Rockfish quotas stir controversy

Sharing is often considered a good thing. But ask fishermen to share their catch, especially of Maryland's state fish, and things can get testy — with seafood consumers on the hook for how it plays out.

Maryland is changing the way striped bass are caught for sale, ending decades of regulating the popular Chesapeake Bay fish by limiting the times when it can be harvested. Starting Jan. 1, commercial fishermen will have individual quotas of striped bass they can catch almost any time, not just in the relative handful of days permitted this year.

State officials say the change to catch shares, as the quotas are known, should help fishermen make a better living while improving oversight of harvests of the much-sought-after fish with distinctive black stripes — known popularly as rockfish.

Some of the state's watermen welcome the flexibility of being allowed to fish when it suits them, rather than compete in all kinds of weather in one- or two-day fishing "derbies."

But others complain that the quotas rob them of initiative by limiting the amount they can catch, in some cases well below what they've been landing lately. They warn that the cutback could drive them into oystering or other pursuits, making the tasty fish — a holiday staple for some — pricier and harder to come by in local restaurants and at seafood counters.

"Back in the old days — which wasn't really more than five or six years ago — we could fish five days a week and catch 1,200 pounds a day," said Don Marani, a commercial fisherman and proprietor of Don's Seafood in Fells Point. "Now we can catch in a year what we used to be able to catch in a day. … I mean, rockfish is a great fish, but you can buy red snapper cheaper."

At least one local chef, though, anticipates that the change will let his restaurant carry rockfish on the menu more frequently, and often at more reasonable prices.

"I think now it'll end up being more of a mainstay once it goes into effect, because I'll be able to get it a lot more regularly," said Chad Wells, executive chef at Alewife, a downtown restaurant. Wells predicted that prices, which have gyrated between $7 and $22 a pound, also should stabilize.

State fisheries officials say they're not trying to hurt watermen. "Whenever you have a major change like this … you have winners and losers," said Tom O'Connell, state fisheries director. "It sorts itself out."

Catch shares are catching on worldwide, covering 15 major fisheries in the United States. Advocates, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say shares help eliminate overfishing, produce more fish at lower costs to consumers and improve fishermen's safety and profits.

But individual quotas have drawn criticism from some commercial fishing organizations and even from some environmentalists, who argue that dividing up the catch can drive small fishermen out of business and harm traditional fishing communities.

This is Maryland's first major venture into catch shares, though they've been used in a few smaller fisheries.

The stakes are high with rockfish. They are Maryland's third-most-valuable seafood after blue crabs and oysters, with a dockside value of nearly $6 million.

Overfishing so depleted them in the 1980s, however, that the state imposed a five-year catch moratorium. With continuing concerns about their health and fishing pressure, they're tightly regulated.

In recent years, said Michael Luisi, director of estuarine and marine finfish, the total allowable catch has shrunk by 25 percent, reducing the season at the end of the year to a couple of days a week for a couple of weeks in November and December.

The final day for striped bass harvest this month was Dec. 18, when temperatures hovered around freezing and winds gusted to 25 miles per hour.

Frigid, even snowy weather often proves best for catching the fish, said Donald C. Pierce, 65, a veteran fisherman from Rock Hall. He and his two helpers were on the water from 2 a.m. until 9 p.m. on the final day, he said, but they netted nearly 1,000 pounds.

"This is not a 9-to-5 job," Pierce said, with no guarantee of catching the quota on any given day. "The fish hold the upper hand."

State officials say they were prompted to end the derby tradition after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates near-shore fishing, decreed that all striped bass caught for sale be individually tagged. State regulators concluded it would be an administrative nightmare to continue the on-again, off-again season for those who harvest the bulk of the state's striped bass, Luisi said.

So, with a total of 1.9 million pounds of rockfish allowed to be caught for sale next year, state officials have divided the commercial harvest up among 1,100 fishermen. A third of the catch went to about 100 fishermen who use staked "pound nets" to catch their prey, while the rest was split among 958 fishermen who go after rockfish with gill nets or hook-and-line gear.

The most active fishermen argued that the quotas should be based on past catch history, while those who hadn't fished much or at all argued that everyone should get an equal share.

"It was like a world war," Luisi said of the state's contentious meetings with fishermen.

State officials chose to give everyone at least some fish to catch. The smallest quota, for an unused permit, was 355 pounds, while the most active fisherman got roughly 14,000 pounds, Luisi said.

To give fish to those who hadn't caught many before, the state reduced the quotas for its most successful fishermen. Luisi said no one was cut more than 30 percent from what they had reported catching.

The state offered unhappy fishermen the chance to stick with the old system for one more year, though with an extremely limited share of the overall catch. About 100 opted for that, while nearly 840 signed up for individual quotas.

Seventeen fishermen got neither, either because they failed to declare a preference, or because their fishing rights were suspended. (Pierce is among the latter category, having been cited for multiple fishing violations this year. He acknowledges fishing on a dead man's permit, saying he did it to help the man's widow out of financial difficulties.)

Despite the state's attempt to address watermen's concerns, the new system shakes up a livelihood that's feeling increasingly squeezed by government regulations, shrinking populations of fish and rising costs for fuel and gear.

"It'll be the end to the traditional fishery and the smaller fishermen on the bay," predicted Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

Not everyone agrees. Virginia and Potomac River officials have doled out catch shares for striped bass for years, and fishermen who've worked under those systems say they like it, at least in concept.

"It'll be a little bit harder on the individual — he'll have to do a little marketing himself," acknowledged Lee Wilson of Crisfield, president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fisherman's Association, whose members mainly work in the lower bay.

But in the end, he said, "it gives you a lot more opportunity" because fishermen can to try to time their catch for when prices are higher, instead of having to catch them all at once and have to sell them cheaply because the market is glutted.

"You don't have to worry about openings and closings, you don't have to call an 800 number to find out if you can go to work," said Billy Rice, a Charles County waterman who's worked in Virginia and the Potomac.

But Wilson and Rice aren't completely happy with Maryland's new approach. They wanted everyone to have an equal share.

One relative newcomer, Stan Dabkowski, said he's been handcuffed with a catch share that's about a third of what he caught last year.

The 59-year-old former farmer and businessman from Manchester said he started fishing commercially last year. After paying roughly $7,000 for a striped bass permit, he caught about 1,000 pounds of fish his first year, he said. His quota for 2014 is 355 pounds, the minimum, because the permit he bought had no long-term catch history.

"They're just cutting the throats of those who want to get into the business," said Dabkowski. With the fishing license and permit fees costing $755 a year, he said, he'll only be able to clear about $300.

State officials say they didn't count last year's landings in determining quotas because they feared fishermen would inflate their reports once they knew future quotas would be based on catch history.

O'Connell called Dabkowski's situation unfortunate, but pointed out that the state is encouraging fishermen to lease catch quotas from others who aren't able or willing to use theirs. It means having to pay thousands more to someone to take a chance on catching more fish. Still, some have posted buy and sell notices on a web listing set up by the department, while others reportedly have made offers directly.

"The industry wanted more flexibility," O'Connell said, and state officials believe using catch shares is the best way to provide that and meet the state's needs to tighten control over the harvest. While there may be some difficulties with making the transition, he predicted that the fishery would wind up roughly the same as it was, with a few hundred people catching the bulk of the rockfish.

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