Steps must be taken to protect striped bass

It shouldn't come as a surprise, I suppose, that the striped bass season began Saturday with uneasy folks focused on the intensity and direction of the wind.

Concerns about our own health and well-being on the water aren't much different than the worries a lot of people have about the health and well-being of the fish themselves.

Two decades removed from the end of the moratorium that helped bring striped bass back from the brink of extinction, there's a growing feeling that the winds have shifted and we're seeing the makings of another crash.

Everyone has their own pet warning sign of the impending gale: Dirty water, dead zones, sickness, diminishing food supply, greedy fishermen — commercial and recreational. Take your pick.

From New England we hear that recreational anglers aren't seeing fish — big or small — in their usual haunts. Around the Chesapeake Bay, the talk is of skinny fish and fish with sores.

Just in the past three years, we've learned about a poaching ring that stole millions of dollars of striped bass — many during spawning season — from the Potomac River. Off the coast of North Carolina, trawlers stayed within their quota by tossing dead stripers overboard when bigger fish came along. Charter boats, including ones from Maryland, illegally work the federal waters off Virginia in winter to give their customers a crack at the big female fish that are waiting for their spring spawning run up the Chesapeake. And in February, tons of stripers were caught illegally in submerged nets around Eastern Bay.

The numbers aren't encouraging. There's been a 66 percent drop in estimated recreational catch from 2006 to 2009, a 25 percent decline in estimated abundance from 2004 to 2008, and the Young of the Year population survey in the Chesapeake has been below average for the last three years.

A new coastal stock assessment will be released in November, so all these ill winds could be a passing cold front, just like yesterday's weather. But the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission isn't taking any chances.

At its March meeting, the commissioners voted to crank up the procedural machinery on an addendum to its striped bass management plan that could take effect in time for the next fishing season. It includes a bunch of options to reduce fishing mortality by as much as 40 percent.

Those options call for cutbacks in recreational creel limits, reductions in the coastal commercial allocation, revisions to commercial and recreational minimum size outside Chesapeake Bay, or reductions by at least 50 percent on fishing in known spawning areas such as the Chesapeake during the spawning season.

Closer to home, one recreational group is calling for a reallocation of Maryland's annual quota from the current split — 57.5 percent recreational, 42.5 percent to commercial — to something more favorable to its members.

But, as DNR Secretary John Griffin likes to point out, reallocation is not synonymous with conservation. The leadership of the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Foundation says the reallocation proposal is a nonstarter. And the charter boat captains — who are part of the recreational allocation — aren't biting, either.

The Sport Fish and Tidal Fish advisory commissions will meet in May to discuss the policy that drives allocation management. If the two bodies agree that the foundation needs some new mortar, DNR will begin a revision. Only after that is completed would the actual striped bass allocation be up for discussion.

Dry as toast, I know, but that's the way fisheries are managed. And in the end I'm betting not much will change.

But fair winds are expected to blow on Tuesday, when the O'Malley administration is set to announce the results of the blue crab winter dredge survey. If MOM himself leads the news conference, you can bet the numbers will be good.

And, in fact, Vince O'Shea, executive director of ASMFC, hints as much in a glowing commentary in the commission's April bulletin.

Praising efforts by Maryland and Virginia to bring Chesapeake crabs back from the brink of collapse, O'Shea notes the 2011 survey is due soon and, "scientists and managers are expecting it to show increasing numbers."

By closing Virginia's winter harvest and slashing both states female crab harvest in 2008, the states were able to boost the population 300 percent in just two years.

In his conclusion about blue crab management, O'Shea could just as easily be talking about the future of striped bass: "Limiting fishing mortality is the primary tool fisheries managers have to do their job. Yet, they are frequently told to avoid action because factors beyond their control could be affecting stock abundance. Back in 2008 Governors [Tim] Kaine and [Martin] O'Malley listened to scientific advice and used the one tool at their disposal to restore blue crabs — harvest controls. Today, in light of their results, their courage to act should be a lesson for us all."


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