Saving the Chesapeake Means Saving the Watermen, Too

Oyster and Soft Shell Clam Fisheries Have Collapsed

Capital News Service
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

ANNAPOLIS - For some, the recent wave of Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts has left out a crucial component of the watershed - watermen, who depend on the bay for their livelihoods, and who have suffered as it has declined.

Watermen are "fundamental to the Chesapeake Bay region's identity," said Tommy Landers, a policy advocate with Environment Maryland. The environmental advocacy group released a report Wednesday arguing that restoring the bay's ecosystem must include restoring the bay's communities.

The bay once supported commercial fisheries for oysters, soft shell clams, blue crabs and rockfish. Watermen rotated among these four fisheries, according to the season.

Just five or six years ago, the bay put 10,000 watermen to work, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

As the oyster and soft shell clam fisheries have collapsed, crab harvests have declined and the commercial harvest of rockfish has been restricted, the number of working watermen has dwindled to 6,000. About a third of them have been forced to pick up part-time jobs, said Simns, standing on a dock with no watermen visible on the bay behind him.

Environment Maryland's report, called Watermen Blues, tells the stories of several watermen who have been affected by the declining bay, from Ernest Bowden, a Chincoteague-based gill-net fisherman who no longer fishes in the bay, to Wade H. Murphy Jr., a third-generation waterman who now runs tourist trips on his skipjack.

But it's not just the watermen who are hurting. The report also follows women from Smith Island who are struggling to keep their crabmeat cooperative running and the fisheries-supported community of Hoopers Island, which has lost five of its six grocery stores over the past 15 years.

After decades of "minimal accountability and lax enforcement," Landers said, the bay has reached a tipping point.

Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus flow into the bay through suburban, urban and agricultural runoff and discharge from sewage treatment plants. These nutrients fuel harmful algae blooms, which lower oxygen levels in the water and contribute to the decline in the underwater grasses that provide an important habitat for juvenile fish and crabs.

"The bay is at the brink of collapse," Simns said.

Echoing a recently released report from the Environmental Protection Agency, Environment Maryland suggests stronger laws and more stringent enforcement. Landers emphasized limiting agricultural pollution, reducing pollution from new and existing developments and updating wastewater treatment plants.

As the bay heals, watermen might be able to look toward aquaculture as "a new way to ensure that watermen retain their viability," said Peyton Robertson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay office. Robertson also suggested implementing harvesting regulations and increasing conservation practices.

"There are still fabulous places in this bay," Robertson said. "Beautiful, intact systems."

"If we do the right thing, the bay will pop back very quickly," Simns said. "God is very good to us in that way."