A decade ago, when fishery managers were making hard and unpopular decisions about cutting - even closing - striped bass seasons, they could only dream about what has happened the last few years.

From the brink of collapse, striped bass have had record spawns in the Bay two of the last four years. Coastwide stocks have been officially declared "recovered." But that dream hasn't turned out to be all pleasant.

"You would think it would get easier when you get more fish, right?" asked Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Think again.

Only weeks before the new year begins, the interjurisdictional board that sets fishing quotas in the Bay and along the coast has failed to agree on the 1997 striped bass catch.

Instead, their actions have sparked a heated debate that has pitted state against state and recreational fishermen against commercial fishermen.

The debate won't be ended until late January when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission - which tries to promote cooperative fisheries management - figures out how to resolve an issue in which biology and politics are intertwined. The ASMFC is made up of representatives from all the East Coast states and cooperates with two federal agencies, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The controversy, fishery managers say, illustrates that problems with abundance are often more difficult than those dealing with scarcity. "I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg," predicted John Field, anadromous species coordinator for the commission.

Since the striped bass fishery was reopened in 1990, the ASMFC striped bass plan has allowed a gradual increase in fishing pressure as the stock has grown. When the fishery was first reopened, fishing quotas and regulations were designed to keep the annual fish kill at 22 percent of the available legal size fish. That grew to 28 percent for 1995 and 1996, and was to increase to a maximum rate of 33 percent in 1997.

The actual catch amount, which is allocated among coastal states and to ommercial and recreational fishermen, is determined by applying those rates to elaborate models that estimate the size of the striped bass stock.

A new, improved model was to be used for the 1997 allocation, but it has not yet been completed. Without the model, the ASMFC's striped bass management board decided to take a "conservative" approach to managing the 1997 stock which keeps next year's fishery at this year's level.

But holding the line at 1996 levels is easier said than done. It could mean keeping the 1997 catch at 1996 levels, or it could mean holding the fishing rate at 1996 levels.

"You take one of those options and it's good for the Bay and bad for the coast," said Goldsborough, a member of the ASMFC striped bass board who was appointed by the Maryland governor. "You take the other one, it's the other way around. So you have a political difficulty here."

The discrepancy between the Bay and the coast has to do with the striped bass life cycle, managers say.

The Chesapeake is the largest spawning area for striped bass. Young fish typically stay in the Bay until they are 3 or 4 years old, reaching lengths of18 inches or a little longer. After that, the fish begin leaving the Bay to migrate up and down the coast.

In 1997, the huge number of fish spawned in 1993 - the largest spawn on record at that time - will start reaching the legal catch size of 18 inches the Bay.

As a result, if fishing levels were set at the same fishing rate as 1996 - 28 percent mortality - the potential Bay catch would increase dramatically because so many more striped bass are entering the "fishable" population.

On the coast, the minimum catch size is larger - 28 inches - to help make sure enough fish reach maturity to return to the Bay and spawn. But fish don't reach that size for another two or three years after leaving the Chesapeake.

So while the same fishing rate allows a surge in catches for the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, it does nothing for coastal fishermen who are still catching fish spawned in the late 1970s,1980s and early 1990s when production was lower.

"They don't see them on the coast until five or six years after the big spawns occur in the Bay," said Pete Jensen, deputy director for fisheries with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "It'll be another few years before they see the benefits of these record years that we've had."

And this year, the situation is even worse for the coastal states.

Scientists reviewing annual catch data concluded that slightly more fish had been caught in recent years than previously thought. Even small changes in fishing-related mortality have a great impact on the sensitive model used to project future quotas. The result: Some quotas for coastal states were projected to fall by 40 percent in 1997.

In other words, because of a change in the coastal stock estimate - which exists more on paper than in reality - maintaining the 1996 rate would result in a dramatic drop in the ocean catch. By contrast, coastal states would benefit by keeping the 1997 catch the same as in 1996.

That disparity, though, is a public relations nightmare for fisheries managers.

"Here we were telling fishermen on one hand that stocks were at an all-time high and continuing to grow like crazy, and on the other side of our mouth we're saying that quotas are coming down - and by a lot in some jurisdictions," Field said. "That just doesn't make sense to people, and not without reason."

The issue also raised the ire of some sport fishermen. Different calculations are used to determine the sport and commercial catches. Because the commercial catch is capped at a certain level, it can vary greatly from year to year in response to the health of the stock. When a state's commercial quota is hit, it closes its commercial fishery.

The recreational fishery, controlled by adjusting season length and catch limits, is not so responsive to changing conditions. Because there is so much more "killing power" in the sport fishery - which accounts for about 75 percent of the total striped bass take - annual adjustments are managed more conservatively to protect the stock, and there is less variation from year to year. "It's a lot easier to limit the commercial kill than it is the recreational kill," Field said.

That means that by keeping fishing rates the same as 1996, the commercial catch in the Bay would increase greatly while the coastal commercial catch would drop. Meanwhile, the recreational catch would have little change.

"The recreational guys are crying foul," said Goldsborough. "It's a difficult situation to say the least."

In September, the striped bass board voted 9-8 - which mainly pitted coastal states against the Bay states and the federal agency representatives - to keep the quotas, not the fishing rate, the same for 1997 and 1996.

Officials from the Bay states were furious, arguing that not only were they being penalized, the coastal states would be overfishing the stock.

"It was a knee-jerk reaction," Jensen said. "A lot of [state] directors found that explaining what we were doing at ASMFC was just too difficult and said, 'Let's freeze it, period,' and avoid all these other complications."

After strong protests were made by the Bay states and concerns were raised about the voting process, the board in October withdrew the September action. Instead, a range of policy options are being drafted and will go out for public comment in December and January. The board is scheduled to make its final decision the last week in January.

Ultimately, fishery managers hope some of the complications will be resolved for 1998 as the new model - called a Virtual Population Analysis - is completed. With information from the new model, they anticipate that catch limits will better reflect the overall health of the stock, and avoid sharp year-to-year fluctuations.

But even with the new model, allocation decisions will remain controversial, especially within the states. Rather than the ASMFC setting commercial quotas and recreational seasons and bag limits, the VPA may give each state a total allocation and leave fishery managers within the states the politically sensitive job of deciding how that total should be divided among user groups.

Maryland is already doing that, and recreational fishermen in the state are upset about the relatively high allocation of the total striped bass catch fishery managers make to the commercial fishery - about 42.5 percent - compared with the 25 percent coastwide average.

And Virginians are presently debating a new state plan to allocate the catch among various users. The allocation debates are a sign of things to come, said Jack Travelstead, chief of the fisheries management division of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

"It becomes much more difficult to manage a healthy fishery than one that's collapsed because when it's collapsed, there's only one way to go, and you know what you have to do," he said

"When it's healthy, there's a lot of different directions you can go, and you get into less of the biological needs of the resource and more into how you are going to allocate this among the user groups," he said. "And those questions are a lot harder to answer."

Copies of a draft addendum to the ASMFC Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan, which outline a range of 1997 options, will be available in early December.

For a copy, contact: John Field
1444 Eye St., N.W., 6th Floor,
Washington, DC 20005
Phone: (202) 289-6400

After the addendum is released, states are expected to hold public hearings on the options. For information, contact the Maryland Department of Natural Resources or the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.