Everyone will be happy when Maryland's long-awaited rockfish season reopens Friday, but some will be happier than others and therein hangs a troublesome tale.
After a 5 1/2-year fishing moratorium to help reverse a population slide of the state fish caused by overfishing and declining water quality, officials say rockfish are plentiful enough in Chesapeake Bay to allow limited recreational and commercial seasons.
Recreation comes first -- Oct. 5 to Nov. 9 -- with rockfish aplenty to pursue. But for the first time ever in Maryland or anywhere else, how long you get to pursue them and how many you take home depends on whom you're with and what you pay.
In a startling break with sporting tradition, the state Department of Natural Resources has established two sets of rockfishing rules -- one for the do-it-yourselfer who fishes from a private boat or shore, another for the angler who pays a captain to take him.
The angler who finds a pod of feeding rock on his own next month won't take long to fill his daily limit of two fish. But the one who charters a captain can enjoy the action until he and his pals have five apiece.
DNR officials defend the split as a rational solution under a system of quotas established to assure that no more than 750,000 pounds of rockfish are caught this year.
But many anglers -- this one included -- think DNR is opening the door to a dangerous, brave new world with two classes of sportsmen.
To understand the origins of Maryland's new fishing class system, a little background is in order.
While the rockfish moratorium was on, the state empaneled a "white paper committee" of recreational, charter and commercial fishermen to hammer out a way to divide the limited rockfish pie once fishing reopened. Based on historical records, the committee approved the following split: recreational 42.5 percent; commercial 42.5 percent; charter 15 percent of the total.
When DNR came up with its 750,000-pound rockfish quota for 1990, it gave each user group latitude in deciding how to take its share. For a while, chartermen considered a season entirely separate from recreational fishermen, but in the end settled on the same dates.
However, chartermen said they couldn't secure paying parties by offering just two fish a day, and argued that with 100 or so charterboats operating -- the traditional number in fall -- they'd never catch their 112,500-pound quota in five weeks.
They asked for and got a five-fish daily limit while private fishermen got two a day.
The charterboat operators won a bonanza with their five-fish limit, as it turned out, and with customers banging at the door, the 100 or so operators originally expected quickly grew to about 400 licensed to pursue rock. DNR fisheries chief Pete Jensen now believes all those boats will catch up the charter quota in much less than five weeks, and he will be forced to shut down the charter fishery early.
Charter operators thus may have shot themselves in the foot by demanding the bigger limit, if they end up with a shorter season because of it.
Meantime, a dangerous precedent has been set that state officials will live to regret. Does Maryland really want to create a privileged class of fishermen with special benefits because they pay for their fun by the day?
Boyd Pfeiffer of Ellicott City, ex-president of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, wonders about the legal status of the private angler who has to quit fishing while the paying customer in the boat alongside him plays on. "I think that guy has grounds for a class-action suit," said Pfeiffer.
Andy Loftus of the Sport Fishing Institute, who used to work on the rockfish team at Maryland's DNR, said he was amazed there wasn't more public outcry when the regulations were proposed.
Loftus said he knows of nowhere else in the nation where fishermen or hunters get special limits if they pay for their day in the sun.
Indeed, the concept of special dispensations for professional guides and chartermen already threatens to expand.
Next year, Maryland will join Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission in enforcing a 10-fish daily limit on bluefish. But some charter operators grumble they could book more parties if the limit was 15.
Maryland chartermen also are pushing for a special trophy charter rockfish season in May, targeting huge "cow" rock that enter the bay in spring to spawn.
Carry the concept a bit further and it's not hard to imagine goose hunting guides from the Eastern Shore demanding special seasons and special limits for their commercial operations, or bass tournament organizers demanding relief from the new, statewide spring closure to protect large bass on the spawning grounds.
What would be the justification? "Good for business," one suspects, an argument that seems to open doors in Gov. William Schaefer's administration.
The precedent is worrisome. Commercial charter boat operators, fishing guides and hunting guides in this nation always have obeyed the same laws as everyone else. The sportsman who hires a guide or captain pays to use the professional's equipment and knowledge, not for higher status, longer seasons, looser rules or bigger daily catch limits.
DNR officials say they're just trying to accommodate the user groups. That's nice, but it isn't their job. Their job is to protect and preserve natural resources and, where possible, make them available to everyone on a fair and equal basis.
The Striped Bass Advisory Board of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources will hold a public meeting to discuss 1991-92 rockfish seasons, creel limits and allocations for recreational, charter and commercial fishermen at 6 p.m. Monday at the Agriculture Department, 50 Truman Parkway, Annapolis. Call (301) 974-3365 for information.