WASHINGTON – The rebound of rockfish is “one of the unparalleled success stories in fishery preservation,” which is why a ban on striped-bass fishing in federal waters should remain until scientific evidence says otherwise, a federal official testified Thursday.
John Dunnigan, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, told the House Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans that the number of striped bass has risen sharply since state and federal fishing bans were imposed. Fisheries officials estimate that rockfish populations rose from 5 million in 1984 to more than 50 million in 2003.
But opponents of the ban said those numbers show that the ban should be lifted, not continued. One fisherman testified that striped bass are now swimming in “locust” proportions.
All that fish “represents hundreds of millions of dollars to commercial and recreational fishermen,” said John O’Shea, the director of Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
O’Shea said the ban should be lifted in federal waters, as it has been in some state waters, but he also agreed that any lifting of the ban should be strictly managed.
The subcommittee is considering a reauthorization of the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, which would extend the ban in federal waters through 2006. Subcommittee members took no action on the bill Thursday.
“I would say in the near-term there is going be no lifting of that ban,” said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, who introduced the reauthorization.
“Before we lift the ban in federal waters, we would have to have a specific hearing on just that one issue,” said Gilchrest, the chairman of the subcommittee.
Maryland and other states lifted self-imposed local bans on the rockfishing in 1990, after the fish made a steady comeback.
Dunnigan said the federal government should “follow the lead of the states” — but that it would be irresponsible to lift the ban without extensive testing. For now, federal officials want to keep the federal ban in place so the new generation of rockfish has time to mature and for fear that the population would decline after fishing resumes.
The fisheries service is currently studying rockfish migratory patterns and the impact that a lifting of the federal ban would have, Dunnigan said. That study would take at least a year, he said.
Gilchrest said that the study or one similar would be only way he would even consider lifting the ban. But he would not say Thursday whether he would accept an amendment that calls for a three-year study on whether the government could lift the ban with little impact on the overall rockfish population.
“I haven’t decided whether or not to do that,” Gilchrest said of the amendment.
He said the striped bass — Maryland’s state fish — is a valuable commodity, and not just for economic reasons. Rockfish are an integral part of the vast web of interdependent species in the Chesapeake Bay, he said.
The bay is the primary spawning area for the fish, which mature here and then swim into the Atlantic and farther north.
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