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New regional rockfish regulations carry a sting

(Dec. 5, 2014) If you were ever fortunate enough to catch two keeper rockfish in the same day, don’t look forward to doing it again.

After several months of shake-ups and contention in the complicated world of fishing regulations, Maryland’s coastal striped bass limit for recreational anglers is almost guaranteed to drop from two fish of at least 28 inches in length to one fish of at least 28 inches, effective Jan. 1.

“The plan all along has been to go with a one-fish bag limit at 28 inches, at least along the coast,” said Mike Luisi of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Fisheries Service.

“What the board has said is that if the option exists already in their addendum, it will be adopted.”

In this case, “the board” is the striped bass management board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which coordinates regulatory action in shared waters for the eastern United States.

For 2015, the ASMFC has mandated a 25 percent reduction in ocean striped bass harvesting, and a 20.5 percent reduction in the Chesapeake.

The ASMFC is – and isn’t – a regulatory authority. Regulations made by the commission are promulgated through its individual member states.

But those states are legally bound to adopt the ASMFC’s findings in some way.

“We [the Maryland DNR] sit on the board,” Luisi said. “The board was put together by a federal ruling that established the board and gave it the authority to impose regulations on jointly managed inter-jurisdictional species along the coast.”

The ASMFC votes on a number of options that are projected to achieve its goals, such as changes to size limits, catch limits and season lengths.

States are not forced to adopt any of these regulations, but must ultimately effect some changes that can be proven to have the same ultimate outcome.

“Even though the board voted on that option to drop the catch limit, the striped bass management plan has a provision for states to do what is known as ‘conservation equivalency,’” Luisi said.

“If a state has enough info and data about population size and structure and what’s available in their state, they can change the rules as long as it’s equivalent to what the ASMFC proscribes.”

But as is often the case, Maryland and other coastal states are prepared to present and adopt regulations that match the preferred option from the ASMFC – at least when it comes to the oceanic fishery.

“There are still some questions up in the air about what we’re going to do in the bay,” Luisi said.

Beginning in October of last year, the ASMFC began developing a new addendum to the management plan for striped bass – commonly known in this area as rockfish.

According to ASMFC data, the estimated Atlantic striped bass population had slowly decreased since 2003, from a peak of roughly 175 million pounds of spawning stock to 125 million in 2012. Although still well above what is considered safe, the stock is below the target level for optimum reproduction.

Harvests also declined shortly thereafter, even though regulations were unchanged. More than 31 million pounds of striped bass were caught by recreational anglers coast-wide in 2006, but that number dropped to just under 25 million last year.

This has led to considerable complaint from anglers over the increasing rarity of the popular species.

“Fishermen along the Atlantic coast have this memory about how the fishery was 10 years ago, when the population was well above the target,” Luisi said.

“Fishermen want this super abundance of striped bass, even above what we would consider healthy. We all want us to get back to that level, although it may not be realistic to get there.”

The 25 percent cut in harvesting is expected to get striped bass populations back to the ASMFC’s target within one year, an extremely rapid timescale, even relative to the lifespan of fish.

But the major disagreement has been the level of reduction not in the ocean, but in the Chesapeake, where politics and fish biology intertwine.

The Chesapeake Bay’s striped bass population has, for many years, been managed separately under the purview of the Maryland and Virginia natural resources authorities, and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.

The group has been aggressive in protecting the Chesapeake’s stock, which harbors most of the commercial striped bass fishery on the East Coast, although this still pales in comparison to the oceanic recreational harvest.

“The board granted us approval to manage our own fishery in the bay,” Luisi said. “We have established our own biological reference points for the bay … the bay fishery is much different than the fishery off the coast.”

In 2013, the bay saw 3.29 and 2.66 million pounds of striped bass harvested commercially and recreationally, respectively, in the Chesapeake.

By comparison, commercial harvest for the entire rest of the East Coast totaled only 2.53 million pounds commercially, but 25 million recreationally.

The Chesapeake’s total harvest last year of 5.96 million pounds, however, continues a decline seen since 2008, when that number was 8.47 million. This was done intentionally by regulations in Maryland, Virginia, and the Potomac.

The expected 20.5 percent reduction will be taken from the 2012 harvest, not from last years’, so the bay’s fishermen will not be penalized for last year’s reduction.

But many are still chafing at the fact that any reduction at all will not allow them to enjoy the fruits of their good conservation work, due to the migratory nature of striped bass.

“The migratory fish come into the bay, they spawn, and the juveniles live here for five to seven years, and then they migrate off the coast and become the spawning stock,” Luisi said.

“In the spring of 2011, we had a very successful spawning event in the Chesapeake, one of the highest on record,” Luisi said. “Those fish are getting ready to become what is harvestable in the bay, what meets or exceeds the 18 inch limit in the bay.”

However, the ASMFC’s preferred option for the bay fishery is to keep a two-fish daily bag limit, but bump the minimum size up to 20 inches for 2015, putting all but the largest of 2011’s stock off-limits.

But by 2016, many of those fish will have left the bay and become oceanic stock.

“We have them in the bay now, so they’re Maryland’s fish. They will shortly become the coastal stock of fish that every state has access to,” Luisi said. “We felt we should have the ability to enjoy what we have now before it goes.”

Maryland’s portion of the bay’s commercial tag quota, which allocates a certain number of poundage to each licensed commercial operation, will also drop from 1.925 million pounds this year to 1.471 in 2015.

“Maryland fought for a different direction than what is ultimately being taken in the bay,” Luisi said. “We thought we could take a more slow approach. [The ASMFC] wanted major action right away.

“We didn’t necessarily agree, at least in the bay. We were more okay with the approach on the coast, but we thought that given the situation in the bay, we would not be subjected to the same.”

One of the issues the Maryland DNR has pointed to, Luisi said, is that reducing the catch in the bay may not end up boosting long-term population, which is dependent on a small number of older, breeding females within the striped bass biomass. Putting more of the 2011-born population into the ocean will only appease ocean fishermen for so long.

“The intent of the addendum is to protect the female spawning stock,” Luisi said. “By taking a cut to bay males, you’re not achieving that purpose.”

Commercial quotas in the ocean fishery will likely not be changed, given that mass-catch methods in the open ocean are less effective than in the Chesapeake.

Many more permits for striped bass are given out in the ocean fishery than commercial fishermen are typically able to catch.

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