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Panel makes suggestions to save the MD stripers
Thursday, March 28, 2019

Panel makes suggestions to save the stripers

By Jamie Drake

As the saying goes, we’ve got to study history to make sure that we learn from and can avoid repeating past mistakes.

The fisheries managers who oversee striped bass along the east coast must not have done very well in their history classes because the striped bass population is once again on the verge of collapse.

That’s the gist of last week’s expert panel discussion at the Southern Maryland Recreational Fishing Organization’s meeting last Thursday night.

How bad is the situation? Pretty bad according to Capt. Brady Bounds.

“If the PRFC [Potomac River Fisheries Commission] and the state of Maryland don’t take emergency action, we will be forced into a moratorium in 2020,” Bounds said.

SMRFO president Phil Zalesak didn’t mince words as he introduced representatives from the Southern Maryland fishing community to share their insights and suggestions for turning around this dire situation.

“We have a problem. We are killing too many fish, overfishing the fishery. We don’t have enough breeders out there,” Zalesak said.

His hope? That tonight’s discussion could help the fishing community come up with a “strategy to make sure our children and grandchildren can catch rockfish in the future.”

Before I share what each person recommended, note that their comments were made from their own personal beliefs and do not in any way represent the views of any of the organizations on which they might serve or communities of which they are a part.

Overall, everyone agreed that a necessary change would be to manage the fishery to produce the maximum number of stripers, not just aim for a minimum level that barely keeps the population sustainable (which hasn’t happened, apparently).

Capt. Wally Williams, president of the Solomons Charter Boat Captains Association, was unable to attend, but he sent his comments to Zalesak who shared them with the packed room of attendees.

Williams suggested eliminating the catch-and-release period of fishing before the season officially opens with spring trophy rockfish season. In layman’s terms, that means giving rockfish in Maryland waters a break as they begin their spawning run.

Striped bass are a migratory species, targeted somewhere along the east coast 365 days a year. The cancellation of catch-and-release in Maryland waters could give some breeders a better chance at a successful spawn and increase the number of juvenile rockfish that grow up to be big breeders.

Capt. Phil Langley also has decades of local fishing experience as a charter captain. Langley agreed that it “makes no sense for recreational or commercial [fishermen] to target fish heading to spawn” and disagrees with the practice of targeting fish in the preseason.

“Leave them alone for a month and let them get to the spawning grounds. If the fish were plentiful right now we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said.

Each one of those big females can release a million eggs, and anglers may be heading them off before they get the chance to do so.

Langley also suggests that anglers who fish during the summer months stop targeting rockfish once the limit is reached and find something else to catch. A 4-year-old dead fish is one that won’t spawn in two years, and we need all the mature fish we can get for the stock to rebound. His suggestion of targeting blue catfish lit up the room with laughter. Lord knows we’ve got enough of them around here.

Bounds has been guiding locally for 38 years. Back in the 1980s, he participated in the Careful Catch Program sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to teach the public effective catch-and-release techniques.

“When it’s done properly, it’s a good ploy, but it’s not going to get us out of this desperate situation,” Bounds said.

Capt. Bounds made many suggestions that night, which included banning the use of j-hooks and trebles when using live bait, using only 1 treble hook on artificial lures and not in the aft position, no gaffs, encouraging barbless hooks, using rubber nets to release fish without removing them from the water, not holding striped bass out of the water supported only by the jaw, Department of Natural Resources monitoring water temperature and dissolved oxygen levels and having the “authority and willingness” to close areas to all fishing when conditions are dangerous for striped bass, the immediate closure of trophy season and Susquehanna Flats area preseason, a new catch-and-release stamp anglers can purchase after completing an education course that allows access to the Chesapeake Bay and all the tributaries year round, abolishing commercial hook and line fishing and for all recreational anglers to take a pledge not to kill any striped bass in 2019.

Capt. Walleye Pete, a light tackle fishing guide, rounded out the panel of experienced fishermen offering their opinions.

Pete stated that he became a Maryland fishing guide in 2000 and the steady drop in the number of fish he’s seen each year come up the bay to spawn is alarming.

His recommendation is a limit of 1 fish per day for recreational fishermen, including customers on charter boats, and looking into bringing back a tag system for trophy season.

The survivability of fish caught by catch-and-release fishermen weighed heavy on the minds of those in attendance. Pete agreed that closing catch-and-release fishing when temperatures get dangerous for striped bass is necessary for the “safety and future of the fishery.”

These suggestions came from men who spend more days each year on the water than off it.

While fisheries are managed with science and data, that reliance on number crunching and computer models isn’t cutting it, as evidenced by the continual decline of the striped bass population.

Pete said, “Swift, aggressive action should be taken to turn the fishery around.”

I’ve been told not to expect any changes to come out of the May Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Striped Bass Management Board meeting which is when these issues will be discussed by the head honchos who make the decisions.

They’ll be choosing between an addendum (quick fix) or an amendment (a bigger change that will take two years to implement). The can’s been kicked down the road for the past four years, what’s another two? Seasons, creel limits and minimum sizes will be changing, that’s for sure.

As for changes you and I can make that will make a difference, well, our options are limited. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

I’ll take that pledge, Capt. Bounds. It’s a good thing crabs can still be on the menu — at least for now.

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