ANNAPOLIS, OCT. 11 -- Maryland officials abruptly announced today they will close a long-awaited rockfish season on Sunday after tens of thousands of anglers caught in a week what state officials projected would take more than a month for them to reel in.
The season, the first in five years after a 1985 moratorium imposed to salvage the species from rampant overfishing, opened only a week ago, and was planned to run to Nov. 9.
The decision was made after reviewing catch data gathered by a team of "creel clerks" stationed around Maryland boat ramps. Natural Resources Secretary Torrey C. Brown said it was clear recreational sportsmen were nearing the 318,750 pounds set as their share of the total 750,000 pound of fish bay scientists felt could be harvested without harming the species' resurgence.
Consequently, the highly publicized season on Maryland's officially designated state fish, mentioned even in Gov. William Donald Schaefer's campaign material, will end more than three weeks early. As of 8 p.m. Sunday, those who catch or have rockfish in their possession will again face a $1,500 fine.
Paul Massicot, director of tidewater administration for the state, said the move was made necessary after tens of thousands of the state's 200,000 licensed fishermen took to the water during the unseasonably warm Columbus Day weekend.
He said the anglers were catching fish at a greater rate than expected -- about one in three succeeded in hooking a legal-sized fish longer than 18 inches -- and the fish themselves were heavier than predicted. The average fish, Massicot said, has been 24 inches long and weighed more than six pounds, as opposed to a predicted average of 2.5 pounds.
Charter boat captains are farther from exhausting their 112,500 pound quota and will be allowed to keep fishing, although it is unclear for how much longer. Their catch limits, Brown said, will be reduced from five per person to two as of Monday.
Limited seasons for commercial fishermen are scheduled for next month and January.
Although the move will disappoint some, DNR officials said the possibility of a shortened season was always part of the agency's plan when it announced last year that the species was strong enough to sustain a limited fishery.
Indeed, it was unlimited fishing that led to the 1985 moratorium on a fish that once had been a staple of Maryland watermen, seafood chefs and recreational anglers. Rockfish (also known as striped bass) at the time became a symbol as well of the bay's decline under the pressures of growth and industrialization.