Striped bass audit hides multitude of sins

Let's say you have a product that people automatically associate with you.

Except for one hiccup in the timeline, it's been on the market since before Capt. John Smith rowed a boat around the Chesapeake. And it's so popular that people will do crazy things to get it, like sneak around at night and break the law. There's even a black market supplied by crooks willing to risk going to jail to feed the beast.

But instead of treating this treasure like, well, a treasure, you keep it in a filthy hovel. You lose track of how many you have. You scrimp on protecting it. And your idea of accounting is to allow the very folks who profit by your product to be the gatekeeper at the warehouse.

Welcome to the bizarre universe of the striped bass, Planet Maryland.

But with all that's wrong with our planet, there's still a six-figure effort by the state and commercial fishing industry to get the striped bass certified as sustainable under a program run by the Marine Stewardship Council. The designation, given to about 10 percent of the world's fisheries and products, would mean that Maryland's stripers in the Chesapeake and Atlantic Ocean are abundant, well-managed and caught in environmentally friendly ways.

There is a reason — it's a good one — to go through the review process, and I'll get to it in a minute.

The certification program is entering its "information gathering stage," which involves a series of meetings Aug. 9-12 in Annapolis with "representatives of the fishery, fishery management bodies and other stakeholders of the fishery," according to the council's website.

Maryland wants its striped bass to be in the same sustainable company as the Burry Inlet cockle, the Euronor saithe and the Cornwall sardine. It wants to share the spotlight with McDonald's, which is allowed to use the MSC seal of approval on the wrapper of its European Filet-O-Fish sandwich (No word on whether the U.S. slab-o-fish sandwich will get the nod some day).

Why? A March 2005 news release from the Department of Natural Resources heralded the sustainability audit as a new day in fisheries marketing and an engine to boost sales of locally caught striped bass.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation called it a "win-win proposition."

Maryland Watermen's Association president Larry Simns gushed: "The striped bass fishery is the best managed fishery on the bay thanks to the Department of Natural Resources and its management partners."

Knock me down with a feather. I thought 2005 was smack in the middle of one of DNR's blackest periods, when crooked watermen, check stations and fish wholesalers conspired to poach 1.63 million pounds of striped bass with a fair market value of $6.54 million from the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

The state and its partners have made very little progress in improving the health of the Chesapeake, figuring out a fatal disease attacking the adult striped bass population, halting poaching or devising a commercial check-in system that doesn't use fish wholesalers and markets to police the process. Not a week passed last February when Natural Resources Police officers weren't pulling tons of dead striped bass and miles of illegal net from the bay.

This hardly seems like the time to be inviting in the folks with the clipboards and white gloves to check for dust.

But on the other hand, this "audit," to use layman's terms, is a great way to see how Maryland's striped bass management practices stack up. The East Coast striped bass population is subject to a census count every few years — one is due later this year.

A fresh set of eyes will point out specific shortcomings in accountability, enforcement and ecosystem impact that DNR leadership can take to the General Assembly for a remedy. And a bad report card might jolt lawmakers into putting money into Natural Resources Police and research, for starters.

But to borrow a line from Butch Cassidy, "Who are those guys?"

The non-profit Marine Stewardship Council was created in 1995 by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, a big seafood retailer. Half of its money comes from charitable grants and more than 40 percent comes from things such as logo licensing. For example, McDonalds will pay 0.5 percent of the cost of the 100 million frozen filets to MSC in return for the use of its blue eco-label.

Wal-Mart, Costco and Kroger have stepped into the MSC eco-chamber, as have colleges and universities. On June 9, Stührk's Cocktail Shrimps with Dill Cream became No. 10,000 on the list of MSC-approved products. So you see Maryland is punching above its weight.

Getting an MSC thumbs up works like this: Independent firms, in Maryland's case Moody Marine Ltd., review fishing practices and management against MSC standards to ensure that fish stocks and jobs are protected and the waters are kept safe. Moody, which is being paid $131,801 by the state, decides if Maryland passes muster and gets certified. Then MSC charges an annual fee, ranging from $250 to $2,000, plus royalties to wholesalers, fish markets and restaurants for the right to use its trademarked logo.

What MSC giveth it also can taketh away, as Scotland found out on Jan. 11, when it lost its certification for the Loch Torridon nephrops creel fishery — and we all remember where we were when that happened.

The assessment process is expected to end in March, about the same time Australia learns the fate of the Macquarie Island toothfish.

If, by the way, you want to say something about Maryland striped bass next month, contact Don Aldous, Moody's lead assessor: