Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 40

October 3-9, 2002

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The Year of Bad News

Nor is it likely to go away.
— Chris Christian, senior writer for Guns & Gear magazine, on West Nile virus.

The year 2002, what a year. We’re still trying to assess its impact on outdoorsmen, fish and wildlife. One thing is for sure. Though there was a shortage of rainfall, there was no drought in the Bad News Department.

The waterless summer brought its own problems as some streams virtually dried up and the flow in most of the others has been sluggish. A combination of low and slow waters can be catastrophic for freshwater trout and for those smallmouth bass that frequent big streams and small rivers — not to mention about all other species of aquatic life therein.

It will not be easy, and it will be time consuming for Mother Nature to mend the changed faces of some non-tidal waterways. Certainly, there has been ecological damage that can’t be solved simply by intensified stocking.

Meanwhile, on the Chesapeake, let’s face it, whether it’s drought-related high salinity, high water temperatures or who knows what, much sportsfishing has been in the doldrums for more than several weeks.

Fishing in the Doldrums
We have bluefish galore, possibly because of the high salinity associated with the weather, but all the small blues in the world won’t compensate for the drought of our prized rockfish.

October is the month of sea trout, so there is still time for things to turn around. But as we look back on September, there was little promise of a build-up in trout numbers other than in scattered areas. We have not seen the massive schools that build up to exciting jigging in October and November.

October is also the month when some of the big sea-run rockfish are expected to move into the Chesapeake as they head south from states to the north. We should be seeing the first of them within a few weeks, and a good run can save a season. Keep your fingers crossed.

Worse News
But more ominous to outdoorsmen in this year 2002 are some woes in no way associated with drought, high salinity and scorching temperatures. It hasn’t got much play in the media yet (and hopefully there will be no need for it in the future), but in recent years within the waters of the Chesapeake, there appear to be growing numbers of rockfish afflicted with myco bacteria.

Myco bacteria is a debilitating affliction. The scientific community appears divided on its impact on individual fish and the overall fishery, but continuing DNR surveys indicate that from 10 to 14 percent of stripers of the Chesapeake are affected.

Fishermen can distinguish some afflicted fish by unsightly red sores or rashes. Sometimes the fish are emaciated. Other times myco bacteria has not yet reached the stage where it’s evident to the eye, but it can be detected by scientists.

There is no evidence yet that fishermen or those who consume afflicted fish are at risk — though, of course, rockfish with visible evidence of contamination are almost always released. In addition, myco bacteria appears primarily associated with rockfish. Other important species are not threatened. But this is a malady that must be monitored closely. Something is wrong somewhere.

West Nile’s Avian Plague
Of more concern at present are two problems more associated with wildlife. One is West Nile virus, something we hadn’t heard of prior to 1999 when it was first detected in upstate New York. At first, it wasn’t taken seriously by outdoorsmen. Chances of contamination appeared slight, and the virus usually isn’t fatal. To humans, that is.

But since ’99, West Nile — which is carried by mosquitoes — has spread like wildfire westward. Within three years, it has been documented in 37 states, and there is little doubt but it will spread to the West Coast.

Of course, there is great concern — as there should be — for humans, especially the young, elderly and those with impaired immune systems. But until the past summer, few worried for avian life. At first crows were considered the prime means of transportation for the virus. Then bluejays, and now just about any bird is suspect.

West Nile has been found in 110 species in the United States, and to birds it is often fatal.

Birds remain the primary carrier. A carrier mosquito hitches a ride on a bird and bites it. Many birds are migratory, so the virus is carried everywhere. Is it by coincidence that birders of the Midwest complain of the disappearance of many songbirds?

Just about all songbirds seem susceptible, but West Nile, according to Christian, has also been detected in dead sandhill cranes, ruffed grouse, mourning doves, ringneck pheasants, Virginia rails, wild turkeys, mallard and wood ducks. Its potential impact on game birds is unclear. Many recover, but how many don’t? And are the smaller songbirds we enjoy in our backyards more at risk because of their size?

Raptor die-offs — hawks, owls, falcons, even eagles — have also been noted, with West Nile the foremost suspect, and, in some instances, the documented cause. This, we’re told, is just the beginning.

Deer Chronically Wasting
Now we can’t help but wonder if another malady that has erupted in western states is just beginning. Will it eventually reach Maryland, the home of a couple hundred thousand deer? The culprit is chronic wasting disease, shortened to CWD, which is believed to be a prion disease in which an altered protein prompts normal proteins to cause sponge-like holes in the brain. It is related to mad cow disease, and also scrapie in sheep. There is no known cure. Ultimately, it is 100 percent fatal.

Though it apparently poses no threat to humans, it is contagious among deer and elk. There is no evidence that it has affected domestic livestock.

CWD has been around since the ’60s. But until this year, it was figured to be pretty much associated with captive deer and elk in farms or shooting preserves, locations of high concentrations. This year, it was discovered in an emaciated mule deer at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range 600 miles from any captive deer and elk.

At about the same time, the disease gained attention across the country when Wisconsin announced plans to kill more than 15,000 deer in one area in attempts to isolate the highly contagious disease after 24 cases were diagnosed.

Wisconsin’s deer were the first to be affected east of the Mississippi. Other states where CWD has been confirmed in either deer or elk are Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming as well as in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

All those states and territories are far from us, but because CWD appears able to hopscotch great distances, it has become of great concern to deer hunters in Maryland — just south of Pennsylvania with its some 800 big-game farms. Our Department of Natural Resources did some preliminary examinations of deer harvested by hunters early this year, and 300 more will be examined in the upcoming modern-firearms season. Other wildlife agencies along the East Coast are also implementing programs for early detection.

Thus far I haven’t met a hunter who was scrapping plans to be on the deer trail this fall because of CWD, or anyone taking in their bird feeders for fear of West Nile virus. I’ve heard of only one fisherman who gave up the chase for rockfish because of myco bacteria. There is concern, but not panic, and that’s the way it should be.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly