- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — A wasting disease that attacks rockfish is becoming more common in the Chesapeake Bay — but scientists aren’t sure why or what to do about it.

At a three-day summit on the disease, mycobacteriosis, scientists from two federal agencies and several states shared what they know about the disease, also called fish handlers’ disease. By the end of the summit yesterday, they announced they don’t know much.

For example, scientists aren’t sure how the rockfish catch mycobacteriosis, often called “myco.” They don’t know whether it kills the rockfish, or striped bass, or whether environmental factors are making the disease more common.

But they do know more fish are getting it, at least in Maryland waters.

About 25 percent of rockfish in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay had mycobacteriosis in 1998, and by 2005 about 62 percent had it, said Larry Pieper, a biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

In some areas, scientists have found up to 80 percent of the rockfish have the disease.

The wasting disease is generally harmless to humans if the fish are handled properly, but news of the bacteria’s spread has alarmed some anglers. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has reported that charter boat captains are seeing fewer fishermen who want to fish for rockfish, a popular sporting fish in the state.

The fish’s popularity makes it important for more study of mycobacteriosis, scientists said.

Conference attendees included officials with the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plus state biologists from Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

“We need to be working together,” said Steve Minkkinen of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Annapolis.

Among the questions asked yesterday was how many rockfish have the disease, and where they’re located.

The disease has been detected in rockfish as far away as the Hudson River in New York, and rockfish migrate up and down the East Coast, but biologists conceded they have only a fuzzy picture of how prevalent the disease is in different waters.

“It’s not simple to say that all of the striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay are infected. Different populations seem to be infected at different rates,” said Chris Ottinger, research biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey from West Virginia.

The point of the summit was to start planning how to best study the mycobacteriosis to see if it’s a threat to the whole fishery, they said.

“This is a long-term approach, a continuous approach,” said John Jacobs, a fisheries biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Oxford, Md. “There’s some work being done, but perhaps not enough.”

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