Coastal Recreational Fisheries

Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials, from left, Dave Blazer, DNR fisheries service director, and Michael Luisi, DNR fisheries manager, fielded an array of questions from Coastal Recreational Fisheries members during a meeting at the White Marlin Club in West Ocean City on Friday.

(May 3, 2019) Coastal Recreational Fisheries members posed questions and raised concerns with Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials about depleted fish species stocks, the Marine Recreational Information Program, crab pot marker visibility and opposition to offshore energy development during a meeting at the White Marlin Club in West Ocean City on Friday.

One problem anglers have with the information program is how to produce more accurate assessments of the annual fishing harvest and catch-and-release totals.

While no immediate answers appear to be available, members discussed improving techniques to generate better numbers.

In 2006, the National Marine Fisheries Service established the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), which was meant to improve upon the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey, which it had employed since 1982 to collect data relating to harvest release numbers, weight and sizes.

Michael Luisi, DNR fisheries manager, said MRIP data ultimately affect quota levels established for commercial and recreational fisheries.

“We all recognize that there’s issues with it,” he said. “People are looking at it and are concerned about the data that’s being generated.”

Dave Blazer, DNR fisheries service director, said MRIP estimates are based on surveying anglers at fishing access sites and then calculating each individual data set to represent a sample cluster.

“It’s kind of hard when you’ve got to survey millions of people and try to get good estimates,” he said.

Blazer said the Fisheries Service, which falls under the purview of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other related agencies continue to examine alternative approaches to estimate recreational catch totals.

“This is kind of the best system we’ve got right now,” he said.

In terms of summer flounder and striped bass stock assessments, Buddy Seigel, Ocean Pines Anglers Club and Maryland Saltwater Sports Fishing Association member, said MRIP relies too heavily on scientifically calculated formulas.

“We are saddled with scientists who produce formulas that … only the scientists review, so scientifically their numbers are wonderful,” he said. “The reality is they’re way out in left field [and] in fact … not even in the ball park.”

Capt. Monty Hawkins, who runs the West Ocean City party boat Morningstar, suggested differentiating between hire and not-for-hire vessels to track catch percentages.

“We don’t have the solution now, but we know this is extremely important,” Luisi said. “There’s no silver bullet to address this.”

Lowered Fish Stocks

Blazer said members have raised concerns over seemingly decreased stocks of fish species such as Atlantic croakers, bluefish, striped bass, inshore tog and Atlantic mackerel.

“We don’t have a good answer [and] if we did, we would be working more diligently to try to bring some of these stocks back,” he said.

The health of fish stocks is dependent on factors such as food sources, along with ocean and estuary conditions, Blazer said.

“All of these species go through cycles,” he said. “You can’t have everything in the ocean at the highest level possible.”

Luisi said fish migration patterns have altered noticeably over the last decade.

“Something’s different out there and the species are reacting to those changes,” he said.

In terms of the Chesapeake Bay, Blazer said fish species like striped bass are often frequenting different locales in summer months.

“Some of our scientists and our resource assessment service are looking at water quality and habitat parameters,” he said. “We only go out three miles (in the ocean) as the state, so the feds are doing a lot of that.”

Blazer said  scientists are testing a number of hypothesis surrounding water temperatures or oxygen levels.

“Maybe we can get them to look at some of the water quality parameters and compare that with some of the fishery independent surveys that we have,” he said. “Especially with striped bass movements, and changes over the last couple of years in the bay, we’re starting to take a look at some of that stuff.”

Luisi said extensive work is being undertaken to comprehend the redistribution of fish species in the Atlantic region.

“The region is experiencing these changes at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world due to the effects of the conditions of the ocean changes,” he said. “That’s the reaction of those stocks to quality changes where we are.”

Over the last decade, wintertime tagging studies for striped bass, which had involved a trawl survey within two miles offshore, have continued shifting northeast, Luisi said.

“They’re now having to travel 20-30 miles offshore and there’s more off of the southern portions of New Jersey rather than one and a half miles offshore in North Carolina,” he said.

Crab pot markers

Potential DNR actions to address navigational concerns stemming from crab pot markers painted black or dark blue were discussed.

Luisi said numerous complaints have been received because the dark hues make spotting the pot markers difficult at night, dusk, dawn or in choppy waters.

“Some crabbers use dark buoy markers to limit thefts of crab pots [but] some of these guys put their traps at the mouth of the bridge,” he said.

Numerous members have sounded the alarm about the hazards of crab pot and net floats placed in navigation channels or across rivers, Luisi said, with boaters often forced to steer around, or through, unattended nets.

Luisi said rationales for the darkened crab pot markers exist beyond camouflaging appearances, with many claiming the equipment becomes easier to spot in the dark.

“In the moonlight, you see darker floats more clearly,” he said.

While acknowledging the topic could be addressed with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Luisi expressed hesitation to dictate decorative decisions.

“We’re opening up a can of worms as far as regulating colors,” he said.

Luisi said further consultation with the commercial fishing industry could be conducted to source solutions.

“Hitting a crab pot line or running through nets isn’t what they want either,” he said.

Oil / Gas Drilling

Coastal Recreational Fisheries members also inquired about the Department of Natural Resources’ stance on potential offshore drilling for oil or gas deposits.

Luisi, while noting the majority of members have expressed opposition to either seismic testing or drilling into ocean beds to extract oil or gas reserves, said the topic falls principally under the purview of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

 “The seismic testing, oil and gas platforms and wind development — that’s all headed up by a different agency,” he said.

Bill Anderson, DNR assistant secretary for aquatic resources, reiterated Gov. Larry Hogan’s public stance against exploring aquatic avenues to source energy.

“The short answer to this question is the governor has opposed, continues to oppose and will to the end of his term oppose drilling for oil and gas offshore of Maryland,” he said.

Anderson said Hogan also wants to prevent seismic testing in the ocean waters off the Maryland coast and said DNR, while not taking charge of the process, would champion that position at every turn.

“Every opportunity we have we weigh in with that very clear message and that’s not going to deviate,” he said.

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