Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

[The Capital] By Chris Dollar - February 22, 2010 OUTDOORS Members of the federal fisheries board who voted to consider increasing the coastal commercial striped bass harvest had to know they'd just thrown a brick at a hornet's nest.

At its winter meeting the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Striped Bass Management Board approved an addendum that could give commercial fishers a larger quota, igniting an impassioned debate.

It's not surprising that commercial fishermen and sport anglers would squabble over allocation. Yet, despite the recent coastal stock assessment that found healthy numbers of stripers, this motion is contentious because it comes at a time when rockfish face serious challenges.

Unlike the crash of the early 1980s when overfishing was the obvious culprit, today's problems are more insidious. Chief among them is mycobacteriosis, a potentially fatal disease that causes Chesapeake stripers to lose body mass and mars them with nasty lesions. Myco was first diagnosed in the bay in 1997, and subsequent studies in Virginia and Maryland found the disease in more than two-thirds of the stripers sampled.

Another red flag, conservationists say, are worrisome dips in the spawning stock, the class of big cows that carry the population from decade to decade. New England anglers say in recent years they see far few big stripers. Tack on a law enforcement report that alleges 'significant and unreported' striper poaching in the no-take zone three miles off the coast. Anglers who fish off Virginia and North Carolina for winter rock know this isn't just idle dock talk. Taken together, it could spell big trouble for a fish whose recovery has been heralded as one of the greatest success stories in conservation history.

The ASMFC's striped bass technical committee, now chaired by Maryland DNR's fishery director Tom O'Connell, knows these troubling signs.

'We're concerned about natural mortality (primarily due to mycobacterium) and a decrease in spawning stock biomass,' acknowledged O'Connell said. And in a recent Boston Globe article Bill Goldsborough, part of Maryland's three-man ASMFC team (watermen Russell Dize is the third) and its lone dissenter on the coastal vote, said the warning signs are clear.

And that's what has conservation groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association and Recreational Fishing Alliance so miffed.

'This stock has problems mounting on all fronts, and managers seem content to wring everything they can from it before the party ends,' said Richen Brame, CCA's Atlantic fisheries director. He also noted that overall sport and commercial effort remains too high.

It may surprise some to learn that sport fishermen catch the lion's share of coastal stripers, a trend that has increased significantly over the past decade. The coast-wide recreational catch (factoring in catch-and-release), which isn't controlled by a quota, accounts for nearly 80 percent of the total catch. In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service estimated recreational anglers caught 25.6 million pounds of rock, while commercial fishermen landed 7.18 million pounds. Amazingly the mortality rate of catch-and-release fishing is estimated to be higher than the commercial catch. True, these sport fishing figures come from the notoriously unreliable MRFSS surveys, but even if the numbers aren't spot-on, the fact remains recreational fishermen catch plenty of rockfish.

Maryland's DNR estimates 97,500 residents bought bay sport licenses last year. By contrast, only twelve hundred commercial watermen take part in Maryland's striper fishery; only 62 of them fish the coast and last year they landed 127,327 pounds of rock.

Fisheries management can at times appear like a one-armed man spinning plates on a pogo stick. O'Connell and his colleagues on the striper board say at the very least the move to consider increasing the coast commercial catch addresses professional fishermen's long-simmering compliant of inequity between recreational and commercial landings. A valid point, and most agree that any additional poundage should come from the recreational share.

Still, some think the ASMFC isn't moving fast enough to protect the striper stock. In Massachusetts, for example, Stripers Forever is supporting a bill that would ban the commercial catch and curtail the recreational take. One could argue the measure attempts to circumvent ASMFC's authority over striped bass management in that state.

Here on the Chesapeake we're blessed with excellent, nearly year-round striper fishing. Visitors come from around the country to experience world-class action, and the charter fleet and recreational fishermen who take great strides to conserve this resource welcome them.

But Americans can exhibit a real talent for driving a good thing into the ground. (Are 'all-you-can-eat' seafood buffets really necessary?) Why not consider a wholesale 'freeze' on striper fishing for six weeks in late winter? No other game species of such high value I know of is in play every month of the year.

Rather than put on blinders to real health concerns, we ought to face them head on. Puffery, from either side, merely clouds the overarching issue of whether a 21st century striper stock, faced with a new set of challenges, can continue to withstand unrelenting pressure. When the engine light flashes on the control panel, common sense dictates easing back the throttle. The Atlantic seaboard's most prized gamefish deserves nothing less.

Copyright © 2010 | Capital Gazette Communications, Inc., Annapolis, Maryland

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