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Changes to commercial striped bass fishing may benefit Lower Shore

(Feb. 8, 2013) Ostensibly, the title of Maryland’s State Fish was bestowed upon the striped bass due to its long-term popularity with Chesapeake Bay watermen. But its status may as well be because it has garnered more policy attention than any other scaly, ectothermic creature in the Old Line State.

One of the state’s biggest policy decisions this year will likely come not from the legislature, but from within the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which is “right in the middle of making some drastic changes to this fishery,” according to Mike Luisi of the DNR’s fisheries service.

“We’ve been working with the industry for quite some time about the 2014 fishery,” Luisi said. “There are some tough decisions that will have to be made.”

The striped bass – also known as the rockfish – has a considerable history. In 1985, concerns over low breeding stocks caused federal and state governments to close all waters to striped bass fishing. But beginning in 1990, most states began to gradually re-open the species to harvesting by both recreational and commercial fishermen under the close watch of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the umbrella group that involves the natural resources divisions of most East Coast states.

The ASMFC also recommended that federal waters be slowly re-opened, but the idea was nixed due to concerns over the ability of government agencies to respond fast enough to the potentially rapid depletion of the population.

In order to regulate rockfish stocks, the ASMFC allocates each state an annual poundage of striped bass for commercial catch – this past year, Maryland’s was 1.7 million pounds. The Maryland DNR then divides this allotment up by month. When rockfish are taken, watermen tag them, and the tag numbers are reported to the state by the markets that sell them.

“It’s an accountability measure so that the fish they’re landing and taking to market can be traced back to them,” Luisi said. “If, say, by mid-January we see that the quota for that month is going to be caught, we shut down fishing for the month and start again in February.”

Fishermen are issued an excess of tags – more than enough for what they’ll likely catch. They tags are turned back in at the end of the year if unused. This is known as a derby system, since the incentive is that he who catches earlier is likely to be allowed to catch more overall.

“The mentality is that you go out and get them before everyone else can,” Luisi said.

Maryland only issues 1,231 licenses for commercial striped bass fishing, but not all of these request tags every year.

Since the tags are issued ahead of time, however, the danger of overfishing still exists. The DNR has no way of verifying that fish were not caught and tagged after any given monthly shut-down by boats “sneaking out.”

As such, the ASMFC is now asking states to only issue the exact number of tags needed to catch the state quota.

“In order to reduce the likelihood of taking more fish than is healthy, they’re asking us to reduce the number of tags based on the total quota,” Luisi said.

“Maryland was one of the only coastal states, regarding striped bass, that issued an unlimited number of tags,” said Gibby Dean of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fisherman’s Association, one of the industry groups the DNR is consulting with on the issue. “But the ASMFC said this year that Maryland could only issue so many tags, based on the [ASMFC’s] biometric system.”

“We would take the total pounds of fish we’re given and divide that by the average weight per fish, and that’s how many tags we’d give out,” Luisi explained, “so that there’d only be enough tags to catch the right number of fish.”

Doing so, however, presents a serious difficulty. With a finite number of physical tags, the tags would have to be taken away from some fishermen mid-season if it looked like they were catching less while others had already gone through their tags.

“It would be difficult, under a derby system, to maintain and allot a certain number of tags to the individuals that wish to participate,” Luisi said. “That’s a logistical nightmare, to try something like that.”

“This new tagging … is going to require us to completely adjust and shift the management of this fishery.”

Instead of the derby-style tag system, Luisi said that the likely alternative will be to design a per-permit fish quota, in which each active permit holder will receive a share of the annual catch limit. Shares could be bought, sold, and exchanged between permit holders.

“Each person in the fishery would have some sort of share ownership,” Luisi said. “This would be a different way of doing business for these guys.”

A similar apportioning system is already in place for one segment of the striped bass fishery – trawler vessels, many of which operate out of the Lower Eastern Shore. Hook-and-line operations, as well as winter gillnet ships, are in the derby.

“There are a lot of advantages to not having to operate in the derby mentality,” Luisi said. “They don’t have to fear that somebody else is going to catch the fish before they do.”

This is particularly relevant to the lower part of the bay and the oceanic fishery, given the migratory pattern of striped bass. Rockfish migrate north-south with the seasons, typically swimming through open ocean but stopping in bays and river estuaries along the way, particularly in the spring when they lay their eggs in fresh water. Young fish usually stay in these estuary areas until they reach adulthood, when they begin migrating through sea waters to find their own breeding grounds.

With fish migrating out of freshwater in the upper part of the bay, they are often caught in the more northern fisheries before they have a chance to swim out.

“Those guys [on the lower shore] can find it difficult to compete,” Luisi said. “They essentially have to sit there and wait and hope that the fish come down their way before the monthly quota gets caught.”

“From Dorchester county south, more people are in favor of an individual quota system,” Dean said. “Not all, but the majority. The way the regulations are set up now, and the migration of the fish, a lot of times the quotas are culled up before the lower bay fisherman can catch them.”

“This way, they can have their quota in hand and catch them whenever they want.”

The flip side, however, is that fishermen who are used to taking as much as they can, based on their skill and dedication, will likely see the change as a restriction of their haul, in deference to those who can buy up more quota.

“The guys that are used to just going out and engaging in the derby see the quota system as a reduction,” Luisi said. “In order to get the quota, they’ll have to come up with capital.”

Although the industry is still divided as to the best solution, Dean projected that it was highly unlikely that some sort of quota system would not be implemented.

Exactly how that quota would be apportioned throughout the 1,231 permits is still up in the air, Luisi said. It would be tempting to give a larger share to those who have caught more in the past – but given that quota could be traded, the state would essentially be granting leverage.

“Ultimately, the state is going to have to make the decision on the initial allocation of a quota, and the assigning of pounds to that permit will change the value of the permit,” Luisi said.

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