Maryland, COVID-19, and Fishing: An Arbitrary Double-Standard that Endangers Public Health


Tony Friedrich VP/Policy Director

William Goldsmith Executive Director

Last Tuesday, March 30, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan issued a stay-at-home order for all residents.  Like most other states, this order closed all non-essential businesses, prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people, and directed citizens to shelter in place.  The concept, which we fully support, is to keep people separated to slow the spread of the virus.

Our concern with this directive came when Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released its interpretation of Governor Hogan’s mandate, also on March 30. While the Executive Order defines outdoor exercise such as hiking and biking as “essential activities” permitted under the stay-at-home-order, DNR’s guidance specifically states that “recreational boating is not allowed” and that only “subsistence hunting and fishing”—not recreational fishing—is allowed.

Famed fishing author, John Gierach, wrote, “The resolution to any problem—work, love, money, whatever –is to go fishing, and the worse the problem, the longer the trip should be.”

We, the fishermen, need the water more than ever now.  We need to be able to connect to something that resembles normalcy.  We find solace and balance in the isolation that rivers, marshes and lakes provide.  In Maryland, that is illegal now. 

Somehow, sitting in a boat by yourself on Chesapeake Bay or wading into a river for some catch-and-release shad fishing is a danger to public health, but hiking on a crowded trail or fishing near a dozen others to catch a stocked trout for dinner is not. This faulty interpretation has been a huge and unnecessary economic blow to tackle shops that look to March and April as a key moneymaker when anglers stock up for the season.

Our kids are home from school.  They miss their friends.  They are scared and their schedules have been completely disrupted.  But we are breaking the law if we take them to a secluded pond or creek and decide not to kill a fish?  This is absurd and yet another embarrassment in a long line of terrible decisions by MD DNR. (If this sounds personal, it’s because it is. ASGA’s VP/Policy Director and Executive Director both regularly fish Maryland waters—at least, they used to).

It gets better. An FAQ page published on DNR’s website on March 31 to clarify what constitutes a legal  outdoor activity offered this guidance regarding charter boat operation: “As part of the food supply chain, charter boats can continue operating but must abide by social distancing guidelines and the prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people. Charter boats and head boats should NOT have more than 10 individuals on the vessel at any time.”

Wait…WHAT?! Putting 10 people on a boat and demanding that they stay six feet apart and not touch any of the same stuff is like holding an eight-year-old’s birthday party at a Chuck E Cheese and telling the kids they can’t play any games. It ain’t gonna happen. A trip on these charter boats costs between $90 and $150 per person, for at most one striped bass over 35 inches or two striped bass over 19 inches. Part of the food supply chain? The phrase “it’s cheaper to go to the fish market” comes to mind. 

Whoever wrote the MD DNR interpretation never fished or stepped foot on a boat. We can only make that claim because MD DNR managers scrambled to hold a conference call the following morning to clean up this mess. It seems that the expert opinions of Maryland’s fisheries biologists and Natural Resources Police were not sought before the March 30 Executive Order and DNR advisory were issued. Instead, they were given the unenviable task of turning poultry waste into chicken salad. Hours after their emergency huddle, the FAQ page was released.  Our heart goes out to the folks who had to deal with this debacle. The conditions they labor under are sad for a once-proud department. 

Let us reiterate: We fully support all state actions that promote citizen safety and compliance with CDC guidelines during this unprecedented public health emergency. But picking economic winners and losers with no clear rationale for such actions only demonstrates that Maryland DNR’s priorities are woefully misaligned with its mission statement of “securing a sustainable future for our environment, society, and economy by preserving, protecting, restoring, and enhancing the State’s natural resources.”

It’s worth noting that Maryland’s actions are contrary to those of just about every other state on the East Coast. Others have promoted private recreational angling as a safe way to get outside and blow off steam during these difficult times, provided that participants practice common sense and adherence to CDC social distancing guidelines. While the charter sector is a bit fuzzier of an issue, it stands to reason that charter fishing is by and large not part of the “food supply chain,” and a handful of states—New York, New Jersey and Virginia—have explicitly prohibited it, which seems like a common-sense approach to us. Yes, we are a guides association, and want folks who make a living from recreational fishing to be able to ply their trade if it’s safe to do so. But we recognize in this instance that taking strangers onto your boat is likely not in the best interest of public health.

