The bay and 'The Last Waterman'

October 06, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

CRISFIELD -- Seven generations of Lawsons have scratched, scrapped and scrounged a living working on the Chesapeake Bay, mostly in the tidewater regions of the Lower Eastern Shore.

At 56, Grant "Hon" Lawson has prodded and poked nearly every inch of Pocomoke Sound and the other nearby waters off his native Somerset County, searching for the once bountiful crabs, clams and oysters that made Crisfield "the seafood capital of the world."

Back problems forced Mr. Lawson to retire from the water seven years ago. Now he owns an art gallery and frame shop in downtown Crisfield. He is the subject of a book entitled "The Last Waterman."

While he is surrounded these days by artists' renditions of waterfowl and workboats, the real Chesapeake Bay is not far from his gaze or his thoughts.

QUESTION: If an oyster had a brain, would it have a migraine headache, given the condition of Chesapeake Bay?

ANSWER: It'd probably be throwing up, the way the water is. Oystering won't get any better until you get the water quality back.

Q.: How do you do that?

A.: Mostly through education, getting people to pay attention.

If a dying oyster could cry like a hurt puppy, maybe we'd be a little more conservative when it comes to our environmental measures. How would you like to listen to a million puppies out there cryin' every night?

The problem with the bay is how beautiful it is.

You have trouble convincing people that the problems can't be seen. You can't make people look at the bottom of the bay -- and that's where we have to look.

If we could stick their heads in the water and make them look, we'd clean the bay up a lot faster.

Q.: At the turn of the century, Maryland watermen harvested millions of bushels of oysters. Last year, they brought 418,000 bushels to the docks. This year, the state Department of Natural Resources delayed the opening of oyster season from Sept. 15 until Oct. 1 to take some of the harvesting pressure off the shellfish. How will this affect the oysters and the watermen?

A.: It doesn't really help either one.

It used to be that the guys would gradually get out of crabbing and switch over to oystering on Sept. 15. Half the guys would be crabbing and the other half would be oystering. But you had a weak market for both.

Now everybody crabs as long as they can. It gluts the crab market.

Then all of a sudden, everybody jumps into the oyster business at one time. It gluts the market with oysters. It means a shorter season, but more pressure on it the first two or three weeks.

When you create these false gluts, you're selling it at a reduced price. The state's not benefiting by it, and we're [watermen] not benefiting by it. They're not going to catch any fewer oysters.

Q.: As the oyster industry has declined, regulations have increased, supposedly based upon a greater scientific understanding of the oyster. Has this knowledge helped?

A.: No. The bay has been studied more than the Bible. It's time to do something with the studies.

You know, at one time there were 5,000 dredge boats out there. And they could catch 3 1/2 -, 4 1/2 -, 5-million bushels, and next year, the catch would be the same.

The bay can produce that much each year if the water quality is good. That's what the studies should be used for, getting the water back in shape.

The Band-Aid approach is that watermen are the most visible predator there is, so when the oysters start disappearing, everyone says, "Well, you're over-harvesting and you're the problem."

They said the same thing about the shad. There's less shad on the bay now than there was 14 years ago when they put the moratorium on them. Did we catch them?

Q.: Then you don't believe greed is behind the decline in oysters?

A.: We're regulated to death out there. Why do we need more?

It's a little late, anyway; that's what I'm saying. In 1981, the daily dockside catch per licensed oysterman was something like 12 bushels.

I went to a meeting, and the state said they were imposing a limit of 25 bushels per man per day.

I said, "Wait a minute. Where's the conservation measure? If we can't catch but 12 bushels, how in the world will 25 bushels conserve the oyster?"

Q.: What is the average waterman's opinion of the scientists who study the oyster and the bay?

A.: They don't know what the hell they're talking about.

Q.: Can the watermen and the scientists ever work together, combining their knowledge for a single goal of improving the bay?

A.: There's got to be a trust, and right now, the watermen don't trust the scientists or the Department of Natural Resources. They've been lied to too much.

Q.: Would a moratorium on catching oysters be beneficial?

A.: A moratorium wouldn't work.

When you work an oyster bed, you're turning them over and cleaning them.

The less you work an oyster bed, the worse it gets covered up with silt and dirt. If you just leave them there, the big old oysters beds will get covered up, turn to slime and just die.

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