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Outdoors: Numbers game puzzles bay fishermen
By BILL BURTON, For The Capital

There's some good news on the flounder front, which we'll get into in a moment, but first a look at the flip side, which is more ominous than just a mere flip.

Though much of the winter fishing talk lately has been focused on menhaden woes, there's a popular sports fish that at present appears to be in as much trouble if not more as menhaden. And with both species, it's virtually impossible at present to get a handle on the situation.

As Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission met much of last week to review the coastal fisheries picture, there came no meaningful suggestions that will put at ease the concerns of sportsfishermen in regards to sea trout and menhaden. The scientific community moves slowly, as well it should - it can act effectively only when it has solid findings and facts.

With both species, missing are many pieces of the puzzle, and though we fishermen are impatient for action and solutions, we must accept that presently it's not in the cards - though it appears ASMFC is moving ahead to initiate a cap of 110,400 metric tons for bay menhaden in '06 and '07.

Menhaden are considered the primary forage fish for our most popular sports fish. And the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Assocation and many sportsfishermen complain they are being overfished, endangering the bay fishery for rockfish, blues, sea trout and other fishes higher up the food chain.

As for sea trout, we have a situation that baffles fisheries scientists along the coast as well as fishermen. Stock assessments of these popular fish indicated until recently that everything was on track for good populations and good catching, but suddenly the bottom fell out. It has been several years since there have been good numbers of trout evident - and good catches of them.

This means that either the assessments made primarily by individual states were well off the mark, or something has happened either climatically or elsewhere in their environment to adversely impact their numbers. It's obvious to all something has gone terribly wrong.

Back in the '90s when the sea trout fishery was in the doldrums fisheries managers implemented measures to appreciably curtail the bycatch of immature trout primarily by shrimpers in the Carolinas. Almost immediately, the species responded, and things looked bright. And, there followed several years of very good sea trout'n in the Chesapeake.

Then the bottom fell out; we need not be reminded the catches last year were horrendous. Many fishermen did not even catch a single keeper. Was it the assessments were way off target? Or is something else not known at this time is to blame - and not just here but along much of the coast?

The only flickering bright spot is that in North Carolina there appears to be a population of older and larger fish. Meanwhile, ASMFC has decided to basically reassess past population assessments, and that will take time - which of course means we can't look for an improvement in our catches for more than a few seasons in the future.

There are so many possibles; if the problem can't be attributed to flaws in assessments then something else is responsible - and what can it be? Are there unknown factors involving recruitment of new fish in the fishery? Or other problems not evident? ASMFC is calling for an outside review of the situation, and we might know more when it meets again in May.

All we really know is that it pretty much agreed the basic problem is not an overcatch by fishermen, and that the commission is taking an aggressive stance on sea trout and it, appreciates a big problem exists. In the meantime we must appreciate that science moves slowly, which is little consolation, but that's the way it must be. Have patience.

As for flounder, it appears we have a breakthrough. After recent public meetings things boil own to several options for Maryland fishermen, among them reducing the minimum size limit below the controversial barrier of 16 or 17 inches of the past, which most sportsfishermen griped was unreasoanble because it was difficult to catch fish of that size, particularly in the Chesapeake.

ASMFC's position is that both bay and oceanfront flounder regulations must be the same though our DNR has unsuccessfully argued there is a difference - bay flounder generally aren't as big. Now, there's the chance that the catching of flounder as short as 15 inches is possible. And fishermen can make the decision.

Three proposals stand out: A 15-inch minimum, two fish a day; 15-inch minimum, four fish a day, or 16-inch minimum, eight fish a day. Currently, it appears the 15-inch option is favored hereabouts.

Lowering the length limit is made possible because in Maryland last year we took only 43 percent of the recreational quote of 131,000 fish allotted by ASMFC (some states to the north exceeded their quotas appreciable). Because we fell so far short - 64,000 fish short, we get a well deserved break.

We also get a break with sea bass fishing. This year there will be no closures in the season for these fish so popular with the headboat fleet out of Ocean City. And, on the horizon is an improvement in our waters of the porgy situation. They appear to be making a dramatic comeback after many dismal years hereabouts. Once they were common and popular among headboaters, but by the '60s they virtually disappeared.


Tomorrow: DNR's Marty Gary will talk about monitoring reef ball sites, and recruit volunteer anglers to assess the effectiveness of reef balls to attract fish at a 7:30 p.m. meeting of Pasadena Sportfishing Group, Earleigh Heights Fire Hall, Richie Highway north of Severna Park. Public invited. Call 410-439-3474.

Saturday/Sunday: Pasadena Sportfishing Group's 13th annual Flea Market, Earleigh heights Fire Hall, Severna Park. Call 410-439-3474.

Feb. 21: Fishermen's Night at 7:30 p.m. meeting of Broadneck/Magothy Chapter of MSSA, American Legion Post 175, Manhattan Beach Road, south of Severna Park. Speakers will be Jim Gracie and Bill Burton. Crippled Alewive lures and Bernie Michael's baits will be displayed. Public invited. Call 410-551-5024,

Feb. 24: Annual dinner and fund raiser of Annapolis Chapter of Ducks Unlimited, 6 p.m., banquet room of Navy Football Stadium, Annapolis. Call Bunny Chew, 410-268-3036.

March 3: Annapolis Chapter of CCA annual barbecue and fund-raiser, silent and live auctions, 6 p.m., Annapolis Elks Lodge, Route 2 and Aris T. Allen Boulevard, Annapolis. Call Robert Glenn, 410-280-8770, or Andy Hughes, 410-570-1274. On the web it's info@ccamd.org.

March 5: Annual Swap Meet of Free State Flytyers, noon to 4 p.m., Ford Hall, Davidsonville Family Recreation Center, Queen Annes Bridge Road, Davidsonville. All kinds of fly tackle available. Call John Scarborough, 410-757-6411. E-mail scarboroughj@hotmail.com. Also, check the club's website: www.geocities.com/freestateflyfishers.

March 5: Fishing seminars; Bill Burton and Richie Gaines, Fishing the Chesapeake, 9 to noon, and from 1 to 4 p.m., Richie Gaines and Gary Neitzey, Light Tackle Fishing, Tri-State Marine, Deale. Call 301-261-5220, or 410-867-1447.

March 6: Fishing seminars; Light Tackle and Jigging, 9 a.m. to noon, Capt. Pete Dahlberg; 1 to 4 p.m., Trolling the Chesapeake, Capt. Wayne Morgan. Call 301-261-5220, or 410-867-1447.

March 12: MSSA offshore Fishing Swap Meet & Rigging Seminar, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., American Legion Post No. 7, Crownsville Road, Crownsville. Call Rick Nadoiny, 410-757-0798 or 301-518-5019.

April 16: Opener of the spring trophy rockfish season, and you can sign up now for the increasingly popular fourth annual Boatyard Bar & Grill Opening Day Fishing Tournament based at Eastport to benefit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, CCA, Md., and the Annapolis Police Department's Youth Fishing Camp. Call 410-336-8880. On the web it's www.boatyardbarandgrill.com. Click on "fishing."


Calendar items, comments or news notes should be mailed to Bill Burton, P.O. Box 430, Pasadena, MD, 21122-0430, or faxed to 410-360-2427. Please include your phone number.

- No Jumps-

Published February 13, 2005, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright 2005 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.


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