Let us assure you that this is not a case of sour grapes. Rather, it’s just another example of Maryland’s practicing favoritism for some of its constituents over others. There’s no rational explanation of why Maryland is propping up the for-hire fleet at the risk of spreading COVID-19, but perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Keep in mind that Maryland officials banned catch-and-release fishing in April for striped bass and reallocated the resource to the charter for-hire community by giving them a two-fish limit while the rest of the fishing community has a one-fish creel limit. 

It’s disheartening, to say the least, that Maryland’s recreational anglers are unfairly shut out from what should be a welcome distraction and outlet, while its for-hire sector is permitted to operate in a manner that puts all of us at risk. This is unfortunately not the first time that Maryland has broken ranks with its neighboring states, and it won’t be the last. Rest assured that we at ASGA will continue fighting for what we believe is right for both the resource and those who depend on it as a source of income and recreation. In the meantime, hunker down, stay safe, and go fishing—if you’re not in Maryland, that is.

8 Responses

  1. Failing to take remedial measures within its authority to protect Striped Bass is by far the most astonishing and reprehensible act that the DNR has done to date. And it seems that it is getting worse as new issues arise. This action has caused a loss to citizens who pay high taxes, fishing licenses, boat fees, trailer fees, marina fees and fuel for boats. This action also reduces the sale of items from tackle shop owners, fuel station owners, marina owners and necessity stores such as sub shops and convenience stores. This all happened before the Covid-19 health issue.

    Now we cannot go out and simply catch and release a fish with a member of our household? What on earth is the message here? They don’t like catch and release? That is what one would deduce from such moronic rules. DNR claims their rules are reducing the numbers of the striped bass population oh…and protecting the recreational anglers from themselves and others. Not allowing a person to catch and release a fish in the open outdoors and far from others is a public outcry. These rules imply nothing other than there is a causal connection whereby political monetary interests were put above the general publics welfare and rights to fishing access.

  2. Wow – there’s a lot of “angst” behind your post and it feels – regardless of the pandemic – pent-up against MD. While I will be among the first to admit MD has had more than its share of missteps (ok that’s way too forgiving) with the fishery/regulations, many of us average joe’s continue to try – when and where we can – to push for change that is in line with the rest of the coast. A couple other observations/comments:

    1) Gov Hogan has taken one of the most aggressive and proactive stances during the pandemic – keeping our curve flat in relation to many other states. Point being – there are some bright spots in MD Leadership…..Maybe he can run DNR after office…

    2) I think you got it wrong on the Rec Fishing mandate….all of us did initially. We spent a month on this over a couple of days down here ; ). Poor construction and communication of the information on the part of DNR for sure, however, fishing (for sustenance) IS allowed (evidently you’re just not supposed to derive any enjoyment out of it). The terms “recreational” and “boating” were the culprits in spawning a myriad of interpretations. “Recreational Boating” is NOT allowed (picture; 30 Pontoon boats rafted up and coughing on each other). You can, though, fish (and take your kids out) as long as you are primarily engaged in fishing (if you get some recreation out of it, well, just keep it to yourself) silly, I know. Lots of back and forth with DNR and some of the verbiage is still clear as mud, but no one is getting hauled off for legitimately fishing for dinner.

    Guys are out and getting their kids (and even wives) out. Lots of Channel/Blue Cats being taken and fileted – which is a good thing.

    3) as to the other guidelines regarding charters, no more than 10, keep your distance, etc; You got me – This is idiocy. But anyone who would climb on a charter with 10+ folks and think they are being safe – is just not thinking straight. Rumor has it Hogan may shut that down in the next day or so anyway.

    MD is and has been a mess in many ways specific to the fishery. I’m sure it’s hard not to vilify us, but I hope you will try. There are a lot of us down here that know this is a coastal fishery vs just the Bay and tribs.

    The silver lining we see is that the height of the pandemic is taking place during April – which is shut down anyway.

    Thank you for your numerous efforts, keep up the good work and say hey to Pete! (tell him he should sell those SWE Vests……Id buy a few….

    1. Chuck, we live and fish in Maryland. Personally, I have been professionally working on fisheries issues in Maryland for almost 20 years. I have worked with every Governor since Glendening and likewise every director at DNR. This administration and their constant assault against recreational fishing is too much. We will continue to a full court press on Maryland. We will be relentless. They have done nothing to improve the fishery for years. They pick winners and losers constantly and with them, the resource never wins.

  3. Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.

    I’ll post this on my site tomorrow. We need to share information like this to as many interested parties as possible. Someday, it will work to our advantage.

  4. To quote a physician I work with (who’s just getting over a bout with Covid 19): “The inmates have taken over the asylum…”

    Stay healthy Steve (and all)


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