Marylanders Love
Their Striped Bass

They just don't raise them

Yonathan Zohar. Photograph, Rona Kobell
Tony Mazzaccaro stands by the Manokin River, where he ran Maryland's last striped bass fish farm. Photograph, Lisa Helfert

Maryland, one of the states most associated with the silvery, flaky striper (Morone saxatilis), would seem to be the most logical place to grow them, given how many residents love to eat them. And the past couple of decades would have seemed an opportune time: Nationwide, the striped bass aquaculture industry is the fourth largest for finfish — behind catfish (primarily channel catfish, Ictalurus punctatus), salmon (both Atlantic, Salmo salar, and Pacific, Oncorhynchus spp.) and trout (primarily rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss). By 2012, the market for farm-raised striped bass was worth $30 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But you won't find many of those fish in ponds or pens in the Old Line State. And you won't find striped bass — not the Morone saxatilis that swims wild in the Chesapeake, or the hybrid striped bass — scientific name Morone chrysops x Morone saxatilis — so named because it is a striped bass crossed with a white bass and that is the dominant species in aquaculture.

Economics, politics, and timing inhibited the effort just as research in Maryland was underway to both domesticate the striped bass broodstock and improve the grow-out technology for the hybrid fish. In other words, the hope was to restock wild populations of Morone saxatilis and develop a thriving industry of pond-raised hybrids. But instead of using that technology to build an industry here, Maryland scientists shared their knowledge and helped states far from the Chesapeake Bay become the major producers of hybrid striped bass.

North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, California, and Tennessee are all major hybrid striped bass producers. North Carolina favors ponds; other states use closed recirculating systems. Extension specialists and scientists from Maryland Sea Grant and Cooperative Extension offices have helped build up an industry that has created hundreds of jobs and generated new research about how best to grow these fish. The aquaculture industry is mostly hybrids. The first hybrid striped bass was grown in South Carolina, and industry has continued to thrive in ponds in the southern states because of high demand for the fish and strict fishing limits on the wild population for commercial anglers.

Maryland, in contrast, had loads of fish when it lifted its striped bass moratorium in 1990, say the watermen who fished for stripers then. It also had a drop in effort, as many of the watermen found other ways to make a living when they couldn't fish. Fewer anglers and more fish led to much less of a need to supplement the fishery with aquaculture. And watermen at the time did not want the hybrid striped bass raised in ponds to compete with their wild catch.

Maryland legislators from coastal communities, who had been successful in fighting oyster aquaculture for decades, were not interested in easing regulations for a finfish species to compete with striped bass. Regulations in Maryland are stringent, as well, with local counties and towns having a lot of control over whether pond aquaculture comes within their borders. And the constituents and their elected representatives were not necessarily eager to welcome enterprises that would compete with wild harvests.

But more than politics, regulations, and timing, the lack of striped bass aquaculture in Maryland was an issue of cost. So said Reggie Harrell, a fisheries biologist and Extension specialist who came to Maryland in 1984 to help the state cultivate striped bass, both for possible stock enhancement in the Bay and for aquaculture out of it. Land and water use is expensive, and the fish could not sell for a high enough price to make up the difference.

"Once the economics are there, then you fight the political and the regulatory battles," said Harrell, who directs the Northeast Regional Aquaculture Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. "But there's no need to fight them if you're not going to make any money at it."

Harrell arrived as the wild striped bass fishing industry in the Chesapeake Bay was collapsing, or at least in dire straits. In 1985, populations of stripers had dipped so low that the state instituted a five-year moratorium on fishing. Harrell, who had come to Maryland from South Carolina to raise striped bass larvae and fingerlings, was focused on enhancing the Chesapeake's wild stocks. At the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Horn Point Hatchery, in Cambridge, he worked with state and federal colleagues to put millions of hatchery-raised striped bass fingerlings into the estuary in hopes of boosting the dwindling populations.

The moratorium devastated fishermen like Billy Rice of Southern Maryland. "I lost about 45 percent of my income in one fell swoop," he said. To make ends meet, he trapped muskrat, used haul seines for white perch, potted for eels, and worked on his father's grain farm. Working for someone else was out of the question. So was getting into striped bass aquaculture.

Many watermen actively opposed any kind of striped bass aquaculture during the moratorium days, and let their representatives know it. Rice didn't object; he just didn't think pure stripers were amenable to being raised in ponds. Tasting one at an aquaculture expo on the Shore confirmed his suspicions. He said it was "like tasting mud."

"Those fish owned me," he said. "I didn't know what a weekend was."

Not so for the hybrids. Farmers are able to raise an attractive, tasty hybrid striped bass today in part because of the work of scientists like Reggie Harrell and Curry Woods in Maryland; reproductive endocrinologists Craig Sullivan at North Carolina State University, and Yonathan Zohar, then at the Maryland Center of Marine Biotechnology; and nutritionist Delbert Gatlin of Texas A&M University in College Station. Most of the fish raised now in ponds across the country go to New York's Fulton Fish Market, which sends it to Manhattan restaurants and sometimes far beyond.

Harrell had faith in the hybrids even then, and was hedging the state's bets on a wild striped bass comeback in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was also raising the hybrid, a white bass crossed with a striped bass. They reached two pounds in 18 to 30 months, much faster than wild fish. Regulators would not allow hybrids to be sold commercially during the moratorium, a condition Harrell understood. But if the wild fishery did not bounce back post-moratorium, Harrell was readying an alternative.

And he wasn't alone. Farther north, in eastern Baltimore County, another southerner was helping Baltimore Gas and Electric grow hybrid striped bass (Morone chrysops x Morone saxatilis) at the Crane Aquaculture Facility, named for the Charles P. Crane Generating Station along Seneca Creek. Curry Woods was the Kentucky scientist who was in charge of raising the fish in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, the breeding program for hybrids was the only such work in the world, according to Jim Carlberg, president of Kent Sea Farms in San Diego and one of the nation's largest striped bass producers.

Harrell worked with University of Maryland Extension agents Don Webster and Don Meritt on a hybrid striped bass farm operation at Walnut Point, near Chestertown in Kent County. He continued to work on breeding and reproduction techniques throughout the moratorium years, when none of the fish could go to market. Even transferring them across state lines proved tricky, and involved some tangling with regulators. The site eventually closed. Harrell had hoped that both a wild fishery and hybrid aquaculture could thrive in Maryland. But at the time, it was not to be.

Tony Mazzaccaro had the state's last hybrid striped bass farm. The Hyrock Farm in Princess Anne finally shuttered its doors in 2003. Toxic algae blooms of the dinoflagellate Karlodinium veneficum killed many of his fish. The water for the fish farm came from the Manokin River. Desperate to eradicate the dinoflagellate, he sprayed a copper sulfate pesticide that, when added to the water, killed the dinoflagellate and his fish. That led researchers to wonder if a high copper content was to blame for deaths in the ponds. But by then, Mazzaccaro was done. And the former University of Maryland Extension agent, who now teaches at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, said he does not miss it.

"Those fish owned me," he said. "I didn't know what a weekend was."

Harrell believes that farm-raised striped bass might have suffered from a wrong-fish, wrong-time problem. A high-dollar industry that didn't compete with anything wild caught could benefit from the husbandry techniques developed for stripers, and open new markets. Some possibilities include closed indoor systems that could grow other high-value fish, such as, barramundi, sea bream, or bronzini.

Rice, former chair of the state's Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission, thinks watermen would welcome that.

"If it was something that we don't produce anyway, I wouldn't see a big pushback," he said. "It could even be a way for us to expand our own markets."

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