A Bay Tradition Fights To Survive

July 21, 1991|By LORRAINE MIRABELLA

At Billy Joe Groom's place on Parrish Creek, wooden workboats tug ondocking lines as morning's first light casts a pink glow on the water. A gentle breeze rustles leaves along the shore. Gulls circle noisily overhead, ushering in another day.

Groom, though, has little time to savor the sunrise. It's just before 6 a.m. when the light comeson in his white bungalow. Within minutes he dresses in jeans, flannel shirt and blue corduroy cap, kisses his sleeping wife and 8-year-old son and bids farewell to the yelping hound puppy out back.

The slim, bearded redhead strides down the weathered wooden pier toward the "True Blue," coffee in hand. Like every day for the past quarter-century, he'll earn his living the hard way today, coaxing creatures from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

The 45-year-old never has known or even given much thought to any other way of life, nor had his father and grandfather before him. As a teen-ager, Groom dreamed of simple days on the water where success -- a good haul of oysters, crabs, fish or clams -- could be measured, sorted and sold at market.

So when he returned to his native Shady Side years ago after a stint in the Navy, he promptly bought his father's oyster boat, then rigged it for clamming, married his high school sweetheart and settled into a house on the water.

He counted himself among the fortunate few who still consider their work a calling, part of a proud, centuries-old tradition. In the old vernacular, long since faded from the vocabulary elsewhere but persisting along bay shores, Billy Joe Groom is a "waterman."

Today, Groom considers himself fortunate if hesurvives another season.

Steering his 50-foot Chesapeake Bay deckboat across West River toward the bay, he counts off houses in southern Anne Arundel County where watermen once lived. One after another,they have died or moved on, their children choosing safer, surer lives.

Groom understands. Go to college, he tells his only son, Gene,because the water's no place to make a living anymore.

Expenses only climb and profits only shrink. Pollution and disease kill off thewaterman's daily prey. Development replaces docks, crab shanties andoyster-shucking houses with waterfront condos watermen can't afford and posh marinas where no workboat is welcome. Government regulation,even measures designed to save a bay in declining health, can put watermen out of work.

"If it don't stop, we are done. We are literally done," Groom says. "There are just a few hardheads like myself left."

He squints in the morning sun, guiding his boat toward huge pound nets he has set in the water to trap alewives, a crab baitfish and, on good days, herring, perch and carp. He turns downcast as talk of boyhood expectations gives way to a brooding sense that he's the last of his kind in these parts.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think anything would happen like what's happening to us," he says. "The watermen get shoved into this corner and that corner. It's the samething that happened to the American Indians."

The isolated corners of the county, where watermen plied their trade for centuries, keepshrinking. Shady Side, located 20 miles south of Annapolis and founded as a fishing village 300 years ago, typifies one-time watermen's havens.

The shucking houses and workboats along the water have all but disappeared. Just a handful of watermen remain, and most of the more than 1,000 Shady Side families now travel beltways more than waterways.

Like Groom, many of the die-hards who still dock their low-slung workboats in South County fishing communities view themselves as an endangered species with little political clout or control over their futures.

Just three decades ago, some 3,000 men made their living as commercial fishermen along county shores. Today, the Anne Arundel County Watermen's Association estimates, a mere 300 remain.

Still, they fight to preserve their way of life. A true waterman, it is said, stays on the water through good times and bad.

"A lot of watermen, that's all they've ever done and all they'll ever do, no matter how much money," says Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "It gets to a point where they're starving, and they will not leave. Most could make more money doing something else. But it's the challenge, the camaraderie, a closeness where you look out for one another."

Today's watermen working the bay and rivers around the county face threats their parents and grandparents never knew, especially since population in the Chesapeake Bay's six-state drainage area has mushroomed nearly 50 percent between 1950 and 1980.

Since the 1950s, the bay has come under heavy attack, taking in sewer plant discharges and fertilizer runoff containing nitrogen and phosphorus. In massive amounts, those nutrients fertilize algae that robsplants and fish of light and oxygen. With fewer trees and grasslandsto filter out pollution, eroding dirt from building sites ends up increeks and suffocates marine life.

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