Maryland's new rockfish restrictions spark debate with season opening April 18
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.This happens about half the time it seems; a late spring and concern that the trophy season is going to slaughter the breeding females.
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."
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.That sounds about right. As the fish age, their growth in length slows, so a lot of fish pile up in that range. Given the intense fishing pressure, only a few make it much beyond 40 inches.
"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.
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?It's also true that the big stripers mostly leave the Bay after spring, and continue up and down the coast, where they are targeted wherever they arrive in the area from Maine to the Georgia.
"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.
I don't really have the answer. If I catch a real big one, though, in season, I'll probably keep it.
The second change, which likely will have more impact on me is a change in the size limit for the summer season from 18 to 20 inches. I catch a lot of fish between 18 and 20.