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Volume 15, Issue 13 ~ March 29 - April 4, 2007

Big Rockfish Will Be Scarce

Fish are there; but rules say you’ve got to put them back

It is the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it. The beginning of reform is not so much to equalize property as to train the noble sort of natures not to desire more — and to prevent the lower sort from getting more.

—Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics

Back in the early 1940s when I was sophomore in high school, the subject I hated most was ancient history, taught by Gordon Fairbrother, who later switched to journalism and who nearly 60 years ago I competed with to write the news.

At a gabfest over schooners of suds in a saloon after our paper went to bed, I vented my thoughts on his history course of a decade earlier: “Not once in that course did I learn anything that I can ever use,” I said. “Who cares about the Spartans, Antigonus, Demosthenes and Aristotle? That’s ancient history.”

To which he replied. “Why do you think I switched to being a news hound soon as I got out of the Army?”

For more than 60 years I’ve not once had the occasion to refer to those ancient philosophers; not until the other day when I was mulling over the subject of rockfish, which surely were inhabitants of Chesapeake Bay in Aristotle’s day some 2,300 years ago.

Bingo! The nature of desire is not to be satisfied, came to mind. It hit the spot, but for one word. Delete the not in not so much to equalize property, and you’ve got Aristotle as the first to assess today’s striped bass situation.

While double-checking Aristotle’s words, I came across another one-liner that puts the frosting on the rockfish cake:

We must as second best … take the least of the evils.

Aristotle, you were a couple thousand years ahead of your time. Paired, the two tell the story.

Catch as Catch Can

It is the nature of fishermen not to be satisfied; catch 50 fish and they ask fisheries scientists why they can’t add 50 more. Provide 50 more, and they ask why not another 50. And so on …

As for taking “the least of the evils,” well, we’ve just been through that in the process of coming up with regulations for the rockfish season to meet the scrutiny of Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. For the first time since the end of the rockfish moratorium, we are about to pay the penalty for two consecutive trophy seasons when sportsfishermen caught and kept many more stripers than were allowed under the Fisheries Commission’s quota.

The hammer came down, and hard. Where last year our trophy season quota was 60,000 stripers, this year it will be 30,000, which is the approximate number of fish we overcaught in ’06 — and not far from our excess in ’05.

That’s not a plain old carpenter’s hammer; it’s a sledgehammer wielded by Paul Bunyan. Needless to say, fishermen didn’t like that — though they had only themselves to blame.

Maybe that’s being a bit tough. The Fisheries Commission can take a bit of the blame, and to some extent so can Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Late last winter, we were informed of the overcatch in ’05 and warned not to repeat it. DNR came up with a plan that increased the minimum size for the trophy season by five inches, which ordinarily would have turned the trick. But last year was no ordinary year.

As luck would have it, in 2006 the opening of the season coincided with the peak of the striper migration into the Chesapeake, which of course meant more fishermen, more fish — and more fish caught. The more Izaak Waltons caught, the more they went back to catch more. It’s the nature of fishing; catch as catch can.

Predicting weather that motivates fish to head to the spawning grounds is out of science’s powers. DNR couldn’t anticipate it; neither could the Fisheries Commission, which had approved DNR’s ’06 rockfishing proposal.

Nor can numbers of fish caught and kept by the recreational fleet be tabulated quickly enough to allow for shutting a season down once a quota is reached. Charter boats keep logs and reports that are forwarded to the department weekly, but private fishermen are on their own. Population surveys provide answers, but by the time they’re out, the damage has been done.

Paying the Price

The damage had been done, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission exacted the penalty

Faced with 60,000 less fish, DNR turned to fisheries commissions and committees to ask how to pay the penalty. Should there be a shorter season, reduced size limits or a ban on more efficient gear?

After two sessions, the department was advised to accept the lesser of the evils. They suggested a slot limit that would allow the most keeping possible. Fish from 28 to 36 or 37 inches could be kept, and so could those over 42 or 43 inches. That didn’t pass Commission muster; finally it was agreed that only fish from 28 to 35 inches could be kept, plus those of 41 inches or better.

An inch doesn’t sound like much, but many, many fish will be saved by reducing the lower minimum size from 36 inches to 35. By far, most fish caught this year will be in the mid 30-inch class.

Yet once those bigger fish are caught, releasing them doesn’t guarantee they’ll be around next season.

The bigger the fish, the more stressed they are in the fight. What’s more, fish are vulnerable after the rigors of spawning. On top of that, many fishermen don’t know how to release big fish. For all those reasons, some won’t make it after being released.

Getting back to Aristotle: the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is usually efficient in managing fisheries. It is also political. States to the north complain that Marylanders catch and keep smaller fish in the Bay (our summer fall minimum size is 18 inches). We complain they catch and keep the bigger fish that should come back here to spawn.

They have the votes; we don’t. So we’re getting into the philosopher’s words: And to prevent the lower sort [us] from getting more.

Rockfish recovery is more than successful. There are more than enough fish for all under reasonable regulations. Enough said.

Trophy Rockfish Season

Dates: For trophies it’s April 21 to May 15.

Size limits: Fish from 28 to 35 inches and 41 inches or more. Those between 35 and 41 inches must be promptly released.

Limit: One fish.

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