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Chesapeake magic


HAVRE DE GRACE -- It's a bright winter afternoon, and in the light of the sinking sun even the drab urban and industrial landscapes across the water are suffused with a kind of glow.

Gary Neitzey and are I are drifting in his boat in the Patapsco River a couple of miles outside the Key Bridge. We are just off the power plant on Marley Neck, across from the smoky towers of Sparrows Point. To the northwest, where the sharp wind is coming from, we can look upriver to Fort McHenry and the Baltimore Inner Harbor.

Ships and tugs pass us out in the channel, but there's not a yacht to be seen. It's a cold scene, and the water, in the low 30s, is colder than the air -- except in the shallows where we happen to be. Cooling water from the power plant is discharged near here, and it's raised the temperature of an area about 200 yards square a good 25 degrees.

Baitfish like that. Rockfish are interested in the baitfish, and we are interested in the rockfish, which is why we're here. We're casting bucktails which must look a lot like bait, because for a while we're catching fish -- fat, healthy striped bass from maybe 12 to almost 30 inches in length -- on almost every cast. Often we each have a fish on at the same time.

They're out of season, so we don't keep any. We bring them to the boat, slip the single hook out, and release them back into the oxygen-rich winter water, where they disappear in a swirl and a flash. It's an inspiring illustration of something that must be right, at least for the moment, with the Chesapeake Bay.

The rockfish resurgence in the Chesapeake, after a controversial state-ordered moratorium, shows that conservation pays. Here's a resource brought back from the edge, abundant once again and providing pleasure and profit to a great many people. Happy days are here again, you might think.

Or you might not. The outlook isn't brilliant for most of the desirable species of fish, of which the rockfish is certainly one. In fact it looks pretty dismal. The current National Fisherman magazine has a piece on the collapse of the New England groundfish industry which ought to be read by anyone -- waterman, sport fisherman, conservationist, government regulator -- who's about to declare victory over scarcity in the Chesapeake.

On Georges Bank, spawning stocks of cod and haddock have fallen to less than half of the "threshold" levels needed to assure healthy reproduction from year to year. Inshore species like flounder and scup are struggling too. Of 25 groundfish species tracked by biologists, 13 are at or near record-low levels. Commercial fishermen are going out of business by the dozens every year.

The history of how this came to pass is instructive. The New England fishery, which had appeared as enduring as the tides for 400 years, was all but destroyed in 40. The process began with foreign trawlers in the 1950s, and after the Magnuson Act extended American territorial limits in 1976, it was completed by domestic boats.

Record landings for year after year into the 1980s were followed by collapse, followed by increasingly stringent regulation, followed by bankruptcies and cries for help throughout the fishing industry. How long it will take to repair the damage, and if it is in fact reparable, is unknown.

Science and politics

One problem is that in a democracy the regulation of natural resources has to be determined by science and politics, not by science alone. This can help when a fish species is in crisis, for whether it's cod or striped bass or something else, if the public's attention is engaged, political support for restrictions grows, and the commercial interests, in desperation, generally go along with it.

But when stocks begin to rebound, the political focus dissolves, and the commercial interests have little opposition as they mobilize to have fisheries, probably prematurely, reopened.

"Human beings are clever enough to over-fish any resources," observes Mike Hirshfield of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who follows these things closely. There are plenty of rockfish around right now, he agrees, but that doesn't mean that whenever there's a population collapse a moratorium on fishing will fix everything right up.

There's been a moratorium in Maryland on shad fishing since 1980, and where are the shad?

Complicated stuff. Gary and I talk about it while we fish. We know we don't have the answers. But it's nice to be reminded, at least, that there's so much teeming life down there in the murky waters of a big-city harbor.

There's life in the air, too. As we run back upriver to the boat ramp in the last light of the day, three tundra swans, getting ready for their northward migration in a few weeks, fly with us, just overhead. Even in Baltimore in February, there are heartening flashes of Chesapeake magic.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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