Turning the Tide: Strategies for a Healthier Bay


Havre de Grace. -- These are the ugly months on the water in Maryland. Jellyfish, mosquitoes and greenhead flies flourish, and the sun glares down fiercely. The Susquehanna here, and the shallow waters of the upper Chesapeake into which it pours, are almost the temperature of blood.

The summer waters still have their charms, of course, though you have to go and seek them out. Recently I brought a small boat back to Havre de Grace from Annapolis, leaving just at sunset. Night is a good time to travel on the water at this season, as it is cooler and the boat traffic is much reduced.

XTC Under an orange moon, the Bay shone with a tropic mysterious blackness. Baltimore was a glow in the sky. Near Poole's Island I passed a freighter, lit up like an apartment house in the shipping channel, but after that the lights faded and the dark shores began to converge. Here and there, between the clouds, stars could be seen. I kept thinking of passages from "Heart of Darkness."

I also thought, then and afterward, of passages from "Turning the Tide," the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's recently published report on the state of the Bay.

This is a wonderful piece of work, written by Tom Horton and William Eichbaum, but though it tries hard not to be dour in tone, it doesn't hold out great promise for the future of the Bay. It proposes various steps -- some draconian, some plain common sense -- for mitigating the impact of humanity on these nearby waters, and these proposals have predictably ignited controversies and mobilized opponents.

Consider fishing. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other conservation groups supported the 1984 ban on fishing for striped bass, a restriction partially lifted last year and responsible for a stunning rebound in the Bay's population of rockfish (as we call them in Maryland).

Now the foundation proposes a similar ban on the taking of another local seafood staple, the oyster.

The arguments for such a ban are compelling -- much more compelling than were the arguments for a temporary end to fishing for striped bass. For oysters don't just live in the Chesapeake, they clean it too, at the astounding rate of 50 gallons per adult oyster per day.

Years ago, when there were 100 times more oysters in the Bay than now, they could filter all the water in the estuary every few days. Now, with the runoff-enriched water in far greater need of ++ filtration, a loyal Maryland oyster could serve its state more nobly as a plankton-eating machine than as an expensive appetizer.

However, there's an elaborate economy built on the oyster's back, and that means any change in the status quo will require a political battle.

These Maryland battles over oysters and rockfish are local manifestations of something going on along all our coasts. The problem is as simple as the answer is elusive. Commercial

fishing techniques and equipment have grown so effective that entire species are disappearing. This in turn makes fishermen work harder to sustain their incomes.

Offshore, species after species -- Atlantic salmon, cod, halibut, swordfish, flounder -- is in trouble. Some of this can be blamed on foreign fleets setting their nets beyond the 200-mile limit Congress established in 1976, but much of it is due to the success of American fishing boats working the coasts.

In the short run, the obvious answer is a flat ban on commercial fishing for threatened species -- and a ban on recreational fishing too if that becomes a political requirement. It worked for the rockfish, and it could work for the cod, the swordfish and the Maryland oyster.

But then what? When stocks recover, as they surely will, who should be allowed to catch fish? Many in the industry already favor what's called "limited entry," meaning that only a few fishermen are licensed.

This could be done on the Chesapeake, in a way that could serve as a model for other coastal states. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation favors freezing the number of licensed fishermen, and implicitly supports the idea of a free market in licenses. This could be the key to making limited entry work, because making licenses readily transferable to the highest bidder would give the hard-pressed watermen who now hold them something of considerable value that could be either used or sold.

It also ought to be possible for a license holder -- an elderly person, say, or a fisherman's widow -- to hire someone else to do the fishing.

By fall, as the waters cool and the short rockfish season approaches, the Chesapeake will surely be a more alluring place than it is today. But whether it'll be a healthier and more productive place in another decade or two depends on whether some hard political and managerial decisions are made pretty darn soon.

Peter A. Jay's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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