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Entries in Maryland (17)

Friday
May132016

Maryland Modifies New Regulations to Accommodate Potomac Tournaments

Responding to strong opposition from tournament anglers and organizations, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) quickly altered its new creel regulation for events on the Potomac River and Upper Chesapeake Bay, avoiding potentially catastrophic consequences for local economies.

But fishermen still are shaking their heads. They wonder about the wisdom of the agency's decision, even with a modification that is acceptable to  tournament organizations, including B.A.S.S. for its Elite Series event in August out of Charles County.

"It (original rule) caught us off guard. We were blind-sided," said Scott Sewell, conservation director for the Maryland B.A.S.S. Nation. "I started getting all kinds of calls from people wondering what was going on.

"Since I'm the conservation director, they thought that I was involved in the decision. I wasn't."

Long-time Potomac River guide Steve Chaconas added, "I don't feel the regulations are really needed. This action is blaming tournament anglers for a perceived issue."

For MDNR, the issue was more than three years of poor catch rates, it announced on March 15. Consequently, it intended to limit competitors fishing Maryland-based tournaments to a 5-fish bag with a 12-inch minimum, only one of which could be more than 15 inches, between June 16 and Oct. 31. "Heavy bass tend to die more than smaller bass in tournaments," the agency explained.

Backlash from B.A.S.S. and other organizers of major events was immediate.  "Although we understand Maryland DNR's desire to address a decline in the bass fisheries of the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay, obviously we could not conduct an Elite Series event on waters where anglers cannot weigh in their biggest catches," said B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin.

"That would not be fair to the anglers, the fans, the hosts, or the sportfishing community." 

Following talks with Sewell  and others, MDNR, to its credit, quickly added an "Option 2" to the regulation. It does not restrict a competitor to one fish of more than 15 inches.

"The Department appreciates the input and has made modifications to the original possession restriction," the agency said.

"Option 2 requires directors to adhere to special conditions that minimize fish stress, thereby reducing fishing mortality. These special conditions have been modeled after those used in Florida bass fisheries."

Conditions include requiring directors to recover exhausted bass following a tournament and redistribute them to approved locations, as well as other actions to improve survival of large bass.

B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director Gene Gilliland said,  "I believe MDNR had the interest of the fishery at heart but took a few missteps when they tried to implement protective measures.

"They should have involved the tournament organizations more, early in the process, since they were the target audience and I think they might have avoided some of the conflict that we saw. 

"But they listened and adapted and came up with some options that will allow tournaments to continue under a special set of fish care protocols.  That's good for the resource and good for tournaments."

What mystifies Sewell, though, is why MDNR seemed to act unilaterally on this. "We have an outstanding relationship with them," he said. "I was really taken aback when they didn't consult us. I could have told them that they would be lighting a firestorm with this."

Additionally, the conservation director said little mention was made of a possible regulation change at the annual Black Bass Roundtable in February. "We talked about an aggressive stocking program, areas for catch-and-release only, and educating anglers on how to better care for their catch," he said.

Also at the roundtable, Chaconas added, "Keep in mind this action is not the way Maryland has been managing this fishery. They have previously managed by committee. That is, they send out surveys and take a lot of feedback before acting. In this case, the regulation was barely discussed with no outcome."

Both Sewell and Chaconas, meanwhile, pointed out that other factors  are having a more profound impact on the bass fishery than tournaments, with pollution and changes in submerged aquatic grasses among the foremost. They also believe that the bass fishery is healthier than MDNR has determined from its electrofishing surveys.

"The loss of milfoil and the increase in hydrilla are affecting surveys and the fishing," the guide said. "Anecdotally, the last two years have been my best. I have modified my tactics, which include avoiding grass and targeting hard cover and channel edges. This is successful for me until the hydrilla covers everything. I also target hard hydrilla edges at low tides, or deeper edges at any tide, or areas with scattered grass in front of hydrilla edges."

But even though rationale for and implementation of the regulation are questionable, Gilliland said that Option 2 could be helpful.

"We at B.A.S.S. have preached better fish care for years, but unfortunately there are still a lot of anglers and clubs that don't believe there is a need to follow our proven procedures because they don't believe delayed mortality exists, or they just don't care, which is even more sad," he said.

"Given the relatively low level of adoption of best management practices, these new rules will force the issue. Do it right or don't get the exemption from the new length limit."

While impact from tournaments on bass populations may be minimal, he added, "the negative social aspects of tournaments and fish kills that result are things that agencies have to deal with."

With non-tournament anglers often looking for ways to shut down competitions, MDNR's actions actually could benefit tournaments in the long-term, the national conservation director said. They force better fish-care practices and, thus, reduce chances that bad things will happen, as well as opportunities for critics to find fault.

