Beware the grass carp

April 06, 1993

Something fishy is going on in Pennsylvania, and Maryland officials aren't happy about it.

The Pennsylvania Boat and Fish Commission plans to decide soon whether the voracious herbivore fish known as the grass carp should be allowed into ponds and other contained bodies of water in the Keystone State. The grass carp, native to Asia, would essentially be employed as an underwater lawn mower, clearing away the foliage that can choke ponds and lakes.

Under the Pennsylvania plan, the type of grass carp to be used would be the triploid, a genetically altered fish that theoretically can't reproduce.

There lies the key concern of officials of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. They're not convinced the genetic alteration always works. In DNR's nightmare scenario, some of the carp could make their way to the Chesapeake Bay, multiply and ultimately denude the bay of its aquatic grasses, which serve as habitats and breeding grounds for many other fish. The environmental impact on the Chesapeake could be disastrous, as would the effect on sport-fishing as a valuable source of income for Maryland.

For their part, Pennsylvania officials have downplayed the fears that the grass carp will harm the bay. While conceding that a fertile carp could infiltrate the Chesapeake's waters, the officials argue that any damage to the bay would be minimal.

Such a cavalier attitude might be expected from people with little vested interest in the bay. Yet Pennsylvania boaters and fishermen are hardly strangers to the northern reaches of the Chesapeake. At least in this respect, Pennsylvania has a stake in what happens to the bay.

Also, it was only six years ago that Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia entered into an agreement to clean up the bay, largely by reducing agricultural run-off of nutrients. Implicit in the pact was each jurisdiction's recognition of the preciousness of the bay and the urgency of restoring it to good health. Either the members of the Boat and Fish Commission have forgotten the spirit of the '87 agreement or they don't care about it.

Meanwhile, all three states should be red-faced that none has forcefully acted against nutrient pollution. Pennsylvania came close the past two years and is considering another measure; a similar bill in Maryland's General Assembly has faced the strong opposition of Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Said one Maryland legislator, "The whole nation is watching to see if we can successfully clean up this major estuary in a multi-state effort."

Between the grass carp proposal and the reluctance to stem the nutrient run-off from farms, the nation can't be too impressed, if it is watching.

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