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New Fish in Our Ponds

Wondering how we’ll fare as leadership changes at DNR

A pre-visit look at Bay Weekly’s Facebook post of a toothy snakehead had my visiting family afraid to go in the water.
    No need to worry, I assured them. We’re reporting snakeheads in ponds, creeks, streams and rivers, not in the Chesapeake proper. On the other hand, visitors at the next-door Smiths waded with a pod of cownose rays. Then ensued a conversation about whether the first recorded encounter with a stingray was the fault of the stinger or of the stung, Captain John Smith.
    The Bay and its tributaries are full of life in many forms. Get out into it and a crab could grab your toes. A water snake could swim alongside you. An eel could slither against your leg. Fingerling fish could nibble at your toes. An osprey could soar down to hook a fish with its talons, or a tern could make its vertical dive to spear a fish with its bill. Underwater grasses could tangle round you.
    All these life forms — minus the invasive snakeheads and some would say the oyster-eating native rays — are proof of the Bay’s vitality. No species is thriving in historic abundance, but for many there is reason for hope.
    With a score of 64, rockfish earned the highest of a dozen measures of water quality on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2014 biennial State of the Bay Report. Oysters scored only eight, but they rose two points from 2012.
    Both of those species had fallen to historic lows before Maryland Department of Natural Resources broke with convention — and made a lot of people mad — to bring them back. Rockfish, the Bay’s signature sports fish and a significant commercial harvest, became a forbidden catch from 1985 to 1990. The moratorium worked, and now catches are carefully monitored not only in the Bay but also throughout the fish’s migratory route into the ocean and up and down the coasts.
    Nowadays it’s oysters rocking the boat. There’s no moratorium on oystering, a fishery almost entirely commercial. But DNR is pushing a bigger change, from the deep-rooted tradition of wild harvesting to oyster farming. Getting from here to there — a healthy oyster population for a healthy Bay — has meant new restrictions, including closing many harvest grounds in favor of sanctuaries. Reviving a commercial catch has meant creating aquaculture as a largely new industry, much like planting a wine industry in Maryland soil.
    Adding premium value to Maryland seafood — which used to be everybody’s for the gathering — is part of the plan, with brand-name Maryland oysters sought by high-end joints and picky consumers. Marketing Maryland fish — even snakehead — as delicacies with terrior has been part of the plan, with know-your-Bay campaigns reaching out to taste-making chefs.
    Many people have a hand in big shifts like these, but the orders come from policy makers. Under Gov. Bob Ehrlich, alien oysters were on a fast track to replace languishing Maryland natives. Gov. Martin O’Malley put natives back up front. Sen. Barbara Mikulski fought for the Bay in the U.S. Senate, and President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order on Chesapeake Bay Protection in 2009.
    The weight of carrying out those decisions falls on regulators in DNR. As secretary, Torrey Brown gave us the rockfish moratorium. Oyster revitalization came from Secretary John Griffin and his fisheries director Tom O’Connell. Griffin left the department to assist O’Malley.
    Gov. Larry Hogan chose a new secretary, Mark Belton, but otherwise left DNR in place for six months. Now he’s letting go the old for his own people, as he has every right to do. O’Connell and three other policy leaders are now out. Seafood marketer Steve Vilnit has chosen to leave.
    In their time, they’ve made a difference in our Bay. Now it’s time to look hopefully but critically at what the future brings.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com