If you were running a symphony orchestra that people stopped coming to hear because the good musicians all quit and the concert hall was falling apart, which of the following would you do with a sudden windfall of money?
* Fix up the hall and lure back the good players?
* Or hide thousand-dollar bills under a few seats before every concert and spread the word that big money awaited lucky ticket holders?
If you picked the latter, unkind critics might say you were thinking like the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
DNR this week announced a $468,000 Chesapeake Bay sportfishing tournament that involves cash prizes of up to $37,500 to anglers who boat fish with funny little tags attached to them. The tourney, the first of its sort ever run by the state, will start May 1 and run through the end of the year.
The goal is to keep interest in fishing alive despite the loss of the Bay's premier sport species, rockfish, the catching of which was outlawed Jan. 1 in an effort to stave off its complete disappearance.
To its credit, DNR is trying to identify what horrors of declining Bay quality are causing the decline of rockfish and their once-plentiful kin -- white perch, yellow perch, shad and herring.
But now the state appears bent on window-dressing the troubled Bay with a giddy, gilded tournament that offers prospects of lottery-style hysteria, cheating and increased fishing pressure on the resource when it needs it least.
DNR is so worried about cheating in its big-stakes fishing enterprise that it's putting tamper-proof, electronically marked tags on the 120 fish it will scatter in the Bay over the next six months, then adding backup, secret code marks on each fish and requiring that all fish be turned in whole, with the tag in place.
They have reason to worry.
Fishing tournaments are under increasing suspicion these days and the concern goes up as as stakes do. Last summer, a 34-year-old Texas bass fisherman who had won $75,000, allegedly by checking in big fish trucked in from Florida, killed himself. Even little tournaments had incidents. At a $2,500 affair in Chesapeake Beach, a prize-winning bluefish was cut open and a 20-ounce sinker and some ice chunks fell out.
Fishing tournament insurers have grown nervous. This year's private Maryland Saltwater Sportfisherman's Association tournament had to scale its prizes down from $360,000 to $220,000 after insurance premiums skyrocketed. The MSSA did away with its big ticket, a $150,000 tagged bluefish, to bring the cost down.
"The insurance people told us if you have a fish worth $150,000, somebody's going to find a way to catch him, even if it means staying out all night with nets to do it," said tournament official Lyle McLaughlin.
The whole concept of tagged fish, which usually don't get caught, got a jolt last summer when an angler actually captured a $1 million fish in Puget Sound, according to a California insurer who specializes in sports promotions.
"That and the Baltimore Orioles' $1 million home run derby payoff scared everyone," said Dennis Chase, who runs Sports Achievements, Inc., in Garden Grove, Calif.
Even Maryland had trouble getting insurance for its tourney, the biggest in the state, and is likely to end up insuring itself and hoping the big payoffs never happen. Assistant Natural Resources Secretary Verna Harrison said early last week that the only bid to fully insure the Maryland program was for more than $100,000, and officials doubted payoffs to anglers would come close to that.
Maryland will release 20 tagged fish per month from May until September -- 10 bluefish, five white perch and five sea trout a month. One of each species will be a bonus fish for the month in which it's released, worth $25,000 (bluefish) or $5,000 (trout or perch). All others will be worth $1,000, and the bonus fish revert to $1,000 value after the month in which they were released ends.
The state tourney differs from other, private competitions because there is no entry fee. Anyone fishing Maryland waters is eligible, and there is a 50 percent bonus if a winning fish is caught from a charter boat, which means the bonus bluefish caught from a charter boat is worth $37,500.
The money for the tournament comes out of $1.5 million in state tax money assigned to compensate watermen and charter boat operators for lost revenues resulting from the rockfish ban.
"We just want to get people out once," said Charter Boat Association President Mike Sullivan. "After that, the ones who enjoyed themselves are going to come back."
Harrison, the DNR assistant, said the department's aim is to tide over charter captains and other sportfishing interests until the Bay responds to cleanup efforts. But whether a sadly declining resource like the Chesapeake is an appropriate place for the state to be running fun and games is a question no DNR official was eager to address.