Hooking the poachers

September 11, 1992

Undercover agents, some behind the scenes with binoculars, others mingling outside in plainclothes, made a major bust in an open-air market a few weeks ago. Of drugs? No, rockfish.

Department of Natural Resources police organized "Operation Fish Hook" to discourage people from catching and keeping striped bass, an endangered species in Chesapeake Bay. Also known as rockfish, the species has been protected by fishing restrictions for the past seven years. Operation Fish Hook at Conowingo Dam has thus far resulted in more than 100 citations, 20 of them for illegal possession of striped bass.

If the blue crab has evolved into the cartoonish "mascot" of our Chesapeake, the rockfish plays the role of stately prince. The species is spoken of in revered tones and its annual health check-up is reported in the media like the president's. While it may be no way to treat royalty, the flesh of the rockfish is so treasured that contraband rockfish can bring $6 a pound.

Operation Fish Hook has focused on recreational fishing at Conowingo Dam between Harford and Cecil counties because poaching is a problem there. Conowingo attracts anglers on the free fishing catwalk high above the craggy Susquehanna River that the Philadelphia Electric Co. provides.

The rockfish are drawn there, too, to feast on the remains of shad that get churned up in the dam's electric turbines. When the fish are hooked, though, they get reeled 50 feet up to the catwalk, no easy ride. Even when the rockfish are thrown back, as required, many of them die because the low salinity levels in the river make stress more difficult for them to overcome. Last year, the state curtailed the use of certain bait at Conowingo during summer to discourage anglers from catching rockfish.

Most fishermen have a great appreciation for the bay's bounty. The minority that apparently doesn't care should look at the end of the Conowingo catwalk for a lesson in conservation: The utility company spends millions of dollars to run fish "elevators" to lift American shad out of the river, so they can be trucked beyond the dam to continue their spawning run. In other words, while workers at one end of the catwalk are chauffeuring thousands of fish to their historic spawning grounds, others on the catwalk are sneaking another decimated species into their cooler for illicit gain. In the forested cathedral of the lower Susquehanna, this is truly a case of stealing from the collection plate.

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