"I think, over time, organizations will adopt and adapt and realize that a little pain was worth the gain," Gilliland said.

Friday
Mar112016

Cooperative Efforts Focus on Preserving, Enhancing Chesapeake Bay Bass Fisheries

Guide Steve Chaconas in front of Capital Wheel in Potomac River's National Harbor

Cooperative efforts are not only bettering Chesapeake Bay bass fisheries. They're also laying the groundwork for future strategies to sustain and enhance these waters that are vulnerable to erosion and saltwater intrusion, as well as projected sea level rise (SLR) related to climate change.

"We're partnering with Maryland B.A.S.S. Nation (MBN) and others to build a reef in tidal freshwater at National Harbor on the Potomac River, the first tidal freshwater reef in Maryland," said Joe Love, tidal bass manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "That type of work might help provide stable reproductive habitat if grasses or wetlands are lost over time.

"In general, it's best to protect habitat, but it's hard to fight the tide," he added. "As habitats change over time, I'm optimistic that innovative work will undoubtedly be accomplished to help protect our tidal freshwater fisheries."

Love also pointed out that  MBN has been working with his agency to stock bass in tidal areas of the Middle and Gunpowder rivers. "While Middle River used to be a great bass fishery, urbanization of that watershed likely led to greater saltwater intrusion, nutrient influx, and reduced productivity for bass," he said.

History confirms that good bass spawning habitat can be lost over time in coastal fisheries. For example, SLR, nutria, and saltwater intrusion have degraded a once prime area in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore, the biologist explained.

And it is the Eastern Shore that will be punished the most by future intrusion and SLR. "More wetland is predicted to be lost from our Eastern Shore than anywhere else in the bay," Love said.

But the most valuable habitat for bass lies in the Potomac River and upper bay (Susquehanna River). Unfortunately, it also is the most vulnerable, according to an extensive survey of 141 nursery habitats on the Chesapeake Bay watershed that Love conducted with the help of other MDNR biologists and funding from the federal Sport Fish Restoration Act.

"They have highly productive nurseries, and are the two biggest fisheries in Maryland tidal waters," he said. "Because of those things, even a relatively small impact form SLR on the Potomac River and the upper bay can have a bigger impact on the fisheries there than on the Eastern Shore, where habitat quality and availability already severely limit population growth rates for largemouth bass."

For the study, Love added that he focused on "how much impact there could be, worst case scenario" in terms of increased salinity, loss of grass and increased influence by tides.

"To be honest, though, I'm not sure how severe those impacts would be," he said. "Will there only be a little loss of grass? Will salinity only rise a little bit?

"I'm not sure about the degree of influence or even how those influences will affect the fisheries. But we need to start thinking about that for these costal bass fisheries and asking those questions."

Tuesday
Mar082016

Is Stockpiling a Problem for Bass Fisheries? It Depends . . . 

Live-release boats prevent stockpiling of bass in the weigh-in areas.

Prompted by B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott,  anglers of the 1970s began to release their fish instead of kill them. During those early years, only the big picture was in focus, and it revealed bass fishermen to be stewards who cared about conserving the resource.

Then we began to closer examine our actions and their consequences, and we realized that not all of those released bass survived, including many caught in tournaments. We recognized that improper handling led to delayed mortality. We worked to increase survival rates by devising and promoting better ways to handle bass from lake to livewell to weigh-in stand and finally to release. In 2002,  B.A.S.S. compiled a "Keeping Bass Alive" handbook for anglers and tournament organizers.

We're not there yet, and likely never will be in terms of keeping all bass alive after they are released, but we've dramatically lowered delayed mortality rates through innovation and education.

And as we've responded to that challenge, we've noted yet another, this one specifically related to tournament fishing: Stockpiling.

Traditionally, the term referred to what the United States and USSR did with nuclear weapons during the Cold War or what survivalists continue to do with food, firearms, and precious metals. But during the past two decades or so, fisheries managers have recognized it as a phenomenon that occurs when all the bass are released near the weigh-in site following a tournament or two or three . . .

What's the problem with stockpiling? At a meeting last fall with Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) biologists, concerned anglers suggested that when bass are collectively released at a weigh-in site they become more susceptible to meat fishermen who catch and kill, as well as easier targets for future tournament anglers, resulting in increased  chances of stress, injury, and delayed mortality.

MDNR agreed that stockpiling can damage the overall health of a fishery, and Tony Prochaska, Inland Fisheries division manager, added that the issue likely is a national one. As evidence, he pointed out that 6 of 10 northeastern states that responded to questions about this issue said it is a concern.

Telemetry work conducted in the North East and Potomac rivers decades ago revealed that some fish will leave the release area, but about half may remain for a month or more. Out in California, a study conducted during the 1990s on Lake Shasta showed that largemouth bass moved less than three miles from where they were released. 

