When President Bush signed an executive order in St. Michaels recently making it federal policy to conserve striped bass for the recreational, economic and environmental benefit of present and future generations, his action recognized the importance of recreational fishing to conservation and called for a change in how policymakers value our fisheries. Maryland's elected officials and professionals at the Department of Natural Resources would be wise to consider the benefits of prohibiting the sale of striped bass by designating the state fish a gamefish.
Instead, Maryland officials responded to the executive order by claiming to have effective management for striped bass. This knee-jerk reaction to protect the commercial fishing industry at all costs has a sad legacy in the mismanagement of striped bass, yellow perch, shad, sturgeon, crabs and oysters. It's time to accept that managing recreationally important finfish as a commodity no longer serves the public interest and comes at great social, environmental and economic expense.
Ten years ago, anglers of average skill commonly caught fish 25 inches or longer. Now they struggle to find the legal limit of two fish over 18 inches. This has arguably contributed to the precipitous decline in the sale of Chesapeake Bay fishing licenses and the reported troubles facing Maryland's charter boat industry. Between 2001 and 2006, the sale of Bay Sport fishing licenses declined by 39 percent - a loss of more than 86,000 anglers.
Consider the economic costs. According to a recent study by Southwick Associates, specialists in fish and wildlife economics, striped bass angling in Maryland is worth more than $640 million annually to the state's economy and supports more than 7,000 jobs. The decline in saltwater angling over the past six years has had immense costs to Maryland in jobs; income taxes; boat, tackle, bait and fuel sales; and sales taxes. Supporting businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, also have been affected.
The DNR's Fisheries Service has paid dearly too. The decline in license sales costs DNR almost $700,000 annually compared with 2001. Suffering from budget cuts that have left it underfunded and understaffed, and with no help in sight from a cash-strapped state, one would think DNR might reconsider its claim that its management of the most popular sport fish in Maryland is effective.
Other reactions to the president's initiative - that restoring water quality and habitat are more important, or that gamefish status for striped bass only changes who gets to catch them - demonstrate a lack of appreciation for America's sportsmen and women and their history as stewards of the environment. As overfishing depletes our oceans and bays, fewer recreational anglers experience our natural resources firsthand. The loss of saltwater anglers in Maryland means fewer citizens have a reason to care about dissolved oxygen, diseased fish, bay grasses, menhaden depletion, the failure of oyster restoration and other environmental factors that damage striped bass populations.
Long after the sale of wild game, waterfowl and freshwater fish such as trout and largemouth bass was outlawed, sportsmen have remained at the forefront of environmental protection. They have done so by supporting restrictions on their own catch, practicing and promoting catch-and-release fishing, and supporting wetlands, forest and waterway protection and restoration.
The nation's demand for striped bass no longer can be satisfied by the natural environment. More than 60 percent of consumers get their striped bass from aquaculture. In light of the availability of an alternative source of striped bass for the marketplace that is more reliable and consistent, the continued commercial catch of striped bass comes with unacceptable social, environmental and economic costs.
Commercial exploitation of waterfowl, wild game and freshwater fish was banned decades ago in recognition that the industrialized catch of wildlife has never proved sustainable. Six Atlantic Coast states and the District of Columbia have recognized that the same holds true for the continued commercial catch of striped bass by declaring the most valuable sport fish in America a gamefish.
Our organization applauds the president for his attention to history and vision, and hopes Maryland officials will display the same courage when it comes to protecting rockfish.
Robert Glenn is executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, a conservation organization for sport fishermen. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.