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Chesapeake Bay

Anglers Taking Rockfish Fears in Stride

Folks aboard the Full Moon show off a 37-inch rockfish. Scientists say three-quarters of the bay's rockfish are afflicted with a wasting disease.
Folks aboard the Full Moon show off a 37-inch rockfish. Scientists say three-quarters of the bay's rockfish are afflicted with a wasting disease. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

In the wee hours yesterday, Mike Krissoff eased the Full Moon into the Annapolis Yacht Club, "fluffed, buffed, iced and beered," loaded up a dozen friends and a yardstick, and headed toward deep water.

"I haven't missed opening day in 11 years," he said, and never once has he been "skunked" in the annual quest for a trophy-sized rockfish. "But we're out here for fun. To me, the fishing is incidental."

In a frenzied rite of spring, thousands of Maryland anglers churned onto the bay yesterday for the first day of "trophy season," the start of the recreational season for rockfish, or striped bass. But some on the hunt felt the day was dampened, not by an early-morning rain, but by bad news about Maryland's state fish.

Mycobacteriosis is a wasting disease affecting nearly three-quarters of the Chesapeake Bay's rockfish, from bacteria that also can cause a severe skin infection in humans, scientists say. However, wearing gloves can prevent harm.

There's no evidence that eating rockfish causes the disease in people, but after a decade of research, scientists have more questions than answers abut the illness that threatens the mid-Atlantic region's most popular sport fish and the $300 million industry surrounding it. However, the disease appears concentrated in the bay, where most Atlantic rockfish spawn.

Twenty years ago, striped bass were so overfished that coastal states imposed a moratorium. After it was lifted in the early 1990s, catches surged. Reeling in 20- , 30- , even 50-pound fish that look healthy on the outside, it's easy for folks around the bay to see "myco" as a plague spread chiefly by journalists.

"I have seen it as long as I've fished, and I don't know that anybody's died from it," said Tom Ireland, secretary-treasurer of the Maryland Charter Boat Association in Huntingtown. "Front-page news is what's going on in Iraq, not a rockfish that everybody who lives along this bay is eating."

But among some fish-eaters, a Washington Post story about the disease a month ago caused a collective drawing-back of chairs. At least one supermarket chain pulled the heavy-bellied bass from its lineup, and several restaurants did, too. Within three days of the story, rockfish sold for half of what they brought the week before. Besieged by furious watermen and concerned consumers, the state Department of Natural Resources launched a rockfish rehabilitation campaign, capped by lunch with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who stood before the cameras in his mansion kitchen, shoveling sauteed pride of the Chesapeake into the center of his confident smile.

"We're about to partake of Maryland's finest delicacy," he said. But in the weeks since then, rockfish purveyors say, not enough people have joined him.

Although news of the disease hit commercial fishermen hardest, it hurt the recreational trade, too.

For the first time in 46 seasons, Ed Darwin had nobody to help onto the scrubbed deck of the Becky-D for opening day. After the story came out, the Annapolis charter boat captain recalled, "I had six or seven calls from people who'd already booked with me, asking should they cancel.

"Even down in Florida . . . the rumor was they were closing the bay," Darwin added.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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