Carnage at Conowingo

Jim Heim

July 27, 1992|By Jim Heim

THERE'S a movement among recreational fishermen that makes excellent sense. It's called "catch-and-release." Instead of throwing their catch in the cooler, anglers return it to the water.

Until recently, catch-and-release was practiced primarily by fresh-water anglers. Only in the last decade have salt-water fishermen been urged to practice catch-and-release in order to conserve dwindling fish stocks.

For nearly half a century, sport fishing organizations advocated catch-and-release angling, particularly for fresh-water trout. Serious trout fishermen recognized that streams and rivers could not naturally replenish stocks of fish while being plundered by growing numbers of anglers. In the 1940s, angling legend Joe Brooks and others formed the "Brotherhood of the Jungle Cock" to teach youngsters the art of trout fishing -- with an emphasis on releasing their quarry.

Today we recognize that trout aren't the only exhaustible species of fish. Bumper stickers throughout the mid-Atlantic region advise us to "Release Bluefish," an idea that would have been outrageous only a few years ago. Also, bass tournament participants bring their catches to be judged in live wells, and the fish are then released alive (maybe not where they were caught, but released none the less).

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has now taken up the banner. With a well-executed education program, grass-roots groups of anglers are being taught proven release techniques. Volunteers are being recruited to take the message to launch ramps, marinas, any place anglers gather.

XTC But unfortunately for one species, the rockfish (or striped bass), this is not always enough. The striper is an anadromous fish: It is a saltwater species that enters brackish estuarine bays and rivers to spawn. Newly hatched young remain in the Chesapeake Bay until they reach sexual maturity at 5 to 7 years. Adults then migrate to coastal Atlantic waters, returning to the Chesapeake only to spawn.

Large numbers of non-migratory striped bass frequently enter the Susquehanna River in search of food. Although the river provides rockfish with copious amounts of food, the change in environment causes an enormous amount of stress.

In a study performed at Conowingo Dam several years ago, fish were caught from the catwalk in the usual manner, then placed in net pens and immersed in the river for an extended period. All swam vigorously and looked healthy when "released" into the pen. But within 72 hours, 90 percent perished.

Maryland law clearly states that it is illegal to fish for striped bass at any time other than during designated seasons. Problems arise when so-called sportsmen claim to be fishing for other species and catch the fish once touted as the "king of Chesapeake Bay."

To the uninformed observer, the angler's claim of innocence could appear to have merit. In reality, baits and lures used to catch smallmouth bass, white perch, walleye, catfish and carp are much different from those used to catch striped bass. Despite their protestations to the contrary, people are fishing for rock and doing inestimable damage to a species that is still recovering from near extinction a few years ago.

When an arrest is made and the angler appears in court, state Department of Natural Resources police have to prove, and it's almost impossible to do so, that the individual was intentionally fishing for striped bass. Local DNR police officers claim judges in both Harford and Cecil counties are reluctant to prosecute rockfish cases, claiming a lack of substantiating evidence.

In an effort to slow the increasing numbers of stress-related rockfish deaths, the DNR has promulgated new rules. Anglers fishing from Conowingo Dam's catwalk are prohibited from using lures and baits other than night crawlers, prepared scent baits and chicken livers. The regulations, in effect until Sept. 15, prohibit use of baits and lures likely to catch striped bass.

The regulations will help, and so will the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's education program, but the regulations don't cover anglers fishing from shore. Extremely high rockfish losses are likely to continue, especially when water temperatures soar later this summer.

Although a final solution to the problem isn't obvious, one thing is clear: Attitudes of recreational anglers must change. Fish are not a limitless resource. More than anglers' hooks threaten their survival, including acid rain and various kinds of pollution.

Although the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's education program should have some effect, the carnage at Conowingo Dam and elsewhere probably will continue. If this is the case, the DNR must be prepared to take drastic measures.

Jim Heim writes from Baltimore.

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