Fishery management goes back many decades

September 23, 2017

Beginning in the early 1970s, I became interested in fishery management. The declining number of striped bass or rockfish caught my attention, and I tried to help the situation the best way I knew how. I became a member of Save Our Stripers and then a part of Bob Pond’s effort to get the government to pay attention to his studies on the Nanticoke River that indicated there was something wrong with the eggs carried by female rockfish.

Then there was a group of watermen in the Upper Chesapeake Bay that tried to establish a hatchery in Elkton. I went with them to collect males and females and then breed them in tanks before placing the tiny fry in ponds once used to grow catfish. Unfortunately, one pond still held a few catfish that were very happy to see all that food dropped in their laps.

The other pond was able to keep the small rockfish alive until they reached a size that the biologists told us could be released into the bay. How many of those rockfish survived is anyone’s guess. It only took one year for those involved to realize that it would take a tremendous amount of ponds and effort to even make a small contribution to the overall population of striped bass. The only way to restore striped bass was to protect the current population until conditions provided a dominate year class.

To this end, the State-Federal Striped Bass Commission was formed. I was selected to represent the recreational fishermen of Delaware, and, I think, Frenchie from Bowers Beach was the commercial rep. Roy Miller was the representative from DNREC.

At that time, there was very little cooperation between states, with each one propagating regulations that served its own purpose, and they had little to do with conservation. By the time Gov. Hughes of Maryland put the moratorium on rockfish, we had made little progress. Between the moratorium and Sen. Chaffee’s bill that required all states to abide by federal regulations, we finally saw some positive results.

Gov. Schaffer lifted the moratorium after what some, myself included, saw as a bogus Chesapeake Bay young-of-the-year class result due to the inclusion of Hambrooks Bar, a site never before used in the survey. We still had very strong restrictions on rockfish, but the commercial fishermen could go back to catching them, and that was what the governor wanted. 

Next up was summer flounder. Believe it or not, our first attempt was raising the minimum size to 12 inches. The flounder situation moved forward much quicker than the striped bass project, but today we once again face a serious decline in the population.

Along the way, I sat on the committee that brought about the saltwater fishing license in Virginia and did the same for the general fishing license in Delaware. I have also served on several federal and state advisory committees, so I have a pretty good idea how the regulation process works. 

Right now, people are trying to come up with regulations to control the harvest of menhaden. As usual, the commercial segment is going against the recreational and conservation segment.

The question is, do we cut the current harvest even though the stock is not being overfished, or do we keep the current regulations in place and watch to make sure overfishing does not occur? Added to the equation is the push by some to manage menhaden not only for human harvest, but as a food source for countless other marine species, from dolphin to rockfish. Since these species do not vote or make contributions to politicians, it is up to their human representatives to do so in their place.

Some of you may remember when Lewes was the menhaden capital of the world. Then the fish disappeared and so did the menhaden plant. I feel certain this is going to happen again no matter what type of regulation the government comes up with.

In my short time on the planet, I have seen not only menhaden, but weakfish, striped bass, Canada geese and porgies leave our area accompanied by loss of revenue for those who depended on the natural world for their livelihood. Mother Nature has a way of making the puny attempts of man to govern what she does seem very trivial. People should be more concerned with the water quality that keeps our marine fish and mammals alive than how many menhaden commercial fishermen take. While reasonable limits should be imposed on both recreational and commercial fishermen, shutting one or both out of a fishery just because you don’t think they should be allowed to remove any fish is just plain wrong. Nature always bats last, and when she decides there are too many menhaden, she will cull them out without any help from regulators.

  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age.  Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.  He has been the regional editor for Salt Water Sportsman, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and the Fisherman Magazine.  He was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine.  Eric is the author of three books; Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits.  He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at