MDNR's tidal bass manager, Joe Love, says that the issue comes down to two questions:

1) Are too many fish being taken from one area, such as isolated streams and then released at a distant weigh-in site?

2) Are too many fish being released at a weigh-in area?

"We've found that the answer to both of these questions is that it depends on the weigh-in area," he said. "Specifically, it depends on the number of shore anglers fishing the weigh-in area, water quality in the area, and the distance of the weigh-in area from streams where the fish were taken."

Additional variables include the numbers and sizes of the fish weighed and the sizes and timing of the tournaments

Anglers and fisheries managers alike agree that there's an acceptable  loss or mortality of fish, Love added.  Otherwise there wouldn't be limits. But how much does stockpiling add to that loss, especially at popular sites where multiple weigh-ins are staged each season?

"Pinpointing the relative impact of a single factor is nearly impossible, making successful mitigation of that single factor improbable," the biologist said. "In combination with other factors affecting a fishery, though, stockpiling may affect a fishery if it increases the number of fish caught and released at the weigh-in site and the number of fish caught and eaten at the weigh-in site, both of which increases fishing mortality and reduces the proportion of big fish in a population."

Unlike habitat loss and other factors affecting the quality of a bass fishery, stockpiling likely can be managed. MDNR hopes to do that by having tournament directors specify what management practices they intend to use, such as spreading around weigh-in areas during a tournament trail and/or reducing possession limits.

"We also are working with some tournament organizations such as B.A.S.S. and PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America) to redistribute fish when they request assistance because of otherwise significant, undue harm to bass survival," Love said.

Because of so many variables, stockpiling is a more complex problem than delayed mortality, but fisheries managers and concerned anglers are working on it to better protect and enhance the nation's bass fisheries.

Thursday
Jul302015

Exotic Catfish Are in Our Waters Too

Asian carp are the exotic fish species that we hear the most about, but plenty of others are established in our waters as well, mostly because of an under-regulated exotic pet industry and irresponsible aquarium owners. Clinton Richardson recently caught this unusual catfish while fishing the lower Susquehanna River.  Biologists identified it as a hybrid catfish from the aquarium trade, a cross between a redtail catfish and a tiger shovelnose catfish. Both grow large in their native South America.

"Irresponsible aquarium owners continue to introduce exotic and at times invasive fish to our waterways when their pet fish become too large or they tire of them," noted the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "The introduction of the northern snakehead is a perfect example."

The big question now is whether climate is too cold for such exotic catfish to establish breeding populations that far north, if they haven't already.

USGS photo

In Florida, meanwhile, the suckermouth armored catfish, also from South America, is firmly entrenched over much of the peninsula. And almost certainly it came from the aquarium trade as well, as it often is labeled a "plecostomus" or "algae eater."

The burrows that they make for spawning likely cause or exacerbate erosion on shorelines of canals and rivers, although no quantitative data is available on that. Additionally, they have been observed browsing on the algae that frequently grows on the backs of manatees.

"Manatee responses varied widely; some did not react visibly to attached catfish whereas others appeared agitated and attempted to dislodge the fish. The costs and/or benefits of this interaction to manatees remain unclear," said the U.S. Geological Survey.

Monday
Sep152014

What's Ailing Susquehanna River Smallmouth Bass?

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission photo

Despite its refusal to declare the Susquehanna River impaired last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) says that it will continue intensive sampling of what was once a world-class smallmouth fishery.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission asked for the designation, as fingerlings continue to die, adults carry ugly lesions, and eggs show up in the testes of male fish. Additionally, an estimated 80 percent of the bass seem to have disappeared from the central part of the state, where the North and West Branches meet, down to Conowingo Dam in Maryland.

The 2014 plan calls for analysis of fish tissue for pesticides, PCBs, and metals. Also biologists will look at insects, mussels, and other invertebrates, as well as sample the water for sediment, pollution, and pesticides.

At 464 miles, the Susquehanna is the largest river to drain into the Atlantic, and its massive watershed of 27,500 square miles includes portions of New York and Maryland, as well as nearly half of Pennsylvania.

“Over the last two years where we tremendously enhanced our examination efforts, DEP has learned a great deal about the health of the Susquehanna River,” said Secretary E. Christopher Abruzzo.

 “It is important to continue these efforts so that DEP can create policy and regulation based on facts and sound science.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation believes that a “perfect storm” of conditions have contributed to the sick and declining smallmouth population, with pollution from farms and sewage plants, low dissolved oxygen, rising water temperatures among the contributors. These stressors make the fish more susceptible to bacteria, parasites, and diseases that might not have affected them in the past.

(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)