Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 4
January 24 - 30, 2002
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Fishing for Trouble?
Can you eat your catch? Or is catch-and-release better for you and for the fish?

A man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.
— Book of Ecclesiastes

Ah, but for centuries, men — also women and children — have been warned about drinking concoctions originating from the grape. Or corn, barley, hops, rye and so many other fruits and agricultural products that put a kick in liquids that many of us sip or guzzle for relaxation — or perhaps to make us more witty, charming, even more sexy.

And sometimes to better help us make total damned fools of ourselves.

We all know alcoholic beverages are meant to be consumed in moderation if we are to be merry. A hangover certainly isn’t a merry occasion, especially when it incorporates guilt or embarrassment.

And of late, it is increasingly obvious that the same lifestyle guidelines apply to what we eat and how much. Doctors, dietitians and nutritionists pick up where our mothers left off in reminding us of that.

Alas, to put a dent in any merriment we might enjoy by drinking and eating in moderation, along comes government to remind us of the possibility that we just might do harm to ourselves by eating fish — depending on the species, where it was caught and the size and age of the catch.

Hey, didn’t our mothers tell us that fish was a “brain food?” So aren’t restrictions on the eating of it a no-brainer, both literally and figuratively? You figure.

The View from Stoney Creek
What brings all of this up is the way fishermen and some of the non-fishing citizenry panicked upon the December precautionary announcement from the Maryland Department of the Environment. Some of the fish we catch here in Maryland could cause cancer or some other serious malady courtesy of the PCBs, mercury or pesticide build-ups in their bodies, they said. That certainly isn’t anything to be merry about.

Others of the community — those always worrying about the environment in particular — mistakenly take the advisory as gospel that our waters are deteriorating more than we already feared. So are the fish that live amidst all the runoff, silt, toxics and other gunk in those waters.

To put the worrywarts at ease, perhaps it’s time to review all of this. Seeing that I’m a fisherman who lives on Stoney Creek in North County, it’s appropriate that I confess the Burton homestead is only a long cast from one of the Department of the Environment’s most maligned rivers.

Stoney Creek flows into the murky Patapsco on ebb tide; on a rising tide, waters of the Patapsco flow into Stoney Creek, the mouth of which isn’t far from the mighty Chesapeake.

Whence The Advisory
First this is not to claim all our waters are pristine. You know better and so do I — though not Gov. Parris Glendening who has the curious idea that dredging to embellish commerce at the Port of Baltimore will enhance our Chesapeake.

Truth is, our waters have not gotten that bad that fast. Department of the Environment announced new and more stringent guidelines because the federal Environmental Protection Agency previously figured the average citizen consumes seven ounces of fish a month. Subsequent studies hiked that estimate to 18 ounces. So the guidelines had to be updated. No cause for panic; just caution.

Recommendations are based on a 30-year consumption period, and Department of the Environment rations are advised on a monthly basis. In, say, the Magothy, if one consumes more white perch during the warmer months when the catching is good — and less in winter — it all averages out over the 30-year period.

Incidentally, there has been insufficient data on fish of the Chesapeake Bay proper to issue advisories at this time, but likely those will be out in the next year or two. The process is slow and complicated. It costs between $3,000 and $3,500 to test a single fish.

Advisories are directed to three categories: general population; women of child-bearing age; children.

For the general population, the average weight guidelines are based on a person of 150 pounds. Those heavier can consume more; those less robust, less. The advisories are generally more restrictive for women and children.

The bigger the fish, the more time it has had to accumulate contaminants in its body, which are then picked up and accumulated in those that eat the fish. Also, the advisories apply to recreational fish only because fish at the market come from various sources and areas; thus there’s no way to get a handle on the origin of most — and this writer suspects every effort is being made by the state to avoid prompting concerns about commercially caught fish.

Eat with Care
Overall, species carrying contaminants should be avoided, though consumption is approved in limited amounts for various affected fishes in different waters.

The precautionary list is long for channel catfish. Eat none taken from the mainstems of Back, Bohemia, Bush, Elk, Gunpowder, Sassafras and Susquehanna rivers. Channels caught in the Patapsco from Key Bridge to Baltimore Harbor are listed as “no quantitative data for risk assessment … avoid regular consumption.” It’s the same for eels from the Patapsco, which wouldn’t bother me. I don’t eat ’em. — from anywhere!

For channel catfish of the Choptank, it’s no more than four eight-ounce servings a month. For the Magothy, it’s two servings a month; same for the Patuxent. For the mainstreams of the Pocomoke, it’s four. For women and children, it’s none from the Corsica sector of the Chester. Basically the same for the Potomac.

For white catfish, it’s eat sparingly for the general population, and none for women and children. In addition, it’s none of more than 18 inches for everyone. Also, basically the same advisory holds for fish from the Patapsco.

More than a few more popular fish are included in the latest advisory, such as spot from South River or perch from the Magothy; rockfish in some sectors of the upper Potomac and even yellow perch from “pristine” Deep Creek Lake. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

For the exceptionally popular white perch from the mainstem of the Magothy, the advisory is more restrictive than most other waters: one portion a month for the general population, none for women and children. This is worrisome, seeing that the Magothy is one of the most popular perch’n’ spots of the entire Bay complex. Perch advisories also cover South, Chester, Back, Bohemia, Bush, Choptank, Elk, Gunpowder, Patuxent, Pocomoke, Sassafras and Nanticoke rivers.

Space does not permit a consumption breakdown on each species in the advisory, but details are available on Department of the Environment’s website: www.mde.state.md.us/fish. Or call 800/633-6101.

  • Black crappies: Liberty and Lake Roland, call for safe servings.

  • Bluegills: Statewide, eight servings per month allowed for all.

  • Brown bullheads: Furnace and Curtis Creeks, call for safe servings.

  • Carp: Liberty Reservoir and Lake Roland, call for safe servings.

  • Crabs: The Patapsco: do not eat the mustard.

  • Eels: Back River, Patuxent, Potomac and South River, call for safe servings.

  • Pickerel, northern pike and walleyes: Statewide at all impoundments, four servings per month for adults, two for children

  • Rockfish: The Potomac from the Route 301 Bridge to Washington, call for safe servings.

  • Spot: South River: Two servings a month for the general population, one for women and children.

  • Smallmouth and largemouth bass: Statewide at all impoundments, four servings per month for adults, two for children — except in Lake Roland, it’s two for all.

As we said, no problems have yet been discovered in the Bay proper. Still, one might well be curious as to some species, white perch in particular. Though they spawn in rivers, the Magothy as an example, many — if not most — enter the Bay during summer and fall. Also those aforementioned spot of South River are summer migrants. And what about bluefish, rock, sea trout and hardheads?

Once the fishes of the Bay are assessed, the findings should be interesting. Keep your fingers crossed.

Enough said …

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly