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Healthy Skepticism, Sickening Signs

Fish under stress are more likely to succumb to infection than fat, healthy ones. Theories abound about sources of stress in the bay that may be opening the door to myco in rockfish.

Sherman Baynard of Maryland's Coastal Conservation Association believes a local scarcity of menhaden is to blame and wants Virginia's massive commercial menhaden fishery reined in; Capt. Norm Bartlett, a fly-fishing guide from Baltimore, thinks sportfishermen dumping chum overboard to attract rockfish to their hooks compounds the problem; Bill Goldsborough of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation wonders if expanding, low-oxygen "dead zones" in the bay's deep holes are driving rock out of temperature refuges in high summer, forcing them to waters too warm for good health.

Maryland and Virginia agree the problem is serious. Maryland reckons the incidence of infection at around 60 percent, slightly lower than Virginia's 70 percent, but Slattery acknowledged it's cause for alarm at either level.

Then there are the nonbelievers, who have seen it all before and aren't about to panic. "There's always been a few diseased fish in the bay," said Capt. Ed Darwin, dean of charter skippers, who has fished around the Bay Bridge more than 50 years.

"For years we had alewife kills every spring; there was a big white perch kill in the late '60s and early '70s that almost wiped them out; there was Kepone, then Pfiesteria. With each event the end of the Chesapeake fishery was in sight. It didn't happen then and it's not going to happen now."

What to do? Most rockfishermen I know are going fishing when the season opens. If 60 or 70 percent of rockfish in the bay and tributaries are sick, it sure hasn't shown up in the ones I or my mates have caught, which for the most part looked healthy.

Smart anglers will, however, take precautions. Most charter operators wear gloves when handling fish these days, to avoid nicks or cuts, and when they catch fish with sores, return them to the water with as little handling as possible.

Prudent anglers should keep a squeeze-bottle of antiseptic soap on hand for accidental nicks or cuts, and it always makes sense to cook fish properly before eating them. Rockfish sushi? I don't think so.

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