Doing the right thing for bass
One of my best friends is a high school teacher. Almost two decades ago, during her first year on the job, she stressed out a lot about preparing her students to pass a certain state-level test.
My parents — experienced teachers themselves — told her to relax; the test would go out of favor soon enough and another test would take its place. Sure enough, the ver y next year a new test was introduced. And a few years later, that one was scrapped for a better one.
That’s the way it goes in education. With so many special interests and politics involved, it feels like what might be in the students’ best interest is the last thing considered. The system keeps doing the same thing over and over again with similar results, just calling it by a new name.
The situation of the bass population in the Potomac River is eerily similar. Tournament organizers, fishing guides, environmentalists and recreational fishermen are all stakeholders and all have an opinion. I’ll let you guess who has the upper hand in the decision making … just follow the money.
The black bass fishery in the Potomac has been steadily declining since 2010. In response, Mar yland instituted a new rule for 2016 seeking to limit impact to the black bass fishery, mandating that anglers could possess five bass of a minimum length of 12 inches, only one which may be 15 inches or longer.
Immediately there was backlash from tournament organizers. B.A.S.S., arguably the most recognizable name in bass fishing, was already scheduled for a tournament on the Potomac and said it would pull out. They would not conduct an Elite Series tournament on the Potomac under the new guidelines that limit the number of bass 15 inches or longer.
The rule was created to protect the older bass which are more likely to suffer adverse effects from being confined to a live well all day, with limited oxygen, only to be transported to weigh-in and released in a different section of the river from their home territory. Even following best fish-handling practices and tr ying to minimize stress, many fish don’t survive tournament weigh-in, and the survival odds are worse the bigger the fish. Add in the extreme heat of July and August in Mar yland, and the delayed mortality can result in a lot of dead bass.
But the new rule didn’t last very long. Department of Natural Resources apparently capitulated to the pressure of tournament organizers, the ones who didn’t want to limit anglers to weighing in only one fish over 15 inches, and created an Option 2 to appease
them. If organizers choose Option 2, the tournament director has to “agree to ensure fish are taken care of and released in good condition.”
The Potomac River used to be an incredible bass fishery, one of the top destinations in the United States. Not anymore. Even when suggestions from the first advisory group convened to address the issue, the Black Bass Roundtable, was implemented, the fisher y continued to decline. Stocking efforts, habitat creation and addressing pollution and the effects of invasive species have not helped the bass population recover.
So DNR has convened a new group this year called the Black Bass Advisory Subcommittee to hopefully do what hasn’t been done yet. They will be voting on new management options for the conservation of Maryland’s black bass fisheries. The two things they will be considering are size limits and special closed or catch-and-release areas.
DNR has proposed two options for size limits, but both allow tournaments to obtain permits that let anglers keep more than one fish longer than 15 inches. The words “special conditions” and “waiver” are included in those options, and that portends that it’s going to be more of the same old policies, with a new name. The size limit needs to be capped at one fish longer than 15 inches — with no options or waivers — if that is what DNR and other experts think is going to benefit the fisher y the most. And some serious consideration needs to be given to creating specific catch-and-release areas to protect bass.
The rule to limit possession of larger bass isn’t to punish tournament anglers and it certainly isn’t to blame tournaments for the state of the current fisher y. But by keeping several hundred — or probably closer to several thousand — more fish alive and healthy in the Potomac (and these are the big ones, the sur vivors, the mature fish we hope will pass on their superior DNA to their offspring), then the rule needs to be implemented with no gray areas to finagle if a tournament group doesn’t like it. This is a period of crisis for black bass and DNR needs to do something significant and within their power to assist these fish until the population strengthens.
Calling a test by a new name doesn’t help students learn better. Taking a roundtable and then making an advisory committee isn’t going to help protect fish, unless some real, actual change takes place. It’ll be more of the same and the fishery will continue to suffer.
We all know where the tournament organizers stand. They want more and bigger fish on those scales at weigh-in. One really big fish is enough in a fishery already taxed by tournaments nearly every single day in the summer on the Potomac.
There’s a big B.A.S.S. tournament launching out of Smallwood State Park this week. Over 150 boats will be taking to the Potomac on Thursday and anglers will be weighing in bass for four days. Weighin will take place on location at Smallwood State Park on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday and Sunday, the fish will be transported to the Indian Head Village Green. Keeping any fish out of the river in the August heat is less than ideal, but this is a major improvement over some Potomac River tournaments that have transported the fish all the way to the Walmart in La Plata for weigh-in.
It’s not just tourism dollars on the line. Protecting black bass is a task DNR is charged with in their mission statement. It’s high time these fish get the protection they need so they can live longer and stronger and ensure that there will be bass in the Potomac for our kids and grandchildren to enjoy. Let’s hope this new advisor y committee does the right thing for bass and future generations of bass anglers.