By Timothy B. Wheeler
Sharing is often considered a good thing. But ask fishermen to share their catch, especially of Maryland's state fish, and things can get testy — with seafood consumers on the hook for how it plays out.
Maryland is changing the way striped bass are caught for sale, ending decades of regulating the popular Chesapeake Bay fish by limiting the times when it can be harvested. Starting Jan. 1, commercial fishermen will have individual quotas of striped bass they can catch almost any time, not just in the relative handful of days permitted this year.
State officials say the change to catch shares, as the quotas are known, should help fishermen make a better living while improving oversight of harvests of the much-sought-after fish with distinctive black stripes — known popularly as rockfish.
Some of the state's watermen welcome the flexibility of being allowed to fish when it suits them, rather than compete in all kinds of weather in one- or two-day fishing "derbies."
But others complain that the quotas rob them of initiative by limiting the amount they can catch, in some cases well below what they've been landing lately. They warn that the cutback could drive them into oystering or other pursuits, making the tasty fish — a holiday staple for some — pricier and harder to come by in local restaurants and at seafood counters.
"Back in the old days — which wasn't really more than five or six years ago — we could fish five days a week and catch 1,200 pounds a day," said Don Marani, a commercial fisherman and proprietor of Don's Seafood in Fells Point. "Now we can catch in a year what we used to be able to catch in a day. … I mean, rockfish is a great fish, but you can buy red snapper cheaper."
At least one local chef, though, anticipates that the change will let his restaurant carry rockfish on the menu more frequently, and often at more reasonable prices.
"I think now it'll end up being more of a mainstay once it goes into effect, because I'll be able to get it a lot more regularly," said Chad Wells, executive chef at Alewife, a downtown restaurant. Wells predicted that prices, which have gyrated between $7 and $22 a pound, also should stabilize.
State fisheries officials say they're not trying to hurt watermen. "Whenever you have a major change like this … you have winners and losers," said Tom O'Connell, state fisheries director. "It sorts itself out." More....