The Maryland Departments of Natural Resources (DNR), Environment (MDE), Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) and Agriculture (MDA) released clarified information yesterday about the bacteria affecting striped bass (commonly referred to as rockfish or stripers) in the Chesapeake Bay.

It had been reported that a wasting disease was devestating the populations of striped bass, one of the most popular local catches in Southern Maryland, and that this disease could even cause serious skin disorders to humans who consumed the meat from infected fish.

The agencies prepared and released a joint, detailed fact sheet to “correct” information that had been recently reported about striped bass infected with mycobacteriosis and the potential for human health concerns.

The Washington Post reported that almost 3/4 of the rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay are now infected with the disease.

“As stewards of the Chesapeake Bay, we are concerned about mycobacteria, and have been for nearly a decade,” said C. Ronald Franks, Secretary of DNR.  “We continue to gather the latest scientific data, and will work closely with our sister agencies to inform the public as that information becomes available.”

State health officials confirmed that Chesapeake Bay striped bass are safe to eat when thoroughly cooked, and continue to advise the public not to eat uncooked rockfish.

“Fish that appear to be healthy and are properly prepared and cooked are safe to eat,” said DHMH Secretary S. Anthony McCann.  “You should discard any fish with open, reddened lesions on the body or those with signs of hemorrhage or darkened patches in the fillets.”

Health officials also verified that people who have contact with striped bass through fishing, transportation or preparation of food dishes should not be overly concerned with mycobacteriosis infections if they follow basic hygiene precautions, including hand-washing.

Historically, mycobacteriosis has not significantly impacted the level of striped bass populations in the Chesapeake Bay and has not presented a public health concern. Yet, scientists remain concerned for the potential long-term impacts to the species. In May, the USGS National Fish Health Research Laboratory and NOAA’s Cooperative Oxford Laboratory are convening a workshop of scientists and managers engaged in the issue to discuss the current status of mycobacteriosis and prioritize and coordinate future research efforts.

So what does this mean for Southern Maryland and its age-old fishing industry and its most popular game fish? Will locals and visitors be happy to continue eating one of the area’s most popular dishes? And what are the implications for the Chesapeake – is this a sign that it has finally reached a level of pollution that can’t sustain the seafood Maryland is famous for?

See The Bay Net for an upcoming article on local watermen’s responses to the Striper scare.