A group of charter guests with Kent Island's Lead Dog Charters in August 2023. Lead Dog's owner, Brian Hardman, is president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association, which is part of a lawsuit fighting tight new rockfish regulations.

Fishing Groups Sue over Rockfish Catch Limits

Two Maryland commercial fishing groups have filed suit challenging new striped bass harvest limits imposed on charter fishing businesses and watermen, arguing that they are “illegal, unnecessary and improperly premised.”

In a complaint filed March 8 in the U.S. District Court of Maryland, the Delmarva Fisheries Association and Maryland Charter Boat Association and two of their members contend that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) violated federal and state law and constitutions in ordering harvest reductions. They warned that consumers would pay more to buy striped bass in markets and restaurants, while the state’s 377 licensed charter fishing outfits could suffer losses of 50–65%, forcing many out of business.

“Watermen, waterwomen and charter boat operators already face a huge and growing number of obstacles in their world,” said Rob Newberry, chairman of the Delmarva Fisheries Association, in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “For them and for all Marylanders, it will be a tragedy of epic proportions if this mandate stands.”

The Atlantic States commission, which regulates inshore fishing for migratory species from Maine to Florida, voted in January to curtail recreational and commercial catches of the popular finfish also known in the Chesapeake Bay region as rockfish. Under the rules, scheduled to take effect on May 1, the allowable daily catch of recreational anglers—including those who pay to fish from charter boats— drop from two fish to one fish. Commercial fishers who harvest striped bass for sale face a 7% reduction in their annual catch quota.

States had already tightened catch limits in 2019 under commission orders after scientists warned that striped bass were being overfished and the number of adult female fish had fallen below what was needed to sustain the population.

The new curbs adopted in January came in response to a spike in recreational harvest in 2022 that scientists said jeopardized efforts to restore the species’ abundance by the end of the decade.

The Bay also saw a fifth straight year of poor reproduction in Maryland waters and below-average reproduction in Virginia. The Chesapeake is the primary spawning and nursery grounds for Atlantic striped bass. 

Maryland watermen and charter boat captains contended they shouldn’t be subject to any cuts because the surge in losses of striped bass came mostly from recreational anglers along the Mid-Atlantic coast.

The lawsuit asserts that there is “no scientific or rational basis” for the new harvest reductions to be applied to Bay fishers. The coastal stock of striped bass is no longer experiencing overfishing, the groups note. And while the total harvest and mortality of fish increased 32% coastwide in 2022 over the previous year, the groups say it has been steadily declining in the Bay since 2017.

Conservation groups and recreational fishing groups insisted that all sectors of the fishery should sacrifice to help rebuild the fish population. They particularly objected to Maryland charter customers being allowed to keep two fish a day, while all other anglers could keep only one per day.

Maryland and New Jersey opposed the charter fishing reduction but were outvoted by the rest of the commission’s members. The commission then voted to reduce the commercial catch quota by 7%.

The lawsuit contends that the commission violated its own rules in adopting the charter catch limit by counting the votes of two federal agencies, the District of Columbia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, a bi-state body. The commission’s bylaws say that only states with an interest in a fishery may recommend changes, the lawsuit says.

The harvest reductions have been a particularly bitter pill for Maryland’s charter boat captains. They reported a 17% decline in their striped bass catch last year from their 2021 level, and they warned that their businesses would decline drastically if their clients could no longer bring home two fish a day.

Brian Hardman, president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association, had called on Maryland fisheries regulators to defy the Atlantic states commission’s order. But Department of Natural Resources officials said refusal to comply could result in swift imposition of a federal fishing moratorium in the state. DNR took steps of its own beyond the commission’s directive, like canceling the spring trophy season, and said it intends to impose further limits for the summer, when hot weather increases the risk of fish dying even if released after being hooked.

Ken Jeffries, a charter boat captain from Severna Park, said in a deposition that 95% of his customers are interested only in fishing for striped bass and that the fish have “never been more plentiful” than now in his portion of the Bay. He said some customers already have canceled planned outings with him because of the pending cutback from two to one fish per trip.

Maryland watermen also object to the 7% cut in their allowable harvest. They say it comes on top of a 14% cut imposed a decade earlier.

Brian Nesspor, a Rock Hall fisherman who joined the lawsuit, said in a deposition that striped bass have been abundant in the Bay the last three to five years. But watermen have been squeezed by rising fuel and gear costs, declining prices for their catch and tightening red tape. He warned that  “there is no future livelihood if current trends continue.”

The lawsuit asks the federal court to set aside the ordered harvest reductions either completely or as they apply to the groups suing. Tina Berger, spokesperson for the Atlantic states commission, said she could not comment on the lawsuit.

This story first appeared at on March 12, 2024.