Fish stories hooked him for 35 years

On The Outdoors

May 30, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Last week, as he completed the last few days of a 35-year career with the Department of Natural Resources, Ben Florence was recalling his early days with the Fisheries Service.

"When I started, there was a total of seven biologists for tidal and fresh water," said Florence. "Now, there must be a couple of hundred. But it has been a pretty interesting 35 years. Very nice.

"I've done about everything, from reservoirs to estuarine studies and aquaculture."

Perhaps most importantly to Maryland fishermen, over a nine-year-period starting in 1985, Florence and his hatcheries staff uncovered the missing link that led to the recovery of rockfish.

And in the last few years, he has worked on programs that are restoring populations of American and hickory shad and sturgeon.

"But I guess the early days, when we were working wild striped-bass brood stock and had limited equipment, were at best dangerous," said Florence, 58. "We had these 16-foot aluminum jon boats and we were gill-netting in high-current areas of the rivers.

"When you took in the net, you turned on the bilge pump and just hoped it kept running until you cleared the net."

From those early days and through the rockfish moratorium from 1985 to 1990, Florence and a horde of DNR staff proved or disproved various assumptions about rockfish. But it was Florence's 13 million hatchery rockfish that made a marked difference.

While wild rockfish populations were crashing from overfishing and poor spawning conditions from North Carolina to New England, under Florence's direction Maryland was producing rockfish from wild eggs and milt, marking them chemically or with tags and reintroducing them to the wild.

The spawning population in the Patuxent river doubled and, at one time, 5 percent of the coastal spawning stocks was from Maryland's hatchery program.

"Overall, it probably took the pressure off the wild fish," said Florence. "But we learned a great deal about the intermediate-age fish, which was the big missing link -- that time between when they swim away from shorelines until they are big enough to be caught by hook and line."

Traditionally, the future was gauged by the young-of-the-year count, a shallow-water net survey of rockfish and other species taken annually at nearly two dozen sites in Maryland's tidewater.

If the young-of-the-year index was high, Florence said, a good rockfish season could be anticipated about five years later, and that was the basis of the coastal management plan for the species.

"But we were kind of guessing with the young-of-the-year index," said Florence.

"With marked hatchery fish we were able to document their movements. This was a great mystery and this [documentation] was really great stuff."

And a far cry from the early days, when a handful of biologists was responsible for fresh- and salt-water fisheries across the state.

On one occasion several years ago, while working on the Patuxent River with fisheries biologist Ken Pavol, Florence thought their nets had snagged on a passing eel boat, because they were being towed up the river.

"But, after we watched for a while, the eel boat was going upriver faster than we were, so whatever was pulling us was a large animal of some kind," said Florence, "either a very large shark or a huge sturgeon. But as we pulled the net, it rolled out and we never did know for sure."

If it was a sturgeon, it was a rarity then and an even greater rarity now. But, Florence said, there are signs of recovery of sturgeon, a large species that was virtually fished out some 100 years ago.

"I have no doubt, that if we pay attention, we can restore them using cultured fish," he said. "But it might take a couple of decades."

As part of the state's sturgeon recovery program, Florence said, 2,400 marked sturgeon have been released to study their migratory patterns and discover preferred habitat.

"We have had 400 returns since, which is a phenomenal rate of recovery," he said. "They're alive and well out there."

Shad, too, are recovering, even in rivers such as the Nanticoke and Patuxent, where cultured, marked fish are helping biologists determine what may be possible.

"But producing fish is not even half of the job we are doing," said Florence, who had been serving as division director for mariculture and estuarine hatcheries.

"The bulk of it is after producing, testing and marking them and tracking migration and habitat."

And while Florence said it is "just very fulfilling to look back and say we really did restore spawning runs," he said the best part of the past 35 years has been the people he has encountered as he worked the various state fisheries.

"In this business, you get to work with friends," he said. "Not only those on the job with you, but people in general -- the guy who buys the fishing license or owns waterfront property -- over time they become your friends.

"That's the most rewarding part of this job."

Florence and his wife, Janet, already have begun their move to a lakeside home in Traverse City, Mich., a relocation he said they have "talked about for 20 years."

"We don't know what we are going to do there yet [for extra income], but we'll work it out. Money is only money. There are other, more important things."

Like having the time to head out on Great Traverse Bay, where a fisheries biologist might be able to get in some recreational fishing.

"We were there last weekend. There were fishermen catching big brown trout just off the shoreline and I'm on a lawnmower, mowing the lawn" Florence said. "I had to ask myself, `What's wrong with this picture?' "

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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