Burton on the Bay:
The Bottom of the Barrel
Countless schools of countless fish are no longer

And there is no greater disaster than greed.

         -Lao-tzu, 604-531 B.C.


Here we are two and a half thousand years later, and still learning. The Chinese philosopher summed things up better than any who have since spoken of human gluttony involving things far beyond filling of the stomach.

So many times over the centuries - though more in the past couple than the previous 20 - we've felt the impact of our gluttony. But what have we learned? Nothing.

The lessons heaped upon us, especially in the 1900s, involve everything from gas guzzling autos and disposable goods to forests, wildlife and fish. It's the latter we will address today.

National Marine Fisheries Service addressed ocean fish earlier this week, just another reminder. Whether it be fossil-based fuels, countless buffalo on the prairies, endless flights of passenger pigeons or schools of fish of the ocean, there is a bottom to the barrel, big as it might be.

When one dips into that barrel, in this instance a barrel of fish, it matters not whether its contents are removed by the hooks of a recreational fisherman, those of a commercial fisherman, those of a long line laid at the bottom of the ocean or with a sweeping trawl that grubs the sea.

A fish removed from the ocean is one less fish able to help ensure the future of the species. Of course, the ocean can give up countless fish without, but there's a breaking point. And with some fish, we have reached it. When this happens, each remaining fish is of more importance.

We've seen this in the Chesapeake and its tributaries involving such species as rockfish, which thankfully came back from the brink; with bluefish, which show indications of rebounding; with black drum, which remain questionable; with sea trout, which survived thanks to strict regulations; with flounder likewise; and - let us not forget - the all-important menhaden, currently the focus of fisheries managers who can't account for a crash in populations of a fish that feed billions of larger species.

There are many more from cobia to blowfish. Regardless of the species, whether in our Bay complex or our offshore waters or along the coast, we pretty much got to the bottom of the barrel before effective measures were taken to save them from the fate of the dodo bird.

To put it bluntly, brinkmanship is a hell of a way to go. You'd think after all these years, we'd have learned something from the sage Lao-tzu. But obviously we haven't.

The tunas, billfish and sharks of the ocean aren't fish of the Chesapeake, but their dilemma is akin to what has been and remains in our bay. Moreover, many in our Bay Country journey to the ocean in warmer months to challenge the big exotic game fish of the Atlantic. A 40-pound rockfish might seem big hereabouts, but it's a midget compared to the lunkers that roam in the deep blue sea.

Whether Bay or ocean, there is a bottom to the barrel. In the ocean we're approaching the bottom of the barrel with tunas, billfish and sharks; flounder, sea bass, tautog. These and other species are in sufficient trouble that regulations are being implemented at last.

Whether bay or ocean, it matters not, the free-wheeling days are over. Countless schools of countless fish are no longer that.

Ingenuity with electronics and spotter planes now makes it virtually impossible for fish to elude hooks and nets. Bigger and faster boats make catching easier and quicker. Rising dockside prices add incentive to catch more, and in the recreational fishery, we've more time and money to pursue fish. Where will it end?


Squabbling Over More of Less

Within it all there is the traditional squabble between commercial and recreational interests.

Greed. Both segments fear the other is getting the lion's share of what's in the barrel. While they're focusing their concerns on each other, what's left in the barrel is pretty much overlooked by the adversaries with hooks and nets. If the last fish of a given species is to be taken, it has to be taken by one of them, a waterman or a sports fisherman.

Sadly, too often both sides do what man always does when conservation runs amuck. They point to the role they play in economics. You hear the same kind of posturing about such disposables as metal beverage containers. The energy consumed in creating them is disgraceful, but talk about going back to returnables brings up not only the excuse of inconvenience but also the jobs and welfare of those who produce throw-aways.

The recreational fisherman talks of the money he contributes to the economy. He buys boats, tackle, fuel, stays in motels, eats in restaurants, engages guides and captains - in short, spends money and contributes to the economy.

The commercial fisherman talks of his livelihood, supporting himself, his family, paying taxes, providing food for others, carrying on a tradition and so forth - as does his counterpart on the commercial side who carries sports fishermen. All have valid arguments, but the bottom of the barrel keeps coming closer.

So we've reached the point that National Marine Fisheries has stepped in with a management plan to save sharks, tunas and billfish. No one seems happy about it, though the fish would be - if they had a way of knowing. It's hard to accept that the free wheeling days are over.

There is some validity to complaints that the Service, and its predecessor the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, has a history of giving an edge to commercial interests in the harvest of fish, but we're past the who struck John phase. We're getting near the bottom of the barrel, which will be empty or damned near it if something isn't done pronto.

A dozen years ago or so in an effort to ease pressure on tunas, bluefin and yellowfin, the Service encouraged more interest in the commercial catching of large sharks, the flesh of which was becoming more palatable. It worked, more sharks were caught, though some only for their highly profitable fins, with the rest tossed back into the brine.

Now sharks are in big-time trouble, and sports fishermen are allowed one a day to the boat. A dozen years ago, there were no limits on billfish either; now it will be 99 inches in length for blue marlin, 66 inches for white marlin and 63 inches for sailfish. It had been recommended that it be one marlin per boat per day, which would have wiped out big-money tournament fishing.

Bluefin tuna are managed on an international basis, but yellowfins aren't - and they comprise most of the catching off Ocean City. Now, it will be three a day for each angler. No more big hauls as in the days of yore.

It's payback time, and as they say paybacks are hell. Enough said...

| Issue 17 |

Volume VII Number 17
April 29 - May 5, 1999
New Bay Times

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