Moratoriums for Rockfish, Geese — and Oysters?

Rich Roberts, who covered outdoors for the Los Angeles Times, quit years ago when every story he tackled turned into an environmental battle. Fishing and boating, camping and hiking lose their appeal, he said, when all you get are diatribes about declining resources, government inaction and corporate malfeasance, and it’s your job to ferret out the truth.

Of course, L.A. is a pollution pit where human needs and greed trump nature’s interests. At the risk of sounding grouchy, that’s how it’s starting to look here. It wasn’t always so.

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of a landmark ruling in Maryland. In a shocking decision, state resource managers slammed the door on rockfish (striped bass) exploitation statewide, imposing a fishing moratorium that ran from 1985 to 1990.

Other states followed suit and rockfish, which many considered on the verge of extinction, rallied spectacularly. Within a decade the Maryland state fish was revived to historic levels of abundance in the Chesapeake and Potomac, its principal breeding grounds, and up and down the East Coast where mature stripers roam.

In 1995, flush with success, coastal states followed with another stunner, agreeing to shut down migratory Canada goose hunting as that species hit record lows in Arctic breeding areas. The goose moratorium ran five years in Maryland, the main wintering grounds, and the upshot was restored abundance of the grand birds.

These decisions came at a price. Torrey Brown, who was Maryland’s secretary of natural resources at the time of the rockfish ruling, said he was advised to take an armed guard on visits to the Eastern Shore. “Clay Mitchell [then speaker of the House of Delegates] told me it would cost me my job. I had one old waterman stand up at a public hearing and pull up his shirt. He pointed to a lump on his back and said: ‘This is cancer. Before it kills me, I’ll kill you!’ ”

Brown lauds former governor Harry Hughes, himself an Eastern Shoreman, for taking the heat. “We went in and told him we felt we had to do it or we could lose rockfish altogether. He said, ‘If that’s what we have to do, let’s do it.’ The whole thing happened in one day. Harry could make a decision.”

If it sounds like the good old days, it is.

Maryland resource managers shocked the environmental community again last week, but for the opposite reason, by proposing to expand the area in the Chesapeake where watermen can use power dredges to catch oysters.

The proposal to make oystering easier and more efficient comes when Chesapeake oysters are all but extinct and conservationists are seeking a moratorium. In the last 30 years, the catch has fallen from 2.5 million bushels a year to 46,000 bushels as the shellfish succumbed to disease and overfishing.

Oysters were the main commercial catch in the bay for more than a century before being overtaken by crabs in recent years. Traditionally, they were caught by hand-tongs or dredges pulled by skipjacks under sail. The use of power dredges was banned way back in 1867 on grounds it would strip oyster reefs bare.

But oysters have grown so scarce, watermen say they can no longer make a living hand-tonging or dredging under sail. The Ehrlich administration responded in 2003 by increasing a small area where power dredging was experimentally permitted to an area comprising roughly 30 percent of the bay, mostly on the lower Eastern Shore. Now the proposal is to add another 10 percent, including a stretch just south of Annapolis.

Mike Slattery, the state’s assistant secretary of natural resources, said the proposal came in response to requests from Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland legislators. He admitted the timing is terrible, politically, and insisted his department “isn’t advocating it, we’re just proposing it and putting it out for public comment.”

Watermen say in addition to improving their daily catch sixfold, power dredging improves habitat by stirring up sediments that might otherwise bury oyster reefs. Roger Newell, oyster specialist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge, called that a “smokescreen,” adding, “It’s just another misguided step in the mismanagement of the oyster fishery that’s gone on for 150 years.”

Kenneth Lewis, government affairs director for the Maryland Coastal Conservation Association, the environmental group leading the opposition, said: “I know of no data whatsoever that supports the contention that power dredging improves habitat. It’s just using more efficient tools to take the last oyster.”

The CCA is encouraging opponents to speak out at public hearings in Princess Anne, Leonardtown and Easton over the next three weeks and send written comments to the state DNR. The organization’s Web site has details at

Meanwhile, bay conservationists are celebrating a modest victory — last week’s decision to place a five-year cap on the menhaden catch. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted 12 to 2 Wednesday to cap the annual catch of the oily baitfish by Omega Protein of Reedville, Va., at 105,800 metric tons, Omega’s average over the last five years. The company had proposed a voluntary limit of 131,000 metric tons.

Menhaden, the main forage fish in the Bay, are caught and cooked down in huge quantities by Omega for use in pet and livestock feed and Omega-3 oils. The Atlantic menhaden population is said to have dropped from 15 billion in the 1980s to about 3 billion. Sport fishermen believe the decline is starving out predator species such as rockfish, for which menhaden is the preferred food.

While capping the catch is a milestone for ASMFC, it hardly qualifies as an environmental triumph. “To put a cap on menhaden harvest based on a five-year average is like giving a serial killer permission to continue killing people at the same rate as he’s been doing the last five years,” veteran fly-fishing guide Norm Bartlett told The Post’s Jonathan Abel.

What would conservationists prefer? A moratorium on the menhaden reduction fishery and another on oystering, to give beleaguered stocks a chance to recover. It’s been done before with rockfish and geese, and it worked.

An oyster moratorium is already under consideration in Maryland, which leaves Newell, the oyster expert, wondering, “Why kill the last one before you start a moratorium?”

Why, indeed?

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GOOD READ: Folks interested in environmental politics should pick up a copy of “Striper Wars,” Dick Russell’s superb, thorough account of the fight over the last quarter-century to save rockfish (striped bass) from extinction. If there’s one lesson you’ll take away from it, it’s this: Don’t trust the government. (“Striper Wars,” Dick Russell, 321 pages, Island Press/Shearwater Books.)

© 2005 The Washington Post Company.