Rockfish: scary story, happy end Lesson: The species' resurgence, starting with the 1984 fishing moratorium, offers a guide to restoring and managing the bay.

On the Bay

December 13, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

WHEN GOV. Parris N. Glendening gave former Gov. Harry Hughes an award for bringing back the rockfish at a recent Chesapeake Bay conference, it was scarcely deemed news by the media that covered it.

It had, after all, been 12 years and a month since Hughes and his natural resources chief, Torrey Brown, had taken courageous action in announcing a ban on taking the state fish that would last five years.

And it had been more than two years since scientists had said rockfish throughout the bay and their migratory routes from Maine to the Carolinas had "recovered." Last summer was the best hatch ever of young rock in the species' primary spawning center, the Chesapeake.

So maybe the resurgence of rockfish, or striped bass, is no longer newsworthy from the standpoint of the front page and the nightly broadcast. But the decline and fall and the salvation of the rockfish should not fade from memory.

It should become an educational film, a staple of lesson planning and curricula from kindergartens to graduate schools, a case study for teaching, a sermon for preaching.

The case of the rock embodies nearly every lesson we need apply if we are to restore the Chesapeake Bay and manage it as a sustainable natural system.

It is a story that has drama: increasingly bitter disputes during the 1970s and early 1980s among scientists, sport and commercial fishermen, and environmentalists.

Was the decline real or just a matter of natural cycles? Was the culprit chemicals or overfishing? If it was overfishing, were sportsmen or watermen at fault? Wasn't a ban, when catches had already been restricted, an overreaction?

In retrospect, it was no natural cycle, nor was it chemicals -- though we looked hard at toxics as easier to accept than plain old taking the fish out faster than nature could put them back. The perpetrators were sportsmen and watermen, in about equal measure.

As for any notions that the 1984 ban (soon followed by a virtual shutdown along the whole East Coast) was overreaction, a neat piece of scientific detection recently confirmed that we had nearly let one of America's great fisheries crash, perhaps beyond recovery.

The study found that almost no rock, which can live for decades, had survived to spawning age between 1972 and 1981 -- a virtual wipeout of 10 generations, so heavy was fishing pressure.

The ban at the end of 1984 stopped fishing just in time to save a healthy class of rock born in 1982. They were just coming of legal size for bay watermen in the winter of 1985.

No one knew it then, but there would not be another good year-class hatched until 1989. Had the 1982 fish not been protected, a generational wipeout of about 17 years would have resulted. It is anyone's guess whether the species could have recovered.

The rock's story is also classic testimony to the power of good, timely science.

In 1954, Maryland had begun a survey to monitor the success of rockfish spawning. By the late 1970s, when real concern began to mount over the fish, that survey had become one of the longest-term sets of data for any aquatic species in the country.

The survey, in effect, would not allow concern over the fish to go away or let arguments about natural cycles prevail.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of such grind-it-out, long-term monitoring. In the short term, monitoring is unsexy, and, like tree planting in city parks, cutting funds to do it is easy. But had similar monitoring of submerged grasses, dissolved oxygen, nutrient pollution, crabs and other keystones of a healthy bay been conducted since 1954, there is no doubt we would be years farther down the road to restoration.

It was also the accumulation of science -- investigations into the population dynamics of the rockfish -- that in the closing months of 1984 persuaded Brown and Hughes they had to act so decisively.

Which brings us to an element of the rockfish story that it now seems fashionable to discount: federal regulatory oversight and federally funded programs.

The good science done on the rockfish was the direct result of a federal law that gave money and regulatory authority to a coastwide commission to develop effective conservation plans for the fish.

Congress recognized, as it had decades earlier with migratory waterfowl, and with clean air and water around 1970, that states acting independently find it almost impossible to equitably conserve a shared resource or combat pollutants that move across political boundaries.

So the rock are back. News it may not be.

But the story of good science, public funding, responsible regulation, long-term monitoring of the species, political leadership -- that is worth retelling forever.

However, as much as I love a good-news story, in one crucial respect the tale of the rock falls short.

We came far too close to losing them. Learning to act before there is a crisis requires all the above elements in even fuller measure.

It is why I have supported Glendening and his natural resources officials in their sometimes imperfect attempts to conserve the blue crab, a species still apparently healthy, but under ever more intense fishing pressure.

The ideal good-news story in the saga of the rock would have been the kind of wise and timely management that scarcely makes the news at all.

Pub Date: 12/13/96

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