Fisheries regulators who oversee Maryland's annual striped bass quota should delay any punishment until the conclusion of a state and federal undercover sting operation that broke up a major commercial black market, state natural resources officials said.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission begins its winter meeting today in Alexandria, Va., and the first item on the agenda is a discussion of the status of striped bass along the Eastern Seaboard. Traditionally, commission members have been quick to punish Maryland for infractions, most recently slashing the recreational allocation to compensate for overfishing.
"I think the commission is going to want to have a clear understanding, as do we, of exactly how many fish are involved over what period of time," said Eric Schwaab, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "I think we'll be initiating that conversation with board members on Monday, but I think it will just be the beginning."
The sting operation, announced Friday by federal officials, has resulted in criminal complaints being filed against five watermen, two fish dealers and an upscale Georgetown fish market for allegedly taking millions of dollars worth of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River over the past five years. Two other watermen were indicted last fall by a federal grand jury, and others are expected to be charged.
The illegal operation highlighted serious flaws in the state's monitoring and enforcement program, which is likely to anger ASMFC members.
"We've done things to correct what we know were problems," said John R. Griffin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, noting that tougher rules are scheduled to take effect April 6.
Adding to the tension is growing sentiment that striped bass, also known as rockfish, should be off-limits to commercial fishing. In October 2007, with the Chesapeake Bay as a backdrop, President George W. Bush signed an executive order giving the fish protection in federal waters and urged states to follow that lead.
A bill before the Massachusetts legislature would make it the sixth of the 15 member states of ASMFC to prohibit commercial striped bass fishing.
Drastic cuts in Maryland's commercial allocation could drive fish prices up and drive some of the 1,231 licensed watermen out of business.
But Griffin said recreational anglers should not be made to suffer if ASMFC acts.
"If it is principally or solely commercial watermen and others, I hope that whatever payback we have to make is limited to that sector of our fishery," he said.