Burton on the Bay:
Over Rockfish, Put Away the Rebel Flag, Boys

Let's raise the Confederate flag and go up there and do our own thing. We've made enough sacrifices.

-Don Pierce, Rock Hall waterman


No, this was no rallying call re-hashing the Civil War. Nor was it in reference to controversies of late regarding if, when and where the banner of the Confederacy should be flown.

The quote might not be word for word - it came from the lips fast and unexpectedly - but it is the gist of what an impassioned Pierce said at last week's Maryland Department of Natural Resources public hearing on the coastwide problem of too many large rockfish being caught.

A significant number of rockfish of over 28 inches are being harvested or killed during catch and release. Maryland fishermen, sports and commercial, bear little if any of the blame.

The solution is not as simple as marching through states to the north, waving the flag and going our own way.

Fisheries management is perhaps more complicated than were states rights issues 150 years ago, and though from outward appearances it seems we're in another North vs. South conflict, we can't solve the issue by secession, much as some wishfully think that possible.

Like other states from North Carolina to Maine, we have to bite the bullet. Realistically, we're all in the same boat. We all have to pitch in. Or sink.

This is not to imply that the USS Rockfish is sinking. Coastal stocks remain in good shape. But there are some troubling indications that we're killing a disproportionate number of fish of eight years or older, which generally involves stripers of 28 inches or more.

This time around, we have historical knowledge of what happens where we don't address situations promptly. Instead of the cry, "Remember the Maine" that lead to the Spanish American War and Teddy's Rough Riders, it's now Remember the Moratorium.

Hopefully, we in Maryland learned our lesson in the mid to late 1980s when our favorite Bay species was fully protected by a five-year ban on rockfish catching following a decade of refusing to face up to obvious indications that the fishery was in deep doo-doo. Now, we have a more cohesive, responsive and effective Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and enlightened states both to lead the way - and to recommend punishment for dissenters.

Which brings up another aspect of the implications of Don Pierce's rally-'round-the-flag-and-to-hell-with-the-rest-of-'em urging, expressed so eloquently to the applause of some at last week's hearing in Annapolis. Do we want to chance ending up with no rockfishing in Maryland because we don't like sharing the bite of the bullet with states more at fault than we are?

We certainly would risk that by seceding from the Fisheries Commission, as Johnny Reb did when he fired on Fort Sumter. Right or wrong, it matters not. We have no choice but to remain a working partner with the coalition of coastal states on rockfish and other fishes. It's foolish to think otherwise, and there can be penalties so hard to swallow we could choke.


Follow the Yell to Hell

The likely scenario:

We hoist our Confederate banner and head north, tell the Fisheries Commission we're going to do our thing, then defiantly come back and do it as the remaining states accept cutbacks. Boy, have we shown those Yankees.

Ah, but those of the more northern states, who cherish their rockfishing as much as we do here in Chesapeake Bay, want to teach us a lesson about accord, a united front. Through the Fisheries Commission, they have us designated as not in conformity and appeal to National Marine Fisheries Service, the Czar of Fisheries Management.

Historically, the Fisheries Service has a dim view of renegades when it comes to fisheries management, so it takes swift and appropriate action. We win the Battle of Bull Run, but Gettysburg follows. The feds shut down our fishery for rockfish.

No ifs, ands or buts. The insurrection is over, we're labeled within the Fisheries Service as a state whose conservation views match those of Newt Gingrich and in the future, we are at the mercy of those other states for consideration of our requests for regulations unique to our unique striper fishery of the Chesapeake.

True, they have not always responded positively or fairly to our pleas in the past, but sometimes they have. Imagine what it would be like in the future when we try to skirt the consensus to accommodate our Bay fishermen, who currently are afforded some considerations because we target resident rockfish as distinguished from the coastal fishery. If you know the answer, it's not a question. Paybacks can be hell.


Despite Alibi Ikes

I don't contend that the more northern states are right, which they are not. And they do have some curious reasoning. Massachusetts, which takes 30 percent of the coastal big-fish harvest, pleads innocent to overharvest on the grounds that more than half its fishermen are out-of-staters. So why blame Massachusetts anglers?

New Jersey, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of the big-fish harvest along the coast, blames us for taking so many smaller fish that there are not enough larger ones for them to catch.

The truth is that in Maryland, we have yet to exceed our allotment of stripers in any year since the moratorium was lifted. We've always caught less, in both commercial and sports fishing.


What's Ahead

What's ahead looks like a plan that would allow us to come up with a 28 percent reduction in big fish catches as mandated by the Fisheries Commission to head off any possible catastrophe in the future. DNR is considering, among other things:

· Reducing the daily creel of two to one in the year-'round season oceanside, where the minimum size is 28 inches. This would reduce the overall Maryland catch by six percent.

· Cutting back the commercial ocean quota by 20 percent, which would trim another two percent.

· As for the Chesapeake, in all but the trophy season - when one fish a day of 32 inches is allowed - a 'slot limit' would add another 10 percent reduction. The slot would be one fish a day with an 18 inch minimum and no maximum, and a second fish of between 18 and 28 inches. At present it's two a day, no maximum.

· On the Bay commercially, watermen would be restricted to fish between 18 and 35 inches, which would save another 10 percent.

All this would add up to the 28 percent requested.

Something along these lines appears fair and appropriate. We wouldn't lose too much fishing opportunity while doing our share to solve a coastal dilemma. So put away the Confederate flag boys, and let's play ball with the other states.

Enough said

| Issue 40 |

Volume VII Number 40
October 7-13, 1999
New Bay Times

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