ANNAPOLIS, OCT. 4 -- Aerial surveillance. Covert patrols. Shoreline spies.
The latest plans from the Persian Gulf? No, the latest plans for the Chesapeake Bay. Today marks the end of a six-year moratorium on the harvesting of Maryland rockfish, and state officials have organized extensive patrols to ensure that the fun and games don't get out of hand among the hordes of anglers expected to pursue the once-declining species.
A five-week recreational rockfishing season runs from today until Nov. 9. It marks the first time since Jan. 1, 1985, that the lively striped bass, popular with sportsmen and diners and an official state symbol, can be caught and kept. The limit is two per person for individual fishermen and five for those on charter boats. Each fish must be at least 18 inches long.
Those rules were designed to keep this year's recreational catch, combined with a commercial season scheduled for January, below 750,000 pounds. That level represents about one-fifth of the legal-sized rockfish in the bay and an amount that officials believe will not disturb the species' resurgence.
But officials aren't taking any chances. To enforce the restrictions, a veritable army of observers are being dispersed, from aerial watchdogs who will fly across Maryland waters, counting boats as they go, to a crew of 60 fish census-takers stationed at boat ramps to quiz people at the end of their day.
Lt. Col. Woody Willing, director of field operations for the state Natural Resources Police Force, said he will also arm some inland patrolmen with telescopes to keep an eye on expected trouble spots, and plans "covert operations" to find poachers.
"It may be that the person beside you on the bank fishing may be a natural resources policeman," Willing said. The more egregious violators could face seizure of their boat and a stint in jail, punishments judges have meted out during a recent spate of violations to the moratorium, he said.
Marine police patrols will be doubled. Officers will issue only tickets -- no warnings -- that could cost violators as much as $1,500 for each infraction of the size and catch limits.
Licensed charter boat captains will be monitored through daily logs, and commercial fisherman have been assigned individual catch limits for their upcoming season.
There is good reason to be strict. The rockfish was once Maryland's most valuable seafood resource, a staple on restaurant menus and an economic linchpin for watermen. It also became a symbol of the bay's decline when overfishing pushed the species to near collapse with catches that took an estimated 70 percent of the adult fish in some years.
There were virtually no limits on rockfish catches at the time, so it seemd a radical step when Department of Natural Resources Secretary Torrey C. Brown banned all harvest of the fish under a state distressed-species law. Although unpopular at the time, the ban eventually won support from both commercial and sport fishermen as well as environmentalists.
"This kind of determined action can make a difference," said Rod Coggin, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Rockfish actually returned to restaurants and seafood stores this year, when Maryland began allowing sale of farm-raised hybird striped bass. Talk of lifting the ban on the real article waited until a sampling of the bay's waters in 1989 produced a dramatically large number of young fish, a biological phenomenon that occurs cyclically when the species is healthy.
Although the sample for this year was low again, state fisheries director Peter Jensen said the average findings for the last few years clearly warrant reopening the fishery, although the catch limit in future years may be raised or lowered.