Helping Maryland clammers

January 23, 1992

The decimation of the Chesapeake Bay's clam industry demands quick and decisive action in Annapolis. Harvests were wiped out by high temperatures last summer. The industry has shrunk from $20 million in 1990 to $10 million this year. It will nearly vanish next year, with revenues expected to reach a mere $500,000.

This news has serious implications for hundreds of Marylanders who earn their living harvesting, dealing and packing clams. Many watermen are awash in debt; some packing houses have been forced to lay off workers. There's no reason to think the picture will brighten any time soon. Recovery won't occur before next fall, at the earliest.

In past years, idle Chesapeake watermen could turn to oystering for a living. This is no longer an option; it, too, is in trouble because of devastating diseases and overharvesting. Because many watermen are self-employed, there's no unemployment safety net to make up for lost wages. The recession has made other jobs difficult to come by. "The whole situation is bad," says Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "There's nothing to turn to. Some watermen are close to losing everything."

Earlier this month, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who represents the Eastern Shore in Congress, called upon Gov. William Donald Schaefer to declare the situation a disaster. This step would open the door to low-interest loans from the federal government. This would tide watermen over until crabbing season begins. The congressman's request, echoed by the state Department of Natural Resources, should be acted on immediately by the governor. Loans won't bring back the clams, but they will help watermen survive.

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