Saltier, warmer bay lures new fish

Semitropical species such as pompano, tarpon being caught

August 19, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Fishermen angling for tarpon or pompano usually have to go to Florida, or the Carolinas, or at least to the lower Chesapeake Bay. But not this year.

Wildlife authorities have verified catches of both species this month in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake.

They're among a growing list of creatures said to be venturing up the bay as the deepening drought pushes water temperatures and salinity levels higher.

"We've had a hot summer and very salty conditions in the Chesapeake Bay, and it makes good conditions for these semitropical fish," said Phil Jones, resource management director for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Not all the reports have been verified by the DNR's field biologists. But talk of black and red drum, cobia, crevalle jack and skate have become more common around the region.

Jones cast doubt on a tale of a barracuda caught off the mouth of the Chester River. The fish appears to have been caught elsewhere, frozen and thawed as a prank. But "it is possible to catch barracuda in the Chesapeake Bay," Jones said.

Another toothy ocean predator has turned up in Havre de Grace, at the north end of the bay.

Three boys fishing at Jean Roberts Memorial Park -- at the mouth of the drought-stricken Susquehanna River -- were startled Aug. 4 when they cranked in their line and found a 2-foot shark. It was identified as a dusky shark, a species rare in the upper bay.

The Record newspaper in Havre de Grace reported the shark was sold for $30 and stuffed.

"Until temperatures start to cool off around mid-September, I expect to hear more reports of unusual species in the Chesapeake Bay, or until we have a big storm, which at this point doesn't seem too likely," Jones said.

As rainfall and freshwater runoff decline, rivers and streams deliver less fresh water to the coastal estuaries where fresh and salt water mix. So salt levels in the mixing zone rise, and salt might encroach on nearby well systems and drinking-water intakes.

A creeping "salt front" in the Hudson River is threatening drinking water in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 75 miles upstream from New York City. Salt moving up the Delaware River is threatening a well field serving suburban Trenton, N.J. The salt front is just 20 miles below Philadelphia's water intakes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Rising salinities also make things interesting for fishermen.

The DNR has verified the pompano and crevalle jack caught this month at Point Lookout in St. Mary's County. The subtropical fish are popular food and game species normally caught off southern states. The DNR also received an unconfirmed report of a tarpon -- normally found south of Cape Hatteras, N.C. -- taken somewhere this month in Maryland's portion of the bay.

Boaters have reported bottlenose dolphin this summer near Pooles Island, east of Baltimore County. Dolphin will commonly chase their prey as far north as the Bay Bridge, said Dr. Cindy Driscoll, a DNR wildlife veterinarian. But "Pooles Island is farther north than we commonly see them."

David Schofield, marine mammal rescue coordinator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, said smaller harbor porpoises have come farther north in recent years. One was found dead near Kent Island in March. A minke whale stranded there in June.

A large number of sea turtle sightings in the bay have been reported in the past year, particularly of leatherback turtles, the largest in the world, Driscoll said.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation spokesman Chris Dollar said watermen using pound nets off Hart-Miller Island, near Baltimore, have been landing red and black drum.

"It's not unusual for them to be in the bay," he said, "but it's extremely unusual for them to be found that far north." They're more familiar in Tangier Sound, just north of the Virginia line.

Dollar said recreational fishermen at Point Lookout and on the Lower Eastern Shore's Honga River have been taking cobia. The species is more familiar to anglers at the Bay Bridge-Tunnel at the bay's mouth.

Spanish mackerel are turning up as far north as West River, in Anne Arundel County. "That is a bit far north of their range," he said.

And Bob Chance, a naturalist at Swan Harbor Farm, a Harford County park, said he has heard reports of skate -- a relative of the shark normally found south of the Bay Bridge -- on the Susquehanna flats, near the river's mouth.

Chance also expects Maryland terrapin will be seen venturing north of their usual limits near the Bay Bridge.

Crabs are moving well up into the Bush River, just south of the Susquehanna, as salinity there climbs, Chance said. Residents who had been using the river's water to irrigate their gardens now find it too salty.

In freshwater wetlands, he said, normally reliable springs are down to a trickle, and dry conditions since spring have made life tough on amphibians and reptiles that breed there.

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