Volume 12, Issue 13 ~ March 25-31, 2004

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Chesapeake Outdoors
by C.D. Dollar

Not Yet Time for Rockfishing in Federal Waters
While most of the Chesapeake angling community was rigging tackle, sharpening hooks and getting the boat in good working order, the region’s piscatorial polymaths testified before a House fisheries subcommittee on whether to reauthorize or rescind the ban prohibiting fishing for rockfish in federal waters.

The bill — submitted by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans — would extend the ban in federal waters through 2006. Gilchrest’s bill would make no other changes to the existing act, and he has indicated that he wouldn’t support any legislation until scientific evidence says otherwise. As of this week, the subcommittee took no action on the bill.

As any Chesapeake fisherman knows, the revival of rockfish ranks as our greatest success story in fishery conservation. They were brought back from the brink after Maryland made the hard choice to close the fishery in 1985. The feds and other coastal states followed.

Five years later, the moratorium was lifted. Rockfish populations have since increased tenfold from 1984, from approximately five million to 50 million in 2003. Some heavyweights from Maryland’s fishing community made the trek to D.C. to offer their perspectives, including Pete Jensen, Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ deputy secretary; Bill Windley, president of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen’s Association; and Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman’s Association.

Jensen, along with Chesapeake Bay Foundation fisheries scientist Bill Goldsborough and state Sen. Richard Colburn, represent Maryland on the Atlantic fisheries commission.

According to testimony from commission executive director John O’Shea, those millions of rockfish “represent hundreds of millions of dollars to commercial and recreational fishermen,” reason enough to lift the ban. He’s right about the high numbers of fish and their worth, but sheer numbers only tell part of the story concerning rockfish’s role in the Chesapeake and long-term efforts to protect the rockfish stocks.

The folks who support keeping the ban — myself among them — counter that issues such as availability of food and habitat are integral to any decision to increase catch limits via expanding fishing zones.

“It’s important to reauthorize the act and keep a focus on striped bass because they’re experiencing serious problems associated with limited forage, diminished habitat and poor water quality — the effects of which are amplified by the high numbers of rockfish,” said Goldsborough. “As the first fish species to recover in numbers, they are like a canary in the mine shaft for other fish, such as flounder and sea trout, which can be expected to experience the same habitat limitations when their numbers increase.”

All anglers should rejoice over the return of our state fish. Yet we mustn’t lose sight that more recent problems, including skinnier fish and the presence of the disease mycobacteriosis, perhaps masked by the speedy rebound, require vigilance.

Fish are Biting
The perch runs came and went without much fanfare, as fishing pressure and success was hampered by cold, windy conditions. It’s less than a month before the Trophy Rockfish Season starts April 17, and fishermen are already scouting. Reports from commercial fishermen in lower Bay say big fish are heading our way. The Flats’ catch-and-release season is still hit and miss, another casualty of the weather. As the water warms, the consistency should improve.

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Last updated March 25, 2004 @ 2:37am.