Do­ing the right thing for bass

Maryland Independent - - Sports - Jamie Drake

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.

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