It took a lot of complaining, some political lobbying and a few cries of wolf. But last week, charter boat captains on the Chesapeake Bay finally won their battle to ban a controversial commercial netting technique used to capture bluefish, the premier sport fish of the bay.
But now that the battle is over, at least temporarily, the captains are counting their losses and wondering if anyone really won the war.
"The phones have quit ringing," says Eddie Davis of Ridge, Md., one of 400 charter boat captains who take people fishing on the bay for a fee. "People are scared to death they're not going to catch fish. This whole thing has created a bad impression."
The bluefish war began earlier this summer, when a Virginia commercial fishing operation began using four Florida trawlers and their gill nets to capture bluefish. During the best of times, the use of the encircling gill nets--which previously have been banned in Florida and by the South Atlantic Fisheries Council for offshore fishing because they are considered too effective--would have provoked a turf fight between the commercial and sport fishing industries.
But this summer has been the worst of times for bluefishing. Low stocks of the fish, which in years past have been plentiful, created alarm in the $132 million sport fishing industry. The governors of Maryland and Virginia became involved in the dispute.
Last week Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb was instrumental in getting passed emergency regulations restricting the use of gill nets in Virginia's portion of the bay. Maryland already had outlawed their use. Robb's action prompted threats of legal action by Louie Fass of Fass Brothers Inc., the Hampton, Va.,-based company that employed the disputed fishing method.
"I don't think they (state officials) have a legal leg to stand on," said Fass, who estimated the loss to the commercial seafood industry from the banning of gill nets could total millions of dollars over the next 10 years. "What they've done is left themselves wide open to litigation."
The fight over bluefish has been particularly intense because of the decline in the bay's striped bass population the last decade. With striped bass scarce, the bluefish has become the staple for sport and commercial fishers. This summer, when the bluefish disappeared at about the same time that the gill netters appeared, people started pointing fingers.
"For three weeks we had normal-to-good fishing. Then those gill net boats moved in and it was Tubesville," said Mike Sullivan, another Maryland charter boat captain.
Fass contended the timing of the two events was coincidental. He argued that the total catch of the four trawlers--760,000 pounds of bluefish--was not that great compared to the average commercial catch of 2.8 million pounds over the last five years.
But charter boat captains and other sport fishing representatives countered that this year's commercial catch had to be considered in the context of the poor overall bluefish harvest. They also maintained that the gill net technique, if adopted by more commercial boats, could be devastating.
Gill nets are particularly effective because, unlike more conventional methods that string nets in a straight line, they can be used to encircle entire schools of fish.
In June, the Virginia Marine Resource Commission warned that gill netting "has the potential of being a major problem," but refused to ban the method in Virginia waters. Last Tuesday the VMRC again refused to impose any ban.
But one day later, after Robb let the commission know that he would support emergency measures to ban the net method, the commission took another vote and approved a ban. Robb had been asked last month by Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes to intercede on behalf of Maryland's sport fishing industry.
While officials at Fass Brothers complained the company had been made scapegoats and threatened to sue, charter boat captains congratulated one another for removing the gill net threat. But the publicity that surrounded that victory, particularly a story last week in The Washington Post that reported the dearth of bluefish in the bay, created unpleasant side effects.
"That story came out on Sunday, while I was out fishing," said Jim Shupe, 63, who has been a charter boat captain 45 years. "My wife stayed home and answered the phone. When I got back that afternoon, I had lost $1,500 in cancellations."
Shupe insists there are enough bluefish in the bay to satisfy paying customers. It just takes a little more looking and a lot more gas to find them right now, he says. But he concedes the same publicity that helped get the gill netters banned hurt the charter boat business like nothing since the discovery of the chemical kepone in James River fish in the 1970s.
"Do you remember the kepone situation?" asks Shupe. "There was just one little factory on the James River that caused it, but when the publicity came out it absolutely killed us. People took for granted that kepone was all over the bay. People were afraid to eat the fish."
With the gill netters gone from the mouth of the bay, charter boat captains are predicting that the bluefish will return in force.
"It's just like deer hunting," says Davis. "When you chase them, they go hide deep in the woods. The fish have gone into deep water. Now that the netters are gone, they'll be back. A friend of mine tells me that there are acres of bluefish just 10 miles below us coming on strong."