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An Angler's Journal: Between a Rockfish and a Hard Place

March 6, 2007

By King Montgomery 

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, comprised of members from each of the 15 states with Atlantic coastlines, recently chopped Maryland’s quota of rockfish, which sport anglers may keep in the Spring 2007 trophy season. 

Maryland's Department of Natural Resources and sport anglers are not happy about that and are working to correct what they perceive to be an unfair ruling, even though rod-and-reel enthusiasts have significantly exceeded the sport-fishing quota of the past several years. 

Photo courtesy of King Montgomery

When it comes to rockfish, also known as striped bass, Maryland is blessed and cursed; almost all the Atlantic’s stripers are born in Maryland and Virginia, the ones available for anglers to catch are generally smaller fish, except during the spring spawn when mature and larger fish come into range and provide trophy targets. Thus, Maryland always has small fish and rarely has big fish. Many folks think this is unfair and the ASMFC should raise the quota of keepers to compensate.

Most of the Atlantic Ocean’s rockfish are born in the tidal tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay and hang out in the bay reaches for several years before heading out to sea, where they split north and south to visit other states.

While in those waters they feed heavily, provide sport to anglers and fill commercial fishermen’s nets. In early spring, they return to the Chesapeake Bay and adjacent rivers to spawn and the cycle continues.

Since striped bass don’t care about state boundaries, politics or bag limits, the ASMFC cares for them. Thus, the fish "belong" to no one and to everyone, and that is at least part of the problem. 

The ASMFC regulations are supposedly based on the best science available. In reality, many -- perhaps most -- decisions are based on politics heavily wrapped in economics. Commercial fishing interests are represented much more than are sport fishermen on the council. So, if sport fishermen have their quotas lowered, more is available to commercial fishermen. If one is happy, the other usually isn’t and the cycle seems to perpetuate itself, with DNR square in the middle.

The science of the issue becomes mired in what’s yours and what’s mine and who makes or spends the most money on/in the resource, who has the right to the fish and so on. Commercial fishermen sell their catch to the public, and that’s a good thing. We all like to eat fish and are eating more since we found out how good it is for us. Sport anglers feel left out in this regulation process even though their economic impact on the states is more than that of the commercial interests.

Maryland DNR is working with stakeholders to determine what can be done to fix the situation. DNR contends a cap on spring rockfish harvest by anglers is no longer necessary and that current regulations, including season, size and bag limit, can result in a spring harvest within a range that assures sustainability of the rockfish population.

The latest DNR proposal going to the ASMFC calls for an April 21 start to the trophy season with a daily bag limit of one fish from 28 to 37 inches. Fish from 37 to 42 inches are off limits, but fishers may keep one trophy over 42 inches per day. And ASMFC, of course, will get the final say on what happens to the trophy and other striped bass seasons.

I don’t think striped bass taste all that good anyway. There are much better and more abundant fish to catch and eat. Or you can go to your local supermarket for fresh fish, some of it wild.

Sure, folks say rockfish stuffed with crab is great, but you could stuff cardboard with crab and it probably wouldn’t be too bad. And why keep a fish over 42 inches to eat? Smaller ones taste much better and there are billions of them in the bay. Let the big girls spawn and make more fish to catch down the road.

If you want to hang a 42-plus inch fish over the fireplace, take measurements and a photo and have a fiberglass reproduction made; let the fish go. Let commercial fishermen catch their limits, but ensure those quotas guarantee sustainable stocks -- and let sport anglers catch and release all the rocks they desire. I don’t like fishing over spawning fish anyway. That seems to take some of the “sport” out of “sport fishing.”

Issue 2.10: March 8, 2007