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Celebrate Maryland's State Fish: Eat It
Among Symbols, Rockfish Gets Short Shrift

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009

The Wye Oak, a prime example of Maryland's state tree, the white oak, was so revered that officials built an entire park around it. The Maryland state bird, the Baltimore oriole, adorns the caps of the state's Major League Baseball team. The state flower, the black-eyed Susan, also has a place of honor: In addition to adorning state highways, its image was carved into the USS Maryland's silver service.

So how is the state suggesting that the rockfish, the beloved state fish, be honored?

On a plate, with butter sauce and a couple of lemons.

It's rockfish season in Maryland, and the folks at the state Department of Agriculture are promoting Maryland's finned friends by encouraging folks to eat them. Lots of them. Which only goes to show: In the universe of state symbols, some have it better than others.

From now until the end of February, state officials say, the rockfish will be "celebrated" at more than 30 restaurants and retail markets throughout the state. It's expected to be quite the party -- that is, unless you're a rockfish.

Of course, some might say it's the rockfish's own darn fault. The fish -- silver with distinctive dark stripes, and also known as the striped bass -- is know for its ample size. It's also known for being tasty, nutritious and versatile.

"It's the best," said Noreen Eberly, director of seafood and agricultural programs for the Agriculture Department. "It has a sweet taste -- almost like crabmeat."

Eberly rattles off a few of her favorite preparations: potato crusted, topped with blue crab . . . mmm.

Many other states' honored animals get more respectful treatment than the rockfish.

Take California's state marine fish, the bright orange garibaldi. Get caught with one of these on your dinner plate, and you're looking at serious jail time. The species is protected under California law.

In 2005, the Virginia big-eared bat received a little love from then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). The now-Sen. Warner composed a poem to honor its designation as the official state bat. It includes the lines:

We have a state dog and a fish and a bird.

And of the fossil I'm sure you have heard.

So why not a bat?

What's wrong with that?

The state beverage is no more absurd.

State symbols are a reflection of a state's traditions and history, said Mimi Calver, a project manager with the Maryland State Archives. Eberly said the rockfish is one of the linchpins of the state's fishing industry, so promoting its consumption is good for the state's economy. Think of it as a stimulus program, but with fins.

The rockfish is also known for its resilience. State officials imposed a five-year moratorium on catching rockfish between 1985 and 1989, for fear it might disappear from local waters. Now the fish, which can live as long as 30 years, is back and flourishing, though some in the environmental movement remain concerned about its future.

But for now, Maryland officials are urging folks around the state to fete this fine fish and perhaps wash it down with a tall glass of the state drink: milk.

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