President Bush in October said he supported designating striped bass as a "game fish" which would make it off-limits to commercial fishermen, saying he was worried about the species being overfished.
The president issued an Executive Order directing the departments of Commerce and Interior to prohibit the sale of striped bass, as well as red drum, caught in federal waters.
Because fishing for both species in federal waters, those more than 3 miles offshore, is already prohibited, the impact of the action is unclear.
But the Executive Order also called on federal agencies to encourage states to designate striped bass and red drum as game fish in state waters and prohibit commercial sales.
"These two species were once abundant in American waters, but their stocks have been overfished," Bush said in his weekly radio address, which had been timed to coincide with a Chesapeake Bay fishing trip.
Bush called his order a conservation measure, but state officials said it has little to no practical effect and could inflame tensions between recreational anglers and commercial fishermen, by siding with the sports fishermen who don't fish for a living.
In a statement, Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Eric Schwaab said state law requires "fair and equitable allocation of fishery resources among user groups" and said that allocation should be made by states in consultation with neighboring jurisdictions.
Schwaab said the state would continue to monitor striped bass populations but had "more pressing fishery management concerns, including: protecting the health of our Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries and our other coastal areas; restoring critical oyster populations that filter water and provide aquatic habitat; and ensuring adequate forage fish, like menhaden, necessary to feed our healthy striped bass population.
"We look forward to help from our federal partners on these important and costly efforts," he added.
Striped bass is the Maryland state fish. They were severely overfished in the late 1970s and early 1980s, ultimately resulting in a federally enforced coastwide fishing moratorium in the late 1980s. But the population rebounded strongly after the moratorium, and striped bass are generally considered a fishery management success.
Figures from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is responsible for setting catch limits for coastal migratory fish, show that striped bass numbers are at their highest level in decades and the species is not close to being overfished.
Some scientists believe striped bass have become so numerous that they are overwhelming their food supply in the Chesapeake.
The status of the red drum, which is primarily found south of the Chesapeake and is the state fish of North Carolina, is less certain. Overfishing of red drum, which is prized by recreational anglers because it can grow up to 40 pounds, may be taking place, according to the ASMFC.
Some recreational fishing groups have long encouraged the game fish designation for striped bass.
The organization Stripers Forever, for instance, contends that striped bass are more economically valuable as a sport fish as the roughly 3 million recreational anglers who fish for striped bass along the coast outnumber commercial fishermen by 300 to 1.
"The real value of striped bass is not as a seasonal market commodity, but as a public resource that offers social, economic and recreational benefits to millions of Americans from Maine to South Carolina," according to the group.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said it was unfair to prevent commercial fishermen from catching striped bass just so recreational anglers could catch more.
"That's not managing the resource," he said. "That's taking away from one and giving it to another."
"I don't know how you can justify it because striped bass aren't any problem at all. In fact, we've got an overabundance of them," Simns said.
Striped bass, shad numbers up
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources' 2007 striped bass juvenile index is 13.4, slightly above the 54-year average of 12.0.
DNR biologists collected 1,768 young-of-year striped bass during the survey, which is a measurement of striped bass spawning success in Chesapeake Bay.
Striped bass populations are known for variable spawning success. This year's healthy reproduction is the ninth above average index in the last 12 spawning seasons. Typically, several years of average reproduction are interspersed with occasional large and small year-classes.
"The successful continued abundance of striped bass along the Atlantic coast depends upon our stewardship of striped bass spawning habitat in Maryland, and the commitment of the Atlantic coastal states to sustainable fisheries management," said Howard King, DNR Fisheries Service director.
Biologists also observed record numbers of young-of-year American shad in the Upper Bay and very high numbers in the Potomac River. American shad have been protected by a fishing moratorium in Maryland since 1980 because of a decline in their population.
The American shad index of 19.4 was the second highest ever recorded.
Each month, from July through September, biologists visit 22 survey sites in the four major spawning systems: the Choptank, Potomac and Nanticoke rivers and the Upper Bay.
They collect fish samples with two sweeps of a 100-foot beach seine. The index is calculated as the average catch of young-of-year fish per sample.