Let us adopt an 'environmental ethic'


May 21, 1994|By TOM HORTON

Pop quiz before you read this column: If you caught the biggest rockfish in the world, would you:

Eat it.

Mount it.

Let it go.


Aboard the Becky D, Ren Bowman grins with delight as his fishing rod throbs with the energy of a large rockfish.

"Uh oh. Could be moral dilemma time," he murmurs, straining as the striper zings the line off the reel in a final, powerful lunge for freedom.

I've heard many fishermen exclaim many things over the years when they set the hook into a really fine specimen -- but "moral dilemma" is a new one.

This is, after all, May, the month designated for Maryland's wildly popular "trophy" rockfish season.

Each of us aboard Captain Ed Darwin's charter boat out of Mill Creek near Annapolis is entitled to take home the biggest striped bass we can land (minimum legal size is 34 inches, about a 20-pounder).

It is the best shot Maryland anglers have at the largest stripers, females that spend most of their year migrating along the East Coast from North Carolina to Labrador.

Each spring the fish, which can live for decades and attain weights (rarely) of more than a hundred pounds, return to Chesapeake rivers where they were hatched, to spawn.

The trophy season is designed to let fishermen intercept the big cows after most have deposited their eggs and are headed back down the bay to resume their oceanic wanderings.

Darwin, a former teacher at Baltimore's Southern High, has chartered rockfish trips for 30 years. He did his part this day, putting us on a good school of fish near Bloody Point, the bay's deepest spot at 175 feet.

But keeper-sized rock, it seemed, had already moved south. We hooked and released a dozen of 2 feet or so in length. The biggest thrill was watching the seventh-grade daughter of Bowman's buddy, Chris Frederick, catch her first rockfish as dad videotaped it. (Frederick, of Ellicott City, is a businessman; Bowman, of Towson, a stockbroker.)

But now Bowman's fish, his "moral dilemma," was surfacing: no monster, but probably a keeper -- or would he return it? Darwin told mate Joe Spiegel to get out the big landing net, custom-built by the captain to boat especially large stripers with a minimum of stress.

A quick measurement -- an inch and a half shy of legal size -- took the decision away from Bowman. Darwin and Spiegel had the hook out and the fish back in the water, still vigorous, in under half a minute.

"Shouldn't even be a question," Bowman reflects. "We ought to be putting them all back." Darwin agrees. But, for most of us, it still is a big question.

Until recently, with rockfish, the main question was how long you wanted to keep catching them. Bowman, Frederick, Darwin, and yours truly: We all tell the same stories you hear over and over from those who have fished the bay for decades. There were few legal limits on how many you could catch, of rockfish and most other species. And we caught them, commercial fishers and sport fishers alike, as if there were no tomorrow.

But the day came -- Dec. 31, 1984 -- when there was no tomorrow. The state had slapped a moratorium on catching rockfish.

Scientists have since reckoned that the fish population was maybe a year away from total collapse. And now, just in the last few years the rock are back -- a fully-recovered species, federal fisheries experts announced Wednesday.

The new look of things includes lots of rockfish; also lots of new rules and regulations, quotas and limits governing our fishing for them.

And this more regulated environment is, it seems, good and necessary, and pretty much what's happening across a whole )) range of fisheries and other natural resources issues, as society tries to preserve environmental quality in the face of increasing population pressures.

But perhaps, just perhaps, something more exciting than regulation is also beginning to operate. I am talking about an environmental ethic; about saying: I am allowed to do this, but I won't. Regulations alone can prevent the worst, but we will never achieve the best without a well-developed ethical sense of our responsibility toward nature.

Which brings me back to Ren Bowman and Ed Darwin and Chris Frederick and an earlier trophy fishing day in May aboard the Becky D.

It was May 3, 1992. They were trolling, when something smacked unattended rod so hard, Bowman recalls, "it sounded like it had broken the holder." Bowman snatched the pole and jammed the rod into his friend's gut and said, "Fight it, Chris."

Frederick, a veteran big-game fisherman, but relatively new to bay rockfish, recalls, "I didn't even know how big was big, but when it finally surfaced -- "

Darwin breaks in: "You can't print in your paper what he said when it surfaced."

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