The state of Maryland has proposed re-opening the long-closed commercial black drum fishery in Chesapeake Bay waters. This fishery, according to the ASMFC, will specifically target fish averaging 50 pounds, which have been closed to commercial harvest since 1998. The proposal is to allow a 10 fish per boat limit with a 28-inch minimum size, to keep the effective daily harvest limit at 500 pounds per boat.

black drum fishing chesapeake bay
Few fish are as ideally suited to catch and release fishing as large black drum.

How do we know the average size of these fish would be 50 pounds? Because tagging of black drum caught in pound nets in the 90's proved it. Those of us who have participated in the Chesapeake's black drum fishery for three decades or more will remember that in the late 90's huge schools of giant black drum were caught in pound nets, harvested, and sold for cents on the pound. (According to the 1993 Chesapeake Bay Program committee report, dockside price averaged $0.35 per pound at that time). An uproar in the recreational fishing community helped prompt the DNR to shut down the commercial harvest and instead, pay the pound netters to allow the DNR to tag and release the captive drum. The state continued to compensate watermen for releasing these fish up until the 2000 season, when the practice ended.

According to a 1998 Old Dominion University study, a 50 pound black drum averages around 26 years of age. Black drum have been known to live beyond 50 years and carry up to 30 million eggs, but as anyone who's ever tried eating one knows, these older fish have very little value as table fare. Their meat is usually riddled with worms, and has a pork-like consistency which is accurately described as un-fishlike. This is why their market price is so low, while the fillets of small black drum sometimes command higher dockside value (particularly along the Gulf Coast) as a substitute for red drum.

What is the value of these same black drum, as sportfish? We don't have any hard numbers, but we do know that from late May through June if there's a decent run at the Stone Rock, you'll see dozens upon dozens of boats jockeying for position as they attempt to hook into these monster fish. Black drum often represent the largest fish many anglers will ever fight in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake, and spur the sales of hooks, leaders, rods and reels, baits, boat fuel, and charter parties for the fishery. We must also note that black drum present many Chesapeake anglers in the Middle Chesapeake with their first shot of the season at a gamefish other than striped bass, so a drum run beginning in May could potentially reduce the pressure on the trophy striped bass fishery by diverting recreational angling effort.

In our opinion the commercial fishery should remain closed, period, rather than risk another decimation and the resulting public outcry. In the same breath, however, we must say that the practice of paying pound netters to tag and release these particular fish makes good sense. They are not too terribly costly, and we're pretty sure that most recreational anglers would be perfectly happy to see a tiny fraction of the licensing fees and tackle taxes they pay used to compensate these watermen and keep them in business, which is also an important concern to the fishing community.

We here at FishTalk hope everyone reading this will take our concerns into consideration, read the ASMFC Draft Addendum to the Black Drum Fishery Management Plan (don't worry, it's only five pages and chunks of that are tables), then formulate and voice their own opinions. There will be a public input meeting at 5:00 PM on March 15, 2018, at the Maryland DNR, 580 Taylor Ave, in Annapolis. If you can't attend, you can send your comments to [email protected], and/or [email protected] with the heading "Black Drum Draft Addendum I" in the subject line. You can also send input to  Lynn Fegley, [email protected], to speak directly to Maryland's representative on the matter.