The Terrible Price of Short-Term Thinking

December 05, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- The river is high here now, swollen by recent rains, and looks uncharacteristically dirty and lifeless. The migrating loons which were around last week seem to have gone, suggesting that the fish have left too. The water temperature has dropped into the 40s.

If the fish -- meaning of course the rockfish -- have gone, they probably haven't gone far, and will presumably return. All indications are that they're continuing to make a steady recovery after being fished nearly to oblivion a decade ago. But even so, as winter moves into the Chesapeake region, it's a good time to ponder some broad questions of abundance and scarcity.

Anyone who follows the struggles over our local natural resources knows that right now the outlook for rockfish is said to be good, the outlook for blue crabs mixed, and the outlook for oysters pretty dismal. The easy explanation for this is that there are enough legal controls on fishing to give the rockfish a chance, there aren't enough controls on oysters, and exactly what to do about crabs hasn't yet been properly worked out.

Governor Schaefer is one of many who accept this reasoning. When Baltimore's new aquaculture research center was dedicated a couple of weeks ago, he startled some watermen by suggesting a complete moratorium on the harvest of Chesapeake oysters. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a few biologists have urged such a step for some time, but it's been controversial and hadn't acquired much political backing.

The idea makes sense. Not only have Chesapeake oysters been over-harvested, but they've been decimated by the diseases MSX and Dermo. There's little to be risked by closing the fishery, and potentially much to be gained both economically and ecologically. For one thing, an oyster-rich Bay is a cleaner Bay. Each adult oyster filters some 50 gallons of water a day. A century ago, when there were 100 times as many oysters at work, they could clean the whole vast puddle once a week.

Drastic conservation measures can produce dramatic results. Maryland's six-year ban on the taking of rockfish is one example, Florida's intervention on behalf of the alligator another. (As these are species with commercial significance, protecting them is politically much more complex than protecting, say, songbirds or bald eagles.)

William Warner is best-known locally as the author of ''Beautiful Swimmers,'' the definitive book on the Chesapeake blue crab and the watermen who catch it. In 1977 he published an equally definitive report on the international North Atlantic fishery. Recently, with marine conservation on my mind, I reread it.

The Warner book, ''Distant Water,'' appeared at the end of a 20-year period in which great factory ships from many nations took unprecedented tonnages from the North Atlantic and in the process virtually destroyed the traditional fisheries. That era ended when the United States and Canada, belatedly seeking to protect their own fishing industries, barred foreign vessels from fishing within 200 miles of shore.

Commercial fishermen who have spent a lifetime on the water often consider themselves environmentalists; the foreign and American skippers with whom Mr. Warner sailed often worried about the future of the resource upon which they depended. But economics always ruled. (It's noteworthy that some of the strongest opposition to the proposed 200-mile territorial limit came from American fishermen who worked close to the Pacific coast of South America and knew that what the United States did, Peru could and would do, too.)

''Distant Water'' ends on a hopeful note. The factory ships have gone, and under the protection of the American and Canadian flags it seemed possible that the cod and other North Atlantic fish stocks would soon recover. In fact, in the summer of 1977, only a few months after the new ''conservation zone'' was established, Mr. Warner returned to George's Bank on a trawler out of Boston and watched the nets bring up an extraordinary haul. It looked like a good omen.

But Mr. Warner didn't anticipate the voracity with which the Americans and Canadians would attack the fish, combining the latest gear and technology with the same skill and energy formerly displayed by the Spaniards, Russians, Germans and Poles whom the new law had displaced. And of course that's just what happened.

The cod have gone from Newfoundland waters now, and the fishery which had sustained thousands and fed millions for 500 years has been closed by law. It may never reopen. Newfoundland's unemployment rate is 40 percent. In the current issue of the magazine National Fisherman, a Newfoundland fishing-industry leader named Cabot Martin has some advice for Americans.

''You will pay a terrible price if you take the short-term view,'' he says. ''If we'd moved in 1986, we'd have . . . a rebuilding stock now. [But] what we've got, according to the old fishermen, is not commercial extinction. It's total extinction.''

Here on the Chesapeake, we've taken the traditional short-term view for a long time, moving away from it just in time to save the rockfish. Whether we can save the Chesapeake oyster and the blue crab remains a question; whether we can save the human culture that depended on them commercially is a bigger question by far.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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