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Change is Coming

Expect new regulations on size and hooks in 2018 rockfish season

       A couple of critical changes are coming to the 2018 recreational rockfish regulations on the Chesapeake. Relax, for the news is good. These changes will have a positive impact on sportfishing in the Bay.
      Baring any complication, these modifications would go into effect May 16 or soon thereafter.
      The vast majority of striped bass that live in the Atlantic Ocean are born in our Chesapeake. But because they are a migratory species and with a significant presence all along the Atlantic seaboard from Maine through Georgia, striped bass are managed federally by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Any changes to state regulations affecting striped bass have to meet the approval of the Commission.
        Maryland Department of Natural Resources requested some changes to the state’s current regulations, and those requests were approved.
        The first change is that the minimum size limit for stripers will be reduced from 20 inches to 19 inches. The intent is to protect the year class just reaching legal size, growth that usually takes about three years.
       While it may seem counterintuitive to reduce harvest size to protect a population, here’s the thinking behind the change. 
       The general size of any year class at the three-year point is between 19 and 21 inches. With the current minimum size of 20 inches, many caught fish must be released. 
        The accompanying mortality from the stress of this catch-and-release has been calculated at an average of nine percent. Considering that releases can often number in the millions (4.5 million in 2016), fish mortality numbers can be very big. Reducing the minimum size in this case should lessen the necessity of releases.
       The second major change, again intended to reduce the release mortality, is requiring non-offset circle hooks with bait of every type.
       Chumming and live-lining, the most popular and effective methods for catching Chesapeake rockfish during the summer seasons after May 16, share one negative aspect: the likelihood of deep hooking. Deep hooking occurs when the fish swallows the bait and the hook settles in its stomach or far down in its throat. If this fish is released for insufficient size or any other reason, the possibility of the striper’s survival is less than 50 percent within two hours of release. The use of non-offset circle hooks reduces the incidence of deep hooking by half.
        A circle hook has a point and barb bent back at an angle of about 90 percent to the hook shank, giving it an almost circular shape. A non-offset hook is one whose bend and point are directly in line with the shank. Developed by the commercial fishing industry to hook and retain fish by the mouth without killing them — so that the fish retain their marketability — they have become an important tool in sportfish conservation.
        Circle hooks are an advantage for our fishery, but we sport anglers will have to learn how to use them. The traditional technique when using the common, and soon-to-be-illegal J-hooks is to strike back hard with the fishing rod once a bite has been noted, setting the hook into the fish. This will not work with a circle hook.
         The design of the circle hook depends on the fish pulling against the resistance of the line so that the hook (even if swallowed) will eventually pull out of the fish’s stomach or throat and end up in the corner of its mouth to lodge firmly. Using a circle hook, an angler merely points the rod at the fish and allows the line to come tight, making no pulling effort until sure that the fish has been firmly hooked. Then it’s normal fish-fighting strategies. 
        So you’ve got a new skill to practice.
        These two regulatory changes will do much to ensure that one of the most important of Maryland’s natural treasures, the rockfish, will be conserved and treated wisely so that we may all enjoy its company on the water and at the dinner table for generations to come.