Maryland's new rockfish restrictions spark debate with season opening April 18

Rockfish mother with enlarged belly likely full of roe. Identity of fisherman unknown
Rockfish mother with enlarged belly likely full of roe. Identity of fisherman unknown(Photo courtesy of Skip Zinck)

Mother Nature put the brakes on mother rockfish this spring.

The harsh winter has slowed the annual migration of striped bass up the East Coast, delaying their arrival in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to spawn. So when rockfish season opens April 18, anglers will likely be catching a number of the fat, roe-filled females on their way up the bay to lay eggs in the Susquehanna, Choptank and other rivers, rather than on the way down after shedding their loads.


That worries sportsmen such as Skip Zinck, a recreational fisherman from Severn who's concerned for the future of Maryland's official state fish. If Zinck had his way, anglers this year would be required to release all of their striped bass — especially the swollen females — until mid-May, to ensure spawning success.

"Taking the breeders a week before they each release up to 3 million eggs is so bad," Zinck said. "Is it legal? Yes. Is it morally right? No. Killing these big, roe-laden fish is short-sighted — literally killing the goose that lays the golden egg."


But help is on the way. Coincidentally, in March — after months of debate — Maryland imposed restrictions on striped bass fishing that could spare many of those spawning females. This year, between April 18 and May 15, anglers are allowed to keep one rockfish per day if it measures (a) between 28 and 36 inches in length or (b) over 40 inches. That differs from 2014, when any fish over 28 inches was fair game.

The new regulations are part of a three-year effort by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to cut the harvest of rockfish by 25 percent, up and down the East Coast, because of declining numbers.

"We found that of the striped bass caught in the past three or four years in Maryland [during spring], 25 percent were between 36 and 40 inches. Therefore, if we impose catch-and-release restrictions on those fish, we'll achieve our reductions," said Mike Luisi, assistant director of fisheries service for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Better yet, Luisi said, the majority of fish within that 36-to-40 inch slot are spawning females.

"There are conservation groups which would have preferred we protect more fish," he said. "But they can live with the fact that few fish over 40 inches will be caught this year. There aren't that many of them; it's like trying to find the one green jelly bean in a barrel of jelly beans."

And giving anglers the chance to nab that green bean should keep Maryland's charter boat industry afloat. What weekend angler doesn't want to reel in, show off and fillet a trophy fish?

"The vast majority of us count on these four weeks of fishing to pay our bills for the year, from slip fees and insurance to licenses and equipment," said Greg Chute, a charter boat captain who lives in Annapolis. "Without this one month, most boats couldn't make it.

"I know there's a big push for catch-and-release, but these rockfish have a huge table-fare market. And it's hard to tell our clients not to keep their fish but to go to the supermarket and buy one that someone else caught. It's about freedom of choice."

Chute doesn't dispute the declining numbers of striped bass, but he says Maryland fishermen deserve a fair share of the harvest.

"I do think we're in need of a correction and, with these regulations, the state is doing that," he said. "But Maryland's take during the [spring] trophy season makes up less than 5 percent of the annual harvest of spawning stock all along the Atlantic. On the whole, our state's impact during these few weeks is minimal, like a pimple on an elephant. The rest of the East Coast targets these fish all summer.

"Maryland fishermen deserve the same opportunity as those in other states to catch 'the fish of a lifetime.' "

Longtime rec anglers such as Marty Carter of Linthicum applaud the state's new restrictions.


"With the cold spring, a lot of rock that haven't spawned will be caught — but at least those between 36 and 40 inches won't take it on the chin," said Carter, who fishes anywhere from the Bay Bridge to Point Lookout in St. Mary's County. "If we had the same regulations as last year, we'd be in for a bloodbath.

"Don't get me wrong, I think it's a good idea to release those fish over 40 inches — the larger fish aren't as good to eat anyway — but I'm not in favor of making it a mandatory thing. People like to show off that big fish around the neighborhood. And you're not going to substantially harm the stock by taking that 40-incher because we're saving her 39-inch sister and putting her back to spawn."

Others, such as Mark Lagana of Sykesville, would rather Maryland had opted for other restrictions this year, such as delaying the start of fishing season until May 1.

"I've specifically suggested to DNR that we make the date flexible, rather than have it carved in stone as the third Saturday in April," Lagana said. "My records over 15 years show that about 90 percent of spawnings are done by May 1. That being said, such a late start would probably leave only seven to 10 days for those aboard charter boats to keep their fish — and that's not a popular opinion."

No one knows that more than Zinck, the conservation-minded angler who has offered his thoughts via social media.

"I've asked people online, 'Do you really need to kill that big fish?' and they've invited me to meet them in the parking lot. People want to fistfight over this," Zinck said.

"To me, the ideal solution is to release everything you catch until mid-May, and any fish over 40 inches all spring. Why not just take a picture and let it go? The average fisherman will catch a big rock, eat one or two meals and forget about it until Thanksgiving when he takes it from the freezer to make room for the turkey. The fish is wasted.

"I've seen people catch them for the sheer joy, then bring them back to the marina and say, 'What am I going to do with this fish? How do I clean it? Does anyone want it?' Fish are given away at the ramps."

Maryland must do more to save the fish that breathes its first in this state, he said.

"I understand that charter boats are fighting the clock. I realize the new restrictions are a step in the right direction. And I know it's still good fishing here, but it's nowhere near what it used to be," Zinck said. "Ten years ago, I'd catch an average of 30 to 40 rock a day during trophy season; now, on a good day, I'll get six to 10, and sometimes only two or three.

"We're starting to mirror what happened in the 1980s when the industry crashed and caused a moratorium (on striped bass.) But then, we had bluefish and sea trout and crabs to pick up the slack. Now, rock is about the only thing out there. People aren't going to charter a boat to go catch some little croaker.

"Now, all of our eggs are in one basket, literally – and we're pulling away from it real quick."



Recommended on Baltimore Sun