The Ehrlich administration initiated the certification process eight years ago, a move hailed by the Maryland Watermen's Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as a new way to market striped bass. After a pre-assessment determined the striped bass would most likely be approved, progress stalled until the O'Malley administration decided last winter to jump-start the process.

Recreational groups, such as Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, are wary of the outcome. The group's leaders say it will be hard to justify the sustainable label, given all the problems on the Chesapeake Bay and with striped bass. Agricultural and storm runoff, rampant poaching, dead zones and diseases that have killed and weakened striped bass would seem to indicate that all is not well.

"In an ideal world, we would love to have the striped bass certified and have confidence that it's a sustainable fish. It would be good for the watermen, good for recreational anglers and good for the image of the state of Maryland," said the association's Trent Zivkovich. "But based on our experience, it's a false promise and will result in people feeling all is well when it is not."

And Greenpeace's Hocevar warns that the eco-label could backfire on state officials hoping to reform fisheries practices.

"MSC certification can be used as an excuse for not making changes to protect resources or habitat," he said. "Those who oppose change can say, 'Hey, this is already certified. We don't have to listen to you guys anymore.' They use MSC as a shield."

The uniqueness of the council logo is being undermined, too, as everyone from states to retailers jump on the sustainability bandwagon. For example, the Virginia Marine Products Board is marketing as sustainable the homely cownose ray with a new name, Chesapeake ray, and a glamorous identity, Veal of the Sea. The board's website says ray has "all the benefits of fish without the fishy taste."

Yet that sustainability claim isn't backed by an independent scientific assessment.

"The seafood industry or a state can argue, 'It's sustainable because we say it is.' Then sustainable becomes just another buzzword," Hocevar said.

Coughlin said the antidote to that is the Marine Stewardship Council, "a known commodity worldwide. If you see the MSC logo, you can have confidence in that product. If you don't see it, how do you know what you're getting?"

But that's exactly one of the unanswered questions, Zivkovich argues. He said it is still unclear how Maryland would protect the integrity of its brand and guarantee that a high-priced striped bass fillet displayed on ice in a market showcase or served in a restaurant came from a certified source.

"The bottom line is we want what's best for the fish," said Zivkovich. "Our concern is that any benefit from this isn't for the fish, it's for the benefit of MSC."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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