- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2006

Two schools of thought come to mind regarding the beleaguered striped bass in the nearby Chesapeake Bay, as well as those in North Carolina.

The first is that in the opinion of many, the striper soon again will be commercially overfished. However, it also could be that because of the current fears of the fish disease known as mycobacteriosis, the rockfish might one day be kept from the market. Then its presence in our waters might increase, which would only be a good thing if enough food was available to sustain massive numbers of striper schools.

In the May/June issue of International Angler, the voice of the International Game Fish Association headquartered in Dania Beach, Fla., an unnamed charter fishing captain writes in regards to the striped bass, “I have lived through their ‘almost’ demise in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Uniform agreements of most East Coast states finally imposed a ban of commercial striped bass sales. This action brought them back to very good numbers. The ban was lifted in the early ‘90s. Today most all the East Coast states allow huge commercial harvesting that targets fish in the 36-inch and larger sizes [20- to 60-pounders]. What I am seeing today is a slow, but sure return to overfishing.”

The man scores a strong point. At the rate things have been going, commercial catches in states like Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina are steadily rising.

Will it take another rap on the noggin from concerned biologists who one day might say, “Folks, we’ve done it again. Rockfish numbers have taken such a dramatic dip, we’re recommending another fishing moratorium like the one that ran from 1985 through 1990.”

In case you’ve forgotten, when Maryland began its rockfish moratorium in 1985 because sport and commercial catches dropped so dramatically that some conservationists wanted the federal government to step in and declare the striped bass an endangered species, there were watermen in Maryland (and most certainly in Virginia and North Carolina) who stood up and shouted that there were plenty of rockfish around.

These commercial netters would have continued to fish for the stripers until there were no more. I remember it as if it happened yesterday.

Now, a little critter barely larger than a man’s hand might throw a monkey wrench into all the fears of what could occur over the next several years. It’s the menhaden, the oily baitfish that is being netted into oblivion by the “reduction industry,” companies that snatch up thousands of tons of menhaden as they enter the Chesapeake Bay. Menhaden can be turned into fish oil and meal, bases for cosmetics, medicines and pet food. But they also serve as the primary food for voracious schools of striped bass, bluefish, sea trout and red drum.

Take away the menhaden and you soon have hungry fish swimming about, eating whatever they can wrap their gums around, or going without and pretty soon showing signs of malnutrition.

Concerning the striped bass, the state fish of Maryland, a Department of Natural Resources official who asked for anonymity said, “In the case of rockfish who show signs of mycobacteriosis, the skin lesions appear to be related to water quality [or lack thereof] and nutrition.”

Aha! The magic word nutrition rears its head again. If they don’t get sufficient quantities of food, rockfish will begin to suffer and might end up with mycobacteriosis.

Although no conclusive proof of this has been offered by the scientific community, it is being increasingly mentioned in conversations up and down the Middle Atlantic States.

The answer is plain as day to me: immediately initiate water quality improvements. Don’t wait five, 10, or 20 years. Shut down the menhaden netters instead of lowering their catch quota by tiny amounts. Reduce commercial catches of the striped bass or stop them altogether by bestowing gamefish status upon the species. Gamefish classification will keep them off the beds of crushed ice in fish markets everywhere.

Want to eat stripers? Grow them to table size in aquaculture operations. Men who will lose the chance to net them in public waters should receive special training and start-up funds for aquaculture farms. Sport anglers should be willing to pay for a special gamefish stamp that will provide much of the money. If needed, help the former netters become charter fishing captains. It already has been shown that sport fishing brings far more money into a state’s economy than commercial fishing, so this is a no-brainer for hard-headed politicians who appear to be beholding to commercial interests.

• Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.