Sunday, February 15, 2004

I’ve never been a fan of the various federal and/or state regulatory bodies and commissions that deal with our natural resources — especially wild fish stocks — and what they refer to as equitable ways to allocate such resources.

My dislike is rooted in the strong favoritism invariably shown by such agencies and commissions toward commercial interests. Meanwhile, the very people who pay most of the bills — in fishing’s case, recreational anglers — are viewed by the government types as a pain in the neck.

I don’t think this attitude will change in my lifetime. It’s a sad state of affairs.

Take for example the National Marine Fisheries Service that plods on year after year in the firm belief that (a) certain heavily depleted fish species are actually a lot better off than we believe them to be or (b) they must be sure that commercial fish netters make a living. (Wouldn’t it be nice if private industry looked upon its millions of employees with such devotion.)

Along the eastern United States, the majority of tidal water activity is managed by fiat through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission headquartered in the District.

A disturbing report that strongly favored commercial fishing interests was recently issued by the ASMFC. In a recent issue of its newsletter, Fisheries Focus, a species profile was presented under the headline “Atlantic Striped Bass — The Challenges of Managing a Restored Stock.”

Of course, in these parts the striped bass — better known as rockfish — isn’t a mysterious creature. We know it can be found from Nova Scotia to Florida, and we know that the majority of the coastal stock originates in the Chesapeake Bay. We also know that the species in general saw a collapse in the 1970s, and by 1985 a moratorium was declared on the catching of stripers by recreational or commercial sectors.

The fish rebounded quickly and by 1990 limited fishing was once again permitted.

According to the ASMFC, the commercial harvest that peaked at 15million pounds in 1973 declined to 3.5million pounds in 1983, or a 77 percent decrease.

Nowadays, the ASMFC believes that the species is doing so well that (under its Amendment 6) the coastal states can implement commercial quotas equivalent to the average harvests during the 1972-79 period. Remember, in 1973, the netters removed 15million pounds of rockfish.

Get ready to see ever-increasing commercial rockfish netting, especially by Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

But if you ask the ASMFC who catches the majority of the stripers, guess who’s doing it?

It’s the recreational anglers.

The ASMFC says the recreational harvest of rockfish grew from 3.1million pounds in 1990 to a record high 19.6million pounds in 2001. In other words, the sport anglers took more fish than the commercials did during their super year of 1973, when 15million pounds of rockfish ended up on beds of ice in super markets and restaurants.

Do you have any idea how the ASMFC got its numbers about the recreational catch? I don’t, and I’m a striper fisherman. I’ve never been questioned, polled, phoned or otherwise asked how many rockfish I catch, keep or release. No one in my large circle of fishing pals has ever been asked. We know there is no legal requirement to report recreational catches, but there is for commercial fishermen.

So how did the ASMFC come up with such numbers that at first blush appear to be outlandish, making us look like ravenous jerks while the commercials are seen as guys who are not doing any harm at all. Sounds to me that this commission has some sort of an agenda, and it doesn’t look good for us.

Meanwhile, if you believe the ASMFC numbers, I have a piece of Florida swampland I want to sell you.

• Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washington-times.-com.

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