WOULD YOU know a rockfish if you saw one? It is getting hard to see one, which is why Maryland has decided to ban any catches of it in the state's waters for four years starting Jan. 1. But unless other action is taken, catches of rockfish -- striped bass, if you want to get formal -- will still be allowed in the Potomac River, which accounts for about one-fourth of the total caught in Maryland. This is because even though the Potomac is in Maryland, its marine resources are managed by a bistate (Virginia is the other one) Potomac River Fisheries Commission, and this group decided last month to allow striped bass fishing. It doesn't make sense.

But there may be help on the horizon: a federal panel has just overridden the objections of Virginia and called for a ban, not only in the Potomac but also in Virginia's portion of the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. This recommendation needs approval of the full Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is empowered by Congress to impose a rockfish moratorium on any state that doesn't comply with its conservation requirements. Approval does make sense.

Otherwise, forget the rockfish, because it is heading for extinction according to those who have tried all sorts of conservation efforts to no avail. Even with an effective ban, replenishment of the rockfish supply may not be sufficient in itself. Continued efforts to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay will be necessary.

The latest federal recommendations were approved by representatives of 11 Eastern states affected by the decline in rockfish -- which should be a message to Virginia holdouts. The Virginians argue that they're seeing a few more of the fish these days and that a ban would create hardship on their commercial fishermen. But neither the fish nor an effective moratorium can abide strictly by jurisdictional lines. Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes and state officials have acted courageously and are taking steps to ease the hardships of commercial fishermen in this state. The greater the sanctuary, the better the chance that the next generation will know -- and see -- rockfish.