Volume 14, Issue 12 ~ March 23 - March 29, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Our Rockfish Ruckus

The sky is falling

Not to argue the point, Chicken Little, but the last time I looked skyward it was still there, as were the clouds and the sun. But, seeing that more than a few of the citizenry have taken your gloom and doom cries to heart of late concerning the status of rockfish of Chesapeake Bay, allow me to cry fowl.

Sticking with poultry, I’d put it this way:

The chickens have come home to roost.

Let me remind you there’s an awful lot of you who know what’s under chicken roosts.

Seeing that I’m of New England dirt-farmer stock and have hoed the you-know-what out of many a hen house, I’d appreciate the opportunity to try and clear up some of the droppings in the latest chapter of Mycobacteriosis, or Myco, and striped bass in Chesapeake Bay.

No News Here

First, if I were a rockfish I’d go back to 1897 and repeat Mark Twain’s words to the London correspondent of the New York Journal: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Watching the boob tube, hearing radio talk-show comments and reading some print accounts of Myco, one could easily get the impression that three-quarters of the Chesapeake’s rockfish are dying, will be dying or are already are dead. And, if we were to handle one, we could be in the same boat.

Fact: Myco has been around, known about and closely watched for a dozen years. It’s not new, and it’s not been kept a secret by Maryland Department of Natural Resources. In the season of 2000, when fishermen found more rockfish with unsightly red blemishes, one of the symptoms of Myco, DNR told us what it was and admitted not much was known about it at the time.

It’s a fish-health problem, not one that poses a risk to those who handle fish and abide by the normal sanitary code. The department has always advised not handling blemished fish or fish with open sores. It also recommended washing hands after handling fish, or perhaps rinsing hands in a bleach solution while on a boat.

Myco is in no way associated with mad cow disease or chronic wasting disease as found among deer. Scientists doubt that there is any connection with it and the cancer found in South River.

Yet suddenly and curiously, the presence of a fish disease known about and studied here for more than a decade has taken center stage, getting the attention as something new that could make Chicken Little’s sky fall upon us all — as well as the stripers of the Chesapeake.

The Bulge Under the Rug

As I said before, the chickens have come home to roost.

Since 2000, charter boat and commercial fisheries interests insisted in pleas to DNR the less said the better. People wouldn’t want to fish for stripers. Or eat them. Publicity would be bad for business. When these interests were asked about sick rockfish, they told their constituents No problem, no sick fish, it’s just the media. So Myco was swept under the rug.

Sweep enough under the rug, the rug bulges. Someone like Elizabeth Williamson of The Washington Post notices it, it’s published as new news, the sky is falling, the Associated Press picks it up, other newspapers follow suit. Worse, television’s gotten into the act with its blizzard-is-coming reporting and dug out old footage of fish handlers disease. Next thing you know, we’ve got another Pfisteria Hysteria or a Kepone Kalamity of the 1970s — neither of which proved to be nearly as serious as first feared.

Had the presence of Myco been acknowledged at the offset and since, therewould have been no big story. Attempts to hide something of potentially serious consequences don’t work. Now the chickens have come home to roost. And will continue to do so until it is admitted that rockfish of the Bay have a troublesome health issue.

This not to suggest that DNR, its administrators, managers and scientists have not been open in all of this. They have. I’ve called them numerous times over the past six years seeking Myco updates. Each time all questions were answered; none of the I’ll get back to you on that. They even brought up things not asked. Last summer, I was told and printed here and elsewhere that more than half the Bay’s stripers were afflicted.

Ah, if only charter and commercial interests had been as forthright as DNR. Bottom line: Bashing the media only leads to more stories, more confusion among the public and more hesitance to catch and eat rockfish.

Hot Question in the Skillet

I’ve spent the past couple of days talking with fisheries managers, scientists and users. Nothing new has turned up. Still, charter boat skippers lament losing customers, and watermen say it can be tough to market Bay rockfish. For what it’s worth, here’s how I see things:

• The public is impatient, but science works slowly; a fisheries biologist has to get soaked before admitting it’s raining. At least six other groups — federal, state and coastal — have been and continue to work on this. Long planned has been a May 9 symposium, you might call it a summit, involving all scientists working on the problem

• Fisheries scientists, and we have among the best, admit they don’t understand the whole picture. Studying a wild population has its complications, and research continually turns up new questions and leads that must be pursued. Tight budgets don’t make available all the personnel they once did. But this is a high-priority fish disease project, said DNR assistant secretary Mike Slattery.

Meanwhile, Slattery says, there should be no problems among those who fish, handle or eat fish in a normal, common-sense way.

• Do all afflicted fish eventually die? This has been batted around for a few years. The consensus on Myco is it is a killer, but no one knows if all die, and some findings indicate healing under some circumstances as fish prepare to leave the Bay.

• Is the Bay at fault? Scientists don’t point fingers until they have at least solid indications. It is known that the older the fish, the more chance of affliction. Fish coming into the Bay display fewer symptoms than residents (though not all afflicted fish have blemishes). The longer that fish are in the Bay, the more likelihood of contamination. Makes one suspicious.

• Etcetera: Does chumming to the extent it is carried out in the Bay have a role in this? Myco is contagious, and chumming brings more and more fish together.

Can Myco be detected in live fish without blemishes or outward signs? No, they must be dead for confirmation.

If so many fish are dying, where are they? No one can answer that, which prompts hopes that the death toll is not as high as feared. Also, in the midst of all of this, the Young-of-the-Year hatch index continues quite high, fish abundance is high and most fish appear healthy.

All of this reminds me of a white perch disease problem in the 1960s. Many fish died, many anglers hesitated to fish for them, never mind touching them. Yet today we have an awesome population of white.

Gotta go now; have to turn the fried rockfish over in the cast iron skillet. Enough said.

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