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Anglers Taking Rockfish Fears in Stride

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.

He kept those bookings, telling his clients that the fish were safe and that the hoopla would blow over. But nobody new has called, and last week he sat in his bay-front den, running his finger across an empty calendar. He's booked seven trips between now and early May, half as many charters as he usually has. Although that's enough for a retired teacher who long ago decided he wanted the Becky-D to himself on weekends, it's still sad, he said.

"This certainly hurts the industry," he said. To him, mycobacteriosis in rockfish is a lesson in publicity-produced panic. But it's a lesson in the changing nature of the bay, too. Indeed, Darwin says, "I don't think there's a captain in the bay that wouldn't like to see this corrected."

By midday, Krissoff's girlfriend, Wynee Hawk, was braced at the back of the boat, pole bent into a U with the weight of the striper breaking the surface in a flash of silver and spray. "I don't think I've ever caught a fish this big before," she said, swaying forward while reeling hard, then leaning back, pulling. At 33 inches-plus, it was a keeper, but they released it. "I'm not worried about eating rockfish," Krissoff said. "I'm more concerned with the big picture," which for him means "mankind has exceeded the capacity of the bay. I'm sympathetic to the watermen, very much so. But their making a living is a small issue compared with the survival of the estuary."

There are many commercial anglers who'd take issue with Krissoff. Every early spring, a half-dozen or so of them fish near Norfolk, looking for the big female "cow" stripers entering the bay from the Atlantic. But this year, just as the rockfish hit, the bad news did, too, and the price paid at the dock dived from $2.50 to $1.50 a pound in two days.

L.D. Amory & Co. in Hampton has bought fish from anglers here since 1917. Charles Amory remembers decades ago, when netters stood on the beach stacking bass like cordwood. Later came the shortages and the moratorium. He remembers fish kills supposedly caused by Pfiesteria, an alga, and Kepone, a poison dumped into the James River, not far from his business.

In other words, mycobacteriosis "is just one in the line" of troubles, he said. "The whole ecosystem is different than what it used to be."

Fish sales boom at Easter, and Amory would pay more for rockfish now. But nobody's selling. "Several [anglers] quit when the price went down," he said. "If the market rebounds, they may start back again," he hopes, in time for winter holiday dinners.

Amory wonders how newspapers could kick a wounded industry with news about a disease he hasn't seen much of. But he also wonders why it happened in the first place.

"This is the first fishery that's ever been completely restored," he said. "And they don't know what to do."

By 2 p.m., the Full Moon had three fish in the cooler, the biggest a fat-bellied 37-incher. None had the sores that point to a disease nobody here wants to see and some don't want to discuss.

Krissoff turned his wheel toward home. "If the scientists think there's some way to fix it, you'd have to support it," he said. Even if "we all have to make some sacrifices."

Staff writer Daniel de Vise contributed to this report.

To see the day's catch and an interview with Mike Krissoff, go tohttp://www.washingtonpost.com.

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