Good news on rockfish: we can eat more of it

April 14, 2011

Tomorrow, boatloads of fishermen will be testing their luck trying to catch what is arguably the most delectable fish in the Chesapeake Bay: the striped bass.

Just as the recreational fishing season was about to open Saturday, the Maryland Department of the Environment announced that, thanks to a significant decline in the levels of contaminants found in fish samples, it is now safe for adults to eat more of the Maryland state fish, also known as rockfish. Moreover, women of childbearing years and children — who had been told to steer clear or eat a little bit of certain stripers — can now dig in.

While eating what you catch is especially rewarding for the soggy sportsmen who have spent the day bouncing around in a boat, the news is also welcome to landlubbers whose primary contact with rockfish comes at the dinner table. The texture, flavor and moisture of the flesh of this fish is a culinary delight, a local treasure.

Specifically, adults are now advised they can enjoy an 8-ounce serving three times a month from Chesapeake Bay rockfish shorter than 28 inches, or an 8-ounce portion from a fish longer than 28 inches once a month. Children can eat two 3-ounce portions from the smaller fish or one portion every other month from the larger fish.

Why does size matter? Larger fish tend to accumulate higher levels of contaminants than smaller fish. The new guidelines represent a jump in recommended portion size, depending on the length of the fish, of 25 percent to 50 percent over the 2007 guidelines. In short it means it is OK to have another helping of rock.

While more rockfish on the plate is felicitous news to diners, it is also a pleasing indication about Chesapeake Bay water quality. The rockfish are safer to eat because the level of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) recently found in the tissues of rockfish has dropped significantly — by more than half when compared with samples taken from fish in 2001 to 2005.

This welcome development would be more reassuring if scientists were able to give a precise explanation of why the level of PCBs — a synthetic oil once used as an insulator in electrical equipment and banned in 1979 — had dropped. Unfortunately, they can't. Maybe next time.

But at least for now, the way the numbers are moving — the levels of PCBs dropping and rockfish portions increasing — is a trend that makes many Marylanders both happy and hungry.

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