Early one morning, when I was a young child of age 6, my father took me fishing off of the Oxford public wharf. I proudly caught an 8” spot and my father enjoyed it for breakfast. As I got older, I spent some time fishing with Mr. John. He was a cousin and very much enjoyed taking me fishing on Island Creek in his little wooden skiff named after my great grandmother, Ida May. We mostly caught white perch and I loved it. When I hit my teen years, my brothers would let me tag along as they went trolling between Island Creek and Chloras Point for rockfish. The trolling adventures stopped when a moratorium was placed on this delicious fish from 1985 to 1990.
When the fishing resumed in 1990 I was then dating my future husband and one of our favorite “dates” was to go fishing, especially for our beloved rockfish that no one had tasted five years. During one of our adventures off of Chloras Point I caught a beautiful large bluefish and my future husband, a puppy drum. I still remember that evening, reeling that blue in just as the sun set. It was a near about perfect date. But that wouldn’t hold a candle to an autumn day just two years later when I reeled in a 28” rockfish not far off of Tilghman Island. To this day, it is the largest fish I have ever caught and I still remember the thrill and excitement of what I still refer to as “My monster catch.”
I had a parallel experience with catching blue crabs in my youth. At a young age, I crabbed off the Oxford wharf, often catching peelers near the time of a full moon. I would excitedly bicycle across town to Pier Street and sell my catch for 50 cents a piece. I would then take my fortunes and promptly spend them at Bringman’s store on candy, just across from the park. I also spent time crabbing off of Mr. John’s pier, sometimes catching as many as 3/4 of a bushel in a day. One day I almost caught a blue crab so big, that point-to-point it would not fit in my net and it flipped itself out. Now, no one believes me, except Mr. John who saw the whole thing, but he is long gone with any credibility that story would ever have. When I met my future husband, he was working the water and so from time to time I would join him in the wee hours of the morning to set the lines and watch the sun rise. He gave up working on the water by his early 20s, recognizing that it showed signs of an unbalanced future. The future is here, and the unbalance remains.
If we want to continue to fish the Chesapeake for rockfish, oysters, and crabs, we must ask how we got to where we are and utilize lessons from the past to illuminate our future. Take the Chesapeake Shad, for example, a fish so plentiful in its day, that an estimated 900,000,000 pounds of it was captured between 1821 and 1850. According to Kate Livie, author of Shad: The Forgotten First Fishery, shad also fed the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. So where are the shad now? In the history books. We dammed up their streams, overfished them and now they are largely forgotten.
The moratorium on Striped Bass in the late 1980s followed by stringent fishing regulations in conjunction with the return of some bay grasses, seemed to be the right combination to create a restorative environment for the stripers and many consider the tough regulations a necessary implementation on its road to recovery. It’s a documented recovery that is essentially one of the Bay’s biggest success stories. However, the tables are turned again and imbalance is at play.
“Water pollution and poor diet may be partly to blame for the recent decline in striped bass. Their favorite food, menhaden, is at an all-time low, and that appears to be causing problems that we see in the Chesapeake’s resident striped bass,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) Senior Fisheries Scientist Bill Goldsborough. “They’re skinny, they’re diseased, and they’re dying at a faster rate, in part because they are not getting enough good nutritious food to eat.”
Many of these menhaden and other small fish are being caught by an industrial fishing fleet out of Virginia, which processes them to make livestock and fish feed, fish oil pills, and other products. Virginia is the only state on the coast that still allows this industrial fishing. Without enough nutrients from menhaden, and stressed by poor water quality, some scientists believe the immune systems of striped bass are becoming suppressed. The theory is, according to CBF, that weakened disease-fighting systems make stripers more likely to become ill with a chronic wasting disease called mycobacteriosis, which infects as much as 70 percent of the Bay’s striped bass.
The oyster, also over harvested and weakened by disease has shown a comeback in two ways through the restoration efforts of both the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Oyster Recovery Partnership and the innovation of aquaculture. The future of this fishery shows promise and, as a bonus, more oysters in the Bay means more “little filters” available to clean our water.
Stability for the Bay’s blue crab population has been limited by degraded habitat, in particular underwater grass bed coverage, which is fortunately beginning to show signs of improvement. Blue crabs need grass beds for nursery areas and protection from predators. New management approaches also need to be explored. Despite the good news, the crab population has not reached its target level, a fact that emphasizes the need to stay the course with science-based limits. This iconic symbol of the Chesapeake is resilient, says CBF, but our appetite for it – in all forms – demands caution and restraint lest we love it to death.
Now we have a new fish, the snakehead, to battle. Could we apply our lessons from the past to eradicate this invasive species that has the potential to cause an ecosystem imbalance in the Chesapeake Bay? The Potomac River Fisheries Commission has declared open season on snakeheads year-round, with no size or catch limits. Maryland has encouraged commercial fishermen to sell any they catch, with local wholesalers paying around $5 a pound. The name snakehead can be very off-putting but despite its scary name and appearance, the snakehead has been described by consumers as a very tasty fish. Ironically, this is one case where overfishing may actually be the answer to the problem.
What is the best path to a clean and vibrant Chesapeake? I am left to ponder, what can I, an average Maryland resident who deeply loves the water that surrounds us, do? We can petition our senators and congressmen to fight for continued funds to improve the health of the Bay. On a personal level, we can stop pointing fingers. We are all to blame. According to a talk to master gardeners in March, Gary Felton, PhD of the University of Maryland Extension, 16% of the nitrogen runoff has been attributed to urban areas (those of us that live in the Bay watershed). So, what you do in your backyard truly matters, and contributes to either the health of the Bay or its decline.
Beyond this, I believe we need to dig even deeper and draw ourselves into the water itself. When we swim we must recognize, we swim not only with the fish and the crabs and tender grasses, but also with the pesticides. When we eat fish we are not just eating the tender flakey delicious white meat, but we are also eating the PCBs or chlorinated biphenyls. We humans are an ecological contributor to the overall health of the fish we consume. We are the problem and the solution.
The Chesapeake Bay’s problems are complex, and I often ponder Captain John Smith ’s description of this beautiful estuary in 1608 upon his arrival when only Native Americans inhabited the area. Captain Smith wrote: “A few Bevers, Otters, Beares, Martins and minkes we found, and in divers places that aboundance of fish, lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan: but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with: neither better fish, more plenty, nor more variety for smal fish, had any of us ever seene in any place so swimming in the water, but they are not to be caught with frying pans.”
Which brings me back to my childhood fishing and crabbing explorations, that ultimately ended with a fish in the frying pan. At that time in my life I did not see the imbalance lurking beneath the surface, or ponder the demise of the Chesapeake. I was bathed in a positive natural experience, one that clings to me still and ushers me to share it with others. I was naive, but in my nativity I may have struck upon the one of the simplest remedies to our problem: to hug our culture and not let it slip from our memories is to cast the line as far as we can. To share a fish story is to give back to the Bay the life and energy it in turn gives us. Tell your fish stories to everyone. Engage your listeners, then, they too, will want to cast the line as far as they can and hope for a big healthy fish for the frying pan. If we want to continue to fish for our dinner, we must own our mistakes as much as we own our heritage, and ask ourselves how hard are we willing to work to preserve it?
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. Their family lives with multiple food allergies and intolerances, including: gluten, tree nut, peanut, fish and shellfish. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.