Volume XI, Issue 26 ~ June 26-July 2, 2003

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Burton on the Bay | Chesapeake Outdoors | Sky Watch | Tidelog
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Burton on the Bay

God Gets the Credit; Scientists the Blame

Take all the biologists and their fancy plans, fire the biologist, then take their filled file cabinets out in a rowboat at Loch Raven, dump the whole works overboard. You’ll accomplish more in creating fish habitat than all the studies in those files ever would.

— Burt Dillon, founder of Fishing In Maryland,
a popular angling publication

My late friend Burt Dillon was an authority on fishing — the fishing side of fishing: tackle, catching, where to go and when plus everything the average angler wanted to know, but his expertise on the subject ended there. Thankfully, he never became governor, secretary of DNR or a meddling politician. He found his niche and stayed there.

Burt was of the old school: one of those hunters and fishermen who figured God put the fish in the waters and the game in the woodlands, marshes and fields for men to harvest. God knew best how to manage them so humans could keep on doing just that.

Burt said those words about 35 years ago as we were putting together one of the annual editions of his publication. The three big reservoirs closest to Baltimore were showing signs of easing off in what they could provide anglers.

The fishing in them really wasn’t bad; matter of fact, it remained quite good, but let’s say not quite as good as it had been. Trouble is fishermen and hunters get spoiled by the good times and will accept no reasoning why they couldn’t stay that way.

The Life Cycle of a Reservoir
Of course, fishing those reservoirs was bound to deteriorate over the years, that’s the way such things go. Like all reservoirs, they were lowlands and valleys that filled with water via human decision to store the wet stuff for people to drink, bathe, flush the commode, wash their cars, sprinkle their lawns, dilute whisky on the rocks — and all else one does with H20.

Whether it’s small Piney Run Reservoir out Carroll County way, Loch Raven the pride of Baltimore or Maryland’s biggest impoundment, Deep Creek Lake out in the mountains of Western Maryland, a reservoir has its hey days and its chaff days. Look at it this way —

In its early days as it is filled from streams and rivers, it isn’t fished. As the water rises, it inundates trees, buildings, sometimes old small settlements and anything else from mowers to junked cars in back yards.

All these things — fishermen call them obstructions or structure — present fish with ideal habitat: seclusion, a place to hide from predators and also a place to conceal themselves so they can pounce to grab a smaller fish for lunch. It’s the unseen nature of life in Davy Jones’ Locker, whether it be in a stream, river, Bay or even ocean.

Once filled, a reservoir can be expected to provide good fishing. After all, all that structure boosts fish production, and usually fisheries managers give a big helping hand by stocking species they figure appropriate for a given reservoir. So, there’s good angling. What else could one expect?

But like you and me, reservoirs get old. Fisheries managers can’t afford to keep dumping countless thousands of small fish in these large impoundments. Bottom line: Usually the catching tapers off. As with all other aspects of fishing and hunting, users blame the biologists. They’re the scapegoats. God is thanked for the abundance; biologists are blamed for anything lacking in abundance.

As time goes by, sediment drops to the bottom. Gradually, all that structure so valuable to fish and their reproduction is silted over. What once was an uneven bottom with all kinds of structure gradually turns relatively smooth. In addition, when there’s good fishing, more fishermen arrive to catch more fish. Since it’s not economically feasible to stock fish by the hundreds of thousands or millions, angling success deteriorates.

Our Bay’s One Big Reservoir
I realize the readership of this newspaper is primarily of those who fish, hunt, crab and whatever in Chesapeake Country, and those reading these words might be wondering what’s this got to do with us? A good point. The answer is it has much to do with us.

What happens in reservoirs is going on all around us of Bay Country, where it is even worse. In the Chesapeake and its tributaries — even in back bay sectors of the ocean — storms, tides and humans are tinkering with invaluable structure.

In reservoir watersheds, humans play a lesser role because management is based on water quality and abundance. Meanwhile, on the Bay and ocean fronts, we who pollute, aid and abet silting, harvest too much and provide too little funding for management and corrections blame scientists for not adequately replenishing what God has given us.

Big waters have different histories, fishes and other aquatic life, but the bottom line is the same as with reservoirs — just bigger. As with Loch Raven, fisheries biologists (I prefer to call them scientists) are the scapegoats.

Seldom is it that politicians at the top bear the brunt, even when they ignore the advice of the biologists or fail to provide funding on the plea of no money in the till. The same with bureaucrats, who don’t implement programs biologists via study and experience are confident can resolve or lessen problems.

Look around us today, especially those of you who side with late good friend Burt Dillon. Often, with inadequate financing and support, our biologists are accomplishing miracles in overriding natural and human degradation of our natural resources. Let’s take stock:

Rockfish are back. The catching is better than in perhaps a century. Shad are making a miraculous recovery. Before long we should be able to catch and keep them again. Bluefish were at an all-time low 20 years ago. Now they’ve bounded back that the creel limit in Maryland appears about to be increased by 50 percent. Flounder are recovering; the same with sea bass among others. The Canada goose comeback is amazing.

Some biologists somewhere — and probably helped appreciably by some in our DNR — can claim credit.

So you might ask what about clams, oysters, crabs? Let me remind you, rockfish, shad and flounder were once in the same boat — and consider what has happened with them. Give credit where credit is due.

Recovery doesn’t come easily. Sacrifices are necessary. Don’t get the idea that biologists like to sit behind a bunch of test tubes and get their jollies by telling us we have to cut back or even stop catching a species, or spend money to correct damages prompted by our greed, neglect and misuse.

Biologists are the closest to the problems, and no financial gain will be their reward. Many are lucky to keep their jobs these days. Yet they’re the ones vilified. Too often we’ll take the word of a commercial crabber in Crisfield, a netter out of Rock Hall or a politician bent on buddying up to a contributing constituent over that of our ill-appreciated biologists.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to work, not if problems are to be solved. Have you taken a biologist to lunch lately? Enough said



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Last updated June 26, 2003 @ 1:19am