Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home. I was keenly anticipating returning to my home waters of Chesapeake Bay last week after a month crossing the Atlantic and cruising the Adriatic. The water in both places was clear as Russian vodka but not too productive. No crabs, no oysters and few fish, at least not that I could catch.
The bay, by contrast, may be murky but it's a veritable font of life, the natal grounds for a host of tasty marine and river species. When Capt. John Smith arrived here in the 1600s, he wrote that you could just about walk across the rivers on the backs of fish.
So imagine my disappointment the first day back when I called an old friend to suggest a little celebratory crab feast. I was licking my lips. "We could go," he said, "but you should know in advance they're $80 a dozen. Crabs are scarce this year."
Eighty bucks a dozen in late June? That doesn't sound like the Chesapeake I know. Oh, well, there's always rockfish, the delectable, snow-white Maryland state fish. I called Kevin Kenno, dean of Bay Bridge anglers, and proposed a foray out to the pilings off Sandy Point to jig for our dinner. We checked the tides, arranged a time and hit it perfectly on a fast-running flood. We fished hard for four hours in ideal conditions but never got a tap.
Kenno took time to retell a shocking experience from last year, when he caught a lean, 30-inch rock and brought it home to clean. He opened the stomach to see what it had been eating and found, to his horror, a 12-inch rockfish inside. "They're so hungry they're eating their own," he said.
All of which adds up to a less-than-cheery picture, which only got worse when someone pointed to the June issue of National Geographic magazine, in which Tom Horton, longtime journalistic conscience of the Chesapeake, writes darkly about the state of his beloved estuary.
"The bay scene is changing," he writes, "and there's an air of finality to it now." Adds Horton, "The bay today has become the ecological equivalent of a morbidly obese person, force-fed nitrogen and phosphorus."
Is it really that bad? Anyone who lives in the Washington-Baltimore area has been reading dire things about the bay for decades, yet we seem to soldier on. We've watched beds of bay grasses die off and the oyster catch drop in a decade from 1 million bushels a year to 26,500. We've seen once-vast beds of soft clams all but disappear. The big rockfish we could catch all summer 15 years ago are gone. We saw crabs grow scarce and watched menhaden, the great forage fish at the bottom of the food chain, netted by the millions of pounds by Virginia factory boats, and boiled down for cat food and oil. Many believe rockfish are eating their own because they can't find any menhaden.
But aren't marine species by nature volatile? Could this be just another cycle? After decades of general decline I no longer think so, and when no less an authority than Horton, who has covered the bay and its woes expertly and thoroughly for over 30 years, writes as grimly as he does, I'm clearly not alone.
The dark drumbeat actually started two years ago when Howard Ernst, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, concluded three years of research by writing a worrisome book called "Chesapeake Bay Blues," in which he made the case that almost nothing in the bay is getting better and all kinds of things are getting progressively worse.
Meantime, he maintained, public agencies and private organizations in position to change things do little but trumpet nonexistent or incremental improvements while wasting time and money on reports and studies to back their claims.
That's not entirely fair. I was buoyed last week to hear from the Coastal Conservation Association, one of the few environmental groups with the courage to stick its neck out. CCA is urging folks to show up at public hearings in Maryland and Virginia this month and next to support a controversial move to cap the massive catch of menhaden in the bay by the industrial giant Omega Protein.
CCA also recently wrote Maryland's Natural Resources secretary Ron Franks to call for endangered-species status for oysters, with a subsequent moratorium on oystering to give the beleaguered stocks a chance to recover.
These are unusual positions for an organization basically made up of sport fishermen. Nobody in CCA goes oystering or menhaden fishing, but these are tough times, and someone has to step up.
CCA reckons the answer to the bay's woes, if there is one, lies in "ecosystem management," meaning a holistic approach to its problems. "It's like triage at a hospital," said CCA's fisheries scientist, Dick Brame. "You've got a patient that's dying of arterial bleeding, but he also has cancer. The arterial bleeding in this case is over-exploitation of species, the cancer underneath is the continuing decline of water quality.
"If you can't stop the bleeding, the cancer doesn't matter. But if you do, you still have to deal with the cancer."
So there in a nutshell is the state of our bay: A morbidly obese patient in the emergency room with IV lines pumping poison in, while blood spurts from arterial wounds and an underlying cancer lurks. Meanwhile, the staff runs around insisting everything's fine, all we need is more tests.
Anglers and others interested in speaking for or against capping the catch of menhaden in the Chesapeake by Virginia factory ships can attend public hearings Wednesday at the Annapolis Radisson Hotel; July 12 at the Potomac River Fisheries Commission in Colonial Beach, Va., or July 13 at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, Va.
For details, check the Coastal Conservation Association Web site at www.ccamd.org or phone 1-888-758-6580.