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Remembering the Rockfish Ban

Middle-schooler’s project reminds us that we owe today’s big stripers to ’80s moratorium

Eighth-grader Brian Zagalsky has been fishing since he was three years old. Now his love of reeling in big fish is paying double dividends.
    The Annapolis Middle Schooler’s class project for National History Day grew into a prize-winning exploration of Maryland’s five-year rockfish moratorium launched in 1985.
    “I wasn’t alive back then, and it was a subject that really interested me,” says Zagalsky of the historic ban that launched a civil war of sorts and became a model for the nation. “My teacher’s only requirement was to investigate a time when people took a stand for something.
    “I feel like if people hadn’t protected the rockfish through the moratorium, then we couldn’t catch the fish and eat the fish or even see rockfish in the Bay today. It’s important because they were in danger of going extinct,” the 14-year-old says.
    The Zagalskys are a fishing family. Mom Robin, dad Jason and brother Darin have entered many competitions with the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association, with the younger Zagalskys winning many.
    The prospect of another prize lured Brian into expanding his project. Including sources from two historical county collections and an interview with a local expert could win him $500 in Anne Arundel County’s inaugural local history competition. The point is introducing young people to historical research and local special collections. The prize was offered by the family of a former Ann Arrundell County Historical Society chair in honor of their son, Stephen M. Schatz.
    For his expert, Brian chose Bill Goldsborough, about to retire as senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
    “I heard the whole story of the moratorium as he witnessed it,” Brian says.
    Goldsborough explained that watermen expressed their hatred dramatically. “To say there are plenty of rockfish in the Bay, watermen caught enough to fill a truck and then dumped it out on December 31, 1984, when the moratorium took effect,” Brian says, paraphrasing one Goldsborough story.
    The moratorium was a hardship for watermen, who lost a big source of their income over the moratorium’s five years, Brian learned.
    Yet it saved the fish.
    “It gave scientists opportunity to tag rockfish so that they could study migration patterns,” he wrote. “As a result of the moratorium, the rockfish population rebounded, and today fishermen enjoy catching rockfish in the Bay and along the Atlantic coast.
    To gather historical context, the ambitious student turned to primary and secondary sources. With help from the Anne Arundel County Public Library, the Anne Arundel Trust for Preservation and the Ann Arrundell County Historical Society, he found the Joan Cass Beck Collections and the Gold Star Collections, both local historical records.
    The Joan Cass Beck Collections —nearly 1,400 books, journals and audio-visual materials — are housed at the Anne Arundel Archaeology Lab at Historic London Town in Edgewater and at the Historical Preservation Research Library in the county’s Division of Planning and Zoning.
    The Gold Star Collection includes more than 1,000 books, articles and other historical and genealogical materials that document the economic, social, political, cultural, religious and military history of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County. This non-circulating collection resides in the Maryland Room of the Annapolis Regional Library.
    “Brian’s project was just fantastic,” says Dr. John Kille of the Anne Arundel County Trust for Preservation. “We are very pleased with the success of the contest and a chance to promote these wonderful resources for local history.”
    Wonderful indeed, Brian agrees.
    “There’s something about these books that you can’t get from the Internet,” he says.
    “It was really exciting to see all these great books written by early explorers and what they saw on the Bay. Like John Smith seeing natives using pound nets 300 years ago. That’s something we still do today. That’s really cool.”
    Brian’s look into the past has opened up the big picture, making him an advocate as well as a fisherman.
    Because of the moratorium, Brian says, “there is constant effort to maintain and improve the population by limiting the size and number of kept fish. If they did not, there would be no more rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay. Rockfish spawn here. If they can’t survive in the Bay, that hits the entire East Coast.”
    Now as big fish in huge numbers swim back into the Bay to spawn, Brian is among the thousands out there to catch them.