Experience measures bay health Assessing: The Chesapeake's well-being can be charted by a fishing hole visited by three generations of anglers.

On the Bay

November 07, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

HOW IS the bay doing?

Several years ago a magazine writer asked me that, and for hours I addressed the state of the whole 64,000-square-mile watershed in numbing complexity, hedging every upside with a downside, and vice versa.

Still, I have often thought since then that I gave him only a poor, partial answer.

I should have also taken him canoeing for an hour on the nearby river where I grew up and talked about all the life I gloried in there as a child, and how diminished it was for my own children.

And then the writer might have understood not only what I knew, but how I felt.

Of course, in restoring a massive ecosystem like the Chesapeake, the broad overview is important; the mass of detailed analyses is vital.

A news packet for the recent meeting of governors, mayors and federal officials to review the bay's health used no less than 16 graphs just to provide "a snapshot" of how the estuary is doing.

The snapshot covered the gamut: polluting nutrients in rivers (down, but not enough), underwater grasses (up, but a long way to go), wildlife (eagles up, diving ducks down).

Also, forests and industrial pollution (both declining), pesticides

and other agriculture chemicals (better managed); and air pollution from cars (cleaner vehicles, but the miles bay dwellers drive have gone up four times as fast as the population).

And that is just a sampling of the broad, in-depth materials that science must gather to answer, "How's the bay doing?"

Then there is the matter of how individuals feel the bay is doing.

And this fall, I'm feeling pretty good, and the reason has less to do with graphs than with rockfish.

I began my first book on the Chesapeake, "Bay Country," by recounting how good it felt as a 12-year-old, out with my dad, to catch a nice rockfish from the marsh edge.

It was a place that: when the sunset of a calm summer evening suffuses sky and water equally with a seamless, pastel coloration, and a flood tide sets the green marsh afloat between heaven and earth, can be a place of infinite charm and contentment.

That was 40 years ago. By the time I wrote the book, 10 years

ago, overfishing had closed the rock season indefinitely; and though my own son was reaching fishing age, I conceded I was not likely to drop anchor in that spot:

It would still be pretty enough, but something vital would be lacking. The pastel sunsets and the flood tide would no longer be invested with the marvelous energy that comes from the lurking presence of a rockfish.

For seven long years we paid the price, with a moratorium on any harvest of the rock, before a very limited reopening of the season in 1991.

And in 1997, the fish are back, the marsh edge is once again at full energy. A couple of weeks ago, all three generations of us, my dad, 85, my son, 19, and I stood in a bay marsh reeling in rockfish. (My mother caught one, too.)

So if you ask me this fall how the bay is doing, I'm likely to be upbeat.

Next spring might be different because that is when I start thinking about shad. Maybe the only fish I have more fond memories of than the rockfish I caught at 12 are the shad I caught in a small Eastern Shore creek when I was 14.

Just as the rock is special for its habituation of the pretty edges of land and water -- of which the bay has some 8,000 miles -- so do shad evoke another remarkable quality of the Chesapeake.

They are migrants, moving up the bay's manifold tributary rivers to spawn, each spring reconnecting citizens far upstream and inland with the estuary and oceans downstream.

Before the era of dams, they essayed as far as the Blue Ridge mountains past Charlottesville, Va., through Pennsylvania and into New York state.

For people throughout the watershed, the bay may have been out of sight, but not out of mind for anyone lucky enough to hook or taste a shad.

And the catching of these ended in Maryland in 1980, as overfishing drove their populations to perhaps a hundredth of their historical levels.

Shad fishing, currently the focus of moderately successful attempts at restocking, may start again someday; but not soon enough that my kids are likely to hook one -- and more important, to be hooked by one.

So if you want to hear an upbeat assessment of how the bay is doing, don't call me in April.

The point, of course, is that there is no neat answer to such a question. Our assessments will always be a stew of fact and hope and fear, logic and gut and heart, reason and emotion.

Pub Date: 11/07/97

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