Chesapeake Tournament Regulations

Chesapeake Tournament Regulations
from The Fishing Wire

Editor’s Note: Yesterday, we presented Maryland DNR’s take on reasons for new regulations on tournament bass fishing in the tidal Potomac River and Upper Chesapeake Bay. Today, we’ve got the other side of the coin from tournament angler, guide and outdoor writer Steve Chaconas:

In the first meeting of the MD DNR Black Bass Advisory Subcommittee in August, the BBAS was presented information and justification for 2 options for tournament restrictions on the Tidal Potomac and Upper Chesapeake Bay.

Without discussion or understanding of the waiver conditions or seeking collaborative data, as MD biologist Joe Love couldn’t predict the effect of these changes, the newly formed 13 member BBAS voted to restrict tournament angling by recommending a slot limit possession regulation from June 15 to March 1 affecting all anglers.

At a September meeting, waivers to the new slot limit (4 fish between 12-15 inches and ONLY one fish over 15 inches) were discussed. Beyond standard licensing, livewell inspections, and dead fish penalties, there are numerous fish handling requirements. No fish-piercing culling systems are allowed. Bass will be transported in bags filled with water no longer than two (2) minutes prior to, during, and after weigh-in without supplemental aeration and/or water exchange. Fish must then be placed in mobile holding tanks, not immediately released into the water. The total weight of bass confined shall not exceed one pound per gallon. Tanks shall be equipped with aeration, air injection, or oxygenation systems. Water shall be maintained at the river surface temperature or no more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit below the surface temperature. A release boat, tanks on a trailer or in the bed of a truck, a pre-release tank to hold bass or refresh bass before their release to the water or using bass boats live wells, will allow fish to recuperate before release. MD DNR will provide assistance in redistribution of bass at approved sites. For larger commercial, out of state organizations, compliance to achieve waivers is part of their existing tournament model. It is the smaller, local events that do not have the specialized equipment nor the manpower to carry out the extra weigh in steps.

At the heart of the issue is really whether any action is needed at all. August’s Bassmaster Elite Series tournament winner brought in an astounding 18 pounds a day with many 20+ pound bags weighed in. This year’s event had an average fish weight of 2.94 pounds compared to 2.29 pounds in 2007. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologist John Odenkirk maintains, that in a fishery with a high voluntary release rate (over 99%), and a low total annual mortality rate, restrictive regulations would only inconvenience anglers. “There is no evidence of excessive angling mortality. Recruitment is not density dependent on spawning stock but is linked to environmental variables. The regulation is a poor solution in search of a problem.”

Often cited as further evidence the Potomac’s demise was the absence for several years on the Bassmaster Top 100 fisheries list. However, this list is an informal survey of fisheries managers, outdoors writers and BASS Nation officials, not a scientific study.

Ten years of tournament data, reflecting results of 12 Potomac events a year, has been compiled from Virginia’s New Horizons Bass Club by Odenkirk for tabulation, who remarked this data is amazingly consistent and similar to electrofishing data showing an improvement this year and getting near average, while still not back to the prime years 2009-2012.

In November, MD DNR gave the BBAS a Potomac data preview. What had been three consecutive years below their Fisheries Management Plan line was now well above their threshold to take action, but not enough for MDDNR nor the BBAS to reconsider small tournament restrictions. The Department is taking the next step in making the slot limit a law, public scoping.

During the August meeting where the BBAS passed the tournament restrictions, the man who literally wrote the book on fish care, fisheries biologist Gene Gilliland was present. With over 30 years fisheries management experience, he recently became B.A.S.S. Conservation Director. Gilliland noted the 13-member BBAS composition where 6 are guides, giving the appearance tournament anglers are not fairly represented. “In my opinion, the process needs to slow down and take a step back…look harder at the makeup of the committee and look even harder at the data and recommendations being made. Ask the committee for solutions rather than offering a suite of options with little room for modification. Moving too fast and alienating a large portion of your constituency is never a good thing for an agency to do.”

In October, the MD Sport Fish Advisory Commission tabled the BBAS slot limit regulation recommendation. The DNR Director was concerned that an opposition letter sent to the SFAC Commissioners and the BBAS subcommittee would delay pubic scoping before heading to the MD General Assembly for the slot limit to become law. A special BBAS meeting in November began with a motion to investigate board members who presented slot limit opposition to the Sport Fish Advisory Commission. The motion was soundly defeated.

Given their opportunity for public comment, speakers voiced strong slot limit opposition. Capt. John Sisson, Potomac guide and tournament angler representing DC anglers, said this recommendation appears to be an attack on tournament anglers. VA Tournament director Lee Blount concurred, adding they do not have the budget to purchase or manpower to operate a professional style weigh in. He also made it clear their events already practice good fish care and have even restricted limits to 4 fish.

Resonating what others presented to the BBAS, the President of Maryland’s largest bass club, Fish On Bass Anglers, said confusing and prohibitive regulations have forced his club to opt out of Potomac fishing. Logan Summers says his 60 members are opposed to the BBAS slot recommendation, saying slot limit waivers can only be achieved by larger commercial tournament entities. He noted an unintended consequence of the restrictive slot limit, with major events being scheduled outside the slot limit calendar, staged during the spawn. Anglers left with the belief that the BBAS has an anti-tournament sentiment.

Worse yet is the impact on local charity tournaments. The Reel American Heroes Foundation (RAHF) has afforded military members a day on the water and supplies for our overseas troops. With uncertainly of whether they would qualify for a waiver, RAHF is pursuing alternative fisheries, at the risk of losing anglers and sponsors. Another charity mainstay unable to qualify for a waiver is the St. Jude Children’s Hospital tournament, raising over $250,000 in 21 years. Anglers surveyed revealed 70% would not fish a slot limit event.

MD DNR has not supplied any impact studies of the recommended slot limit other than pointing to new Florida fishing restrictions. There are enormous differences. FL permits possession of 5 fish with only one over 16. Their stated rationale was to protect Florida’s lunker population and to encourage the harvesting of smaller fish, allowing any size below 16 inches and consolidating numerous fishing regulations across the state for easier compliance and enforcement. Interestingly, waivers for tournaments do NOT require weigh in tubs, recovery tubs or fish relocation to release sites. In other words, there are no comparisons.

Maryland needs to find another way to guide anglers to better fish care.
Bottom line, without MD reaching out to VA and DC Departments and considering the impact on small local angling clubs, it will take a united opposition to keep up the pressure on the MD DNR and up the chain.
Fish care should not be regulated, in this case, but rather educated.

Capt. Steve Chaconas has covered pro bass fishing for more than 20 years. He’s a guide on the Potomac River and a contributing writer for BoatU.S. (