– Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. invited reporters to the kitchen of the Governor’s Mansion Tuesday to sample the joys of what he called “Maryland’s finest delicacy,” the rockfish, which though it has recovered in numbers lately has been hit with some unflattering publicity.
Prices of rockfish, also known as striped bass, have dropped nearly 50 percent as demand plummeted in the wake of a story in The Washington Post last month that said as many as 75 percent of Chesapeake Bay rockfish are infected with bacterial infection known as mycobacteriosis.
But Ehrlich and other state officials, along with watermen who catch the fish, eagerly chowed down on plates of the sauteed delicacy to prove that rockfish was not only safe but tasty as ever.
“The central message is rockfish are not only safe to eat,” Ehrlich said. “We want to encourage consumption of rockfish.”
Chef Medford Canby, who has cooked at the Governor’s Mansion for 21 years, served up plates of the tender, white fish, sauteed and drizzled in sauce made from crab stock and sherry and garnished with a dollop of gourmet mashed potatoes.
“Being governor is a great job sometimes,” Ehrlich said amid frantically crackling camera flashes, prompting laughs from the salivating officials and members of the press who had squeezed into the cramped kitchen to watch him eat the first rockfish serving.
Ehrlich’s co-star at the event was a whole, fresh rockfish nearly a yard long brought in by David Simpson of Jessup seafood wholesaler Congressional Seafood Inc., who pointed out the various indicators of a healthy specimen, such as round, wide eyes and a light smell.
Mycobacteriosis is a bacterial infection that causes unsightly lesions to form on the flesh of affected fish and eventually leads to wasting disease symptoms such as emaciation and loss of body mass.
“A preponderance of the rockfish population is infected with the microbacterium,” Assistant Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources Mike Slattery said.
But, according to DNR, health concerns associated with the human form of mycobacteria, also called “fish handler’s disease”, are relatively minor.
Infections in humans result not from eating the fish but from handling it, and are generally limited to the formation of a “persistent nodule” under the skin usually on the fingers or feet. The infection can sometimes cause the formation of ulcers, swelling of lymph nodes and joint pain. Mycobacterial infections can usually be treated with standard antibiotics.
To avoid contracting the infection, DNR officials recommended fish handlers wear thick gloves to avoid getting cut by spines or bones, and that they wash and disinfect their hands. Also, any fish that has lesions or smells bad should be discarded.
Representatives of the commercial and recreational fishing industries also spoke in support of the rockfish, saying that each fish is “individually hand-inspected”, complaining about the negative impact the recent mycobacteriosis reports have had on the state’s watermen and imploring the public to return to their usual consumption habits.
“In the Potomac,” Bill Sieling, head of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association said, “the average fisherman was getting almost $2.60 a pound for the fish, and since the reports that number has dropped to $1.50 a pound.”
The rockfish industry has enjoyed a great resurgence in recent decades. Over 2 million pounds of rockfish were harvested last year, Seiling said.
Since a state moratorium that remedied over-fishing of the beloved fish was lifted 16 years ago, the number of rockfish in the Maryland portion of the Bay has flourished, reaching “record highs” this year, officials said, estimating that there are currently 3 million rockfish in the state’s Bay waters.
However, the spread of mycobacteriosis has tainted the public’s view of the fish.
The species’ surging population is one of several possible contributors to the high rate of mycobacteriosis infection, Slattery said, comparing the situation to his son’s kindergarten class which he calls a “Petri dish” because colds and sicknesses spread so easily amongst the students. Other possible contributors to the bay-wide mycobacteriosis pandemic, according to scientists, experts and administration officials, include, among others: water temperature, pollution, global warming and chemical runoff.