort to prove it can police itself, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has instituted rules to cap the catch at 30,000 fish, about half the total catch in each of the past two years.
Anglers may keep one fish per person per day between 28 inches and 35 inches long or one fish 41 inches or greater. Striped bass that fall into a "slot" between 35 inches and 41 inches must be released unharmed.
"I think we've crafted a credible season," said Howard King, fisheries director at DNR. "Maryland will be watched. If we behave ourselves this spring, we'll be able to justify our season."
Last year, Maryland sold close to 260,000 tidal fishing licenses; thousands of other anglers choose to fish from a charter boat, where a license is not needed, or buy a $40 decal that covers every angler aboard a private boat. All told, according to the DNR, the monthlong season is worth $7 million to the state economy in the sale of tackle, fuel and salaries.
When it comes to striped bass regulations, Maryland is treated differently from other states. The upper 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. That stopover coincides with Maryland's spring season, when the majority of bay anglers go out and charter boat captains do about half their business.
Maryland's season is starting a week later than usual, which will save an estimated 3,000 fish. And like last year, King has delayed the start of the tournament season by two weeks.
But adjustments haven't worked so far. Despite raising the minimum size from 28 inches to 33 inches, Maryland still exceeded its quota by 26,283 fish.
Any number of factors can conspire to push the state over the limit: good weather, more anglers, more charter trips, and if the fish stay longer in the bay.
To get a better handle on this year's catch, DNR is reaching out to anglers three ways:
Dockside interviews at public boat ramps and at marinas.
Random telephone surveys to Bay Sport License holders.
Using the online Striped Bass Volunteer Angler Survey (www.dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries).
King says that based on anecdotal evidence, Maryland will know by late spring how successful the new regulations are. The hard numbers will be available in August.