As dawn broke on the next-to-last day of Maryland's rockfish season, 25-mile-an-hour winds took the "Captain Sue," piloted by Capt. L. C. Thomas, for a watery roller-coaster ride.
Bundled against the cold, we trolled along while Thomas kept one eye on his technicolor fish-finder and the other on the small flotilla of charter boats weaving around us.
"Work 'em, work 'em," shouted Thomas every time fish blips swam across his screen, and we'd start jerking the rods, trying to simulate something a rockfish might want for breakfast.
Eight hours later, tired, hungry and happy, we docked with our catch of the day, two nice-sized rockfish. Not bad for fish lovers denied catching or tasting rockfish since 1985. But kind of sad considering that in less than 60 seconds, I had snagged my legal limit for the year -- one rockfish.
In a couple of weeks another Maryland tradition reoccurs, waterfowl season. As always I'll trek to the Eastern Shore where, if I'm lucky, I'll bag my daily legal limit -- one Canada goose.
One rockfish, one goose. It's a far cry from 1608 when Capt. John Smith sailed up the Chesapeake and saw "fish lying so thicke with their heads above the water as for want of nets we attempted to catch them with a frying pan." When the frying pan failed, Smith drew his sword and, "thus we tooke more in owne houre that we could eate in a day."
And waterfowl? So many ducks and geese covered the bay that the water looked like turf. And, according to one early Marylander, "when they flew up there was a rushing and vibration of the air like a great storm coming through the trees."
Even today, old-timers such as Ed Middleton, 74, remember the bay's bounty. "When I was a kid we'd catch 25 or 30 rockfish without trying," he says, "and there'd be a couple of hundred thousand canvasback out on the river. It was a paradise back in those days."
Everyone loves the Chesapeake Bay whether they're watermen depending on it for a livelihood; sports fishermen, boaters or hunters using it for pleasure; or tourists merely glimpsing it on the way to Ocean City. And everyone wants to save it, mindful of how our ancestors harvested it without restraint.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Crisfield was shipping 17 railroad cars of oysters and crabs a day to New York and Philadelphia. In fact today's Crisfield is largely built on the billions of oyster shells discarded by the early shucking houses.
In the 1860s oyster packing was Baltimore's second largest industry, and in 1879 Chesapeake watermen harvested an unbelievable 17 million bushels of oysters, twice today's national consumption.
By the turn of the century commercial gunners were using small cannons, called punt guns, slaughtering hundreds of waterfowl with a single blast. The ducks were packed in barrels with ice and salt and shipped to Baltimore.
Yet despite centuries of such profligacy, the bay remains remarkably resilient. It is still this continent's greatest seafood source. More crabs have been harvested from the Chesapeake that any other body of water in the world, including the oceans. And it still leads the nation in crabs, oysters and steamer clams. "Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation," wrote John Smith of the Chesapeake. He couldn't have known how many people would agree.
Today 13 million bay-lovers live within the Chesapeake's watershed, but they are loving the bay to death. The disappearance of the wildlife stems not from the bay's over-harvesting but from the degradation of its water quality.
We all want to save the bay until we see the price tag -- the bay's quality of life can only be improved by diminishing ours.
Are we really ready to close the factories and power plants that line the bay's tributaries? How about the shipping industry and its associated dredging?
Will we pay higher prices for chemical-free farm products and cars that don't leak oil? (What is more incongruous than a "Save the Bay" bumper sticker?)
And will we give up the laundry detergents and lawn fertilizers that produce harmful run-off?
Probably not. Instead we'll make practical compromises between our needs and the bay's. And in the end our compromises will determine what kind of Chesapeake Bay we pass on to our kids.
I, for one, would like to hear about greater sacrifices now. That way, when I'm an old-timer I won't have to recall catching one rockfish and bagging one goose as being the good old days of the Chesapeake Bay.
Each fall residents of the Chesapeake Bay region witness one of the most incredible phenomena in nature -- the arrival of flocks of ducks, geese and swans from Canada and the Arctic. These birds bring beauty and life to the autumn skies over the bay and the Potomac River, but only because laws were passed nearly a century ago to protect them from commercial hunters.
At that time, waterfowl populations were dangerously low. Belatedly, the states tried to regulate commercial hunting of the birds, but failed. As a consequence, the federal government stepped in, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service became the agency that sets the season limits for waterfowl. Most species rebounded, but not all species. Today the canvasback ducks that once darkened the sky over the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River are a rarity, and the Labrador duck is gone, hunted to extinction.
Now another animal population is threatened -- the striped bass or rockfish. As with the waterfowl, commercial exploitation reduced the striped bass population in the Chesapeake Bay area to dangerously low levels. But in the late '70s and early '80s, as extinction of the species seemed a real possibility, people began to take notice. In January of 1985, Maryland imposed a moratorium on all fishing of striped bass, following the passage of a federal law that required states to reduce harvest or face federal preemption of their right to manage fish in their own waters. Later, striped bass fishing was stopped in District and Virginia waters.
This year, however, following a loosening of the federal guidelines, Maryland, Virginia and the District have decided to allow both recreational and commercial fishing for striped bass. Apparently, they have not learned that the market incentive that drove waterfowl populations to disastrously low levels in the 1890s and striped bass to low levels in the 1980s will once again threaten the health of these fish. It does not seem to have occurred to regulators that when the financial incentive exists to shoot or kill public resources, over-harvest will be the eventual result.
Commercial fishing for striped bass has no place in our waters, in the same way that punt guns have no place in waterfowl hunting. Conservationists can only hope that regulators will see that commercial fishing for striped bass is an antiquated practice with no viable role in the Chesapeake Bay or the Potomac River, before striped bass go the way of the Labrador and canvasback ducks.
-- Dale P. Dirks is a recreational fisherman.
The writer is vice president of a Silver Spring development firm and a frequent contributor to this page.