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22 Years of Downs and Ups

It’s been a long roller coaster ride for conservation

We have experienced a wild conservation roller coaster ride during the 22 years since Bay Weekly newspaper first burst upon the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Our enormous watershed, once considered an inexhaustible source of seafood and wildlife, has discovered itself not so limitless after all.
    Maryland’s rockfish, rescued from the edge of collapse by a complete federal and state moratorium on their harvest in 1985, had been lifted for only two years when Bay Weekly began publication as New Bay Times. That extreme protection effort was an unqualified victory, with fish stocks rebounding to an abundance not seen on the Chesapeake for some time.
    Following that success, however, we soon fell into our old habits of harvesting as many fish as we felt sustainable. It turned out that over the last decade — in part because of commercial poaching — we found ourselves in trouble once again.
    Rockfish numbers have fallen by over 30 percent ocean-wide. Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission lowered catch limits and increased legal fish sizes for the foreseeable future. Once again, the hope is that our favorite fish to catch and to eat will bounce back.
    Bay oysters are another story. Close to extinction for more than two decades, oysters continue to struggle from commercial over-harvest, poaching, disease and pollution caused by agricultural and population expansion.
    It would take almost all of the 22 years from the birth of this newspaper to see the kind of effort and regulation from the state that could result in a chance for that keystone resource’s recovery. Today, with commercial excess possibly reigned in by new and more stringent regulations and the expenditure of funds increased to the levels necessary to provide a chance of success, the first signs of an oyster stock recovery are beginning to show. Lets hope the trend continues.
    The blue crab continues on a roller coaster ride. At times we have had good numbers for this species, celebrated on the table and in print as wildly as the rockfish. But we have also had almost regular population crises.
    The key, it seems, has been the number of females surviving winter and escaping relentless commercial harvest. Maryland Department of Natural Resources has put female crab harvest off limits for recreational crabbers but not for watermen.
    Commercial limits continue to be set optimistically high for female harvest, and the crab population is once again headed back toward the danger zone. Perhaps Maryland officials will wake up.
    The Canada goose, which fills our autumn skies with sound as skeins of these far-traveling waterfowl come our way, has also experienced its ups and downs. Pressured by hunting to the point of collapse by 1991, it too went through a long moratorium, finally lifted in 2001. With more sensible regulations, the species seems to be holding its numbers.
    Chesapeake Bay itself has had its own travails, principally from pollution, but here too is much hope for the future. The necessary laws and regulations to protect the Bay from two major sources of degradation, agricultural and stormwater runoff, are finally being put in place.
    Population growth continues, but that is not entirely bad. Many of the people coming here are drawn by the beauty and the recreation provided by the Bay and its tributaries. These are fresh eyes and fresh expectations that the care and nurturing of the environment and all of its wild creatures should have very high priorities in the coming years. I am all for that.

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Fishing College

    Learn to fish with light tackle on May 9 (filling fast) or June 5, when I teach Chesapeake Bay fishing (AHC 362) at Anne Arundel Community College: www.aacc.edu/noncredit; 410-777-2222.