WASHINGTON – Federal waters off the Atlantic Coast may be reopened to striped bass fishing as soon as 2005, if the National Marine Fisheries Service accepts a recommendation to lift a ban that has been in place since 1990.
The recommendation from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission comes after the most successful year of reproduction for the state fish since 1970, according to an October report by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
But Maryland fisherman worry that reopening federal waters — which range from 3 to 200 miles offshore — to striped-bass fishing could again hurt the fish whose numbers were once so low that Maryland prohibited its harvesting in state waters in the 1980s.
“We think those big fish should remain protected,” said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. “Rockfish is doing really well and we want them to keep on doing well.”
The state lifted its ban on striped-bass — or rockfish — fishing in 1990, but quotas still limit commercial and recreational fishing in state waters, and any catches in federal waters are required to be thrown back into the water.
As the state lifted its ban, the federal government imposed one, in an effort to protect healthy young fish and promote rebuilding the stock. That remains in effect.
But the Atlantic states commission announced in 1995 that the population of the fish was fully restored. Since then, according to a notice filed in the Federal Register in October, “the population has expanded to record levels of abundance.”
“We’ve been so successful in increasing reproduction of striped bass that we potentially are getting close to what we think the carrying capacity might be,” said Howard King, director of the Maryland Fisheries Service.
If federal waters are reopened, Maryland commercial fishermen are not likely to benefit from it.
“I don’t think it means a lot to them,” Simns said of commercial fishermen. “They’ve got such a small quota they catch it in the inshore (in state waters).”
It would mean more for states with larger commercial fishing industries, said Justin LeBlanc, vice president of government relations with the National Fisheries Institute, a trade association for the fish and seafood industry.
“The only way there’s going to be a viable commercial fishing of striped bass” is through the opening of federal waters, he said.
Recreational fishermen, who might be attracted by the possibility of catching bigger fish, might also benefit from open federal waters, said Simns. But he worries that even catching and releasing these bigger fish would threaten the population, because of the stress that would place on the fish.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, also thinks “it is way too soon” to reopen federal waters to striped-bass fishing. The fish can live for more than 20 years, and he would like to give more time for the young adult population to mature before federal waters reopen.
The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are a major source of striped bass in Atlantic waters. After fish spawn here, they swim away into federal waters and migrate up and down the coast.
Every year, state scientists monitor how well striped bass reproduce in four major spawning systems — the Choptank, Potomac and Nanticoke Rivers and the Upper Bay.
Changes to striped-bass regulations will likely take years, but the steps are already in motion.
Federal managers of the fish have held public hearings throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England states — the last hearings are scheduled over the next 10 days in the Northeast — and the fisheries service will analyze the environmental impact of any revisions.