Sportsmen's group angles for greater presence Successful campaign might bring down watermen's harvests

On the Bay

September 29, 1995|By TOM HORTON | TOM HORTON,SUN STAFF

Squeaky wheels get grease. Can 500,000 sport anglers squeak loudly? You bet!

THE ABOVE is from a solicitation for members by the newly formed Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) of Maryland.

It may end up amounting to no more than a small and ineffectual group of disgruntled sportsmen. Or it could prove, as CCA has elsewhere, a turning point in the fragile balance between the thousands of Chesapeake watermen and the millions of the general public who share the bay's resources.

CCA was founded by a few, mostly wealthy sportsmen in Texas, after unyielding commercial fishing pressure was implicated in crashes of prized species such as speckled trout and redfish (drum).

The result was a ban on commercial netting, and later, construction of a world-class fish hatchery and research center for which CCA helped raise $6 million. Fish stocks have rebounded.

Florida, with a major commercial fishery, was perhaps CCA's most spectacular success. A few years ago the group was key in passing an amendment to the state's constitution banning virtually all commercial netting of fish. It got 72 percent of the vote.

Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana have followed with commercial fishing restrictions and bans, and CCA chapters now exist in most coastal states from New England to Texas.

Maryland goals

The Maryland chapter's main goal right now is "just to get organized . . . raise money, get a board of officers in place, hire a top-notch lobbyist," says spokesman Keith Walters, a retired NASA administrator and author of books about rockfish.

Mr. Walters, interviewed in his home on Broad Creek off the Choptank last week, says CCA is not about getting rid of watermen, but rather, getting a fairer shake for the sportsman and ensuring conservative fish harvests.

Current issues CCA would consider "hot buttons," he says, are making rockfish (striped bass) a game fish only, and possibly lowering the state's catch quotas.

Now, watermen get about 40 per cent of the quota. As rockfish have rebounded under strict conservation rules, this has begun to offset, just a bit, the loss of watermen's winter income from oysters, which are in deep decline.

Other likely CCA-Maryland goals include going after a better deal for sport crabbers, vis-a-vis commercial interests, in the recent measures Maryland took to conserve the blue crab and trying to ban watermen's use of highly effective, twisted-strand, monofilament gill nets.

None of these would be a death blow to watermen, and could help them, if you assume healthier fish and crab stocks would result.

On the other hand, the essence of bay watermen always has been their opportunism, their ability to switch readily from one species to another, to ride out natural and man-made cycles of abundance and scarcity.

And with so many species -- shad, herring, weakfish, oysters, even the blue crab -- ranging from deep decline to stressed, watermen's options already are narrowed dangerously.

"They have just about got us like they did the wild Indians -- herded onto the reservation," a waterman from Smith Island told me recently.

Perhaps that was overstatement. But it has been dismaying to see how much easier it was to raise $300,000 for a tourist museum there than to raise half that for a crab-picking facility needed desperately to keep the living community going.

Few Marylanders would say they want a bay devoid of working watermen. But how many, and harvesting at what level?

Then the issue begins to blur, especially as more crab-pot corks get in the way of more pleasure boaters and as a recreational public, growing with no apparent limit, competes harder for a share of a crab and fish resource that is not only finite, but probably at or beyond its limit already.

Add to that the growing recognition that oysters are more than a resource, they are a vital natural filter, essential to water quality. And the muddy bottoms that watermen dredge for clams aren't just mud, but potentially places where the underwater grasses may come back someday, with benefits for the ecosystem.

'Money talks'

"The threat is real -- money talks and the numbers of the sport users grow bigger every year," says Larry Simns, longtime president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

MWA membership is around 5,000, compared with 500,000 to 700,000 sport fishermen and crabbers on the Maryland part of the bay.

But Mr. Simns thinks there are real differences between CCA's spectacular victories in Texas and Florida and what it might accomplish here.

"The commercial men there wouldn't stop some of the practices that most concerned the public. They took a hard line and people got fed up," he says.

Mr. Simns' effectiveness as a lobbyist is acknowledged around the mid-Atlantic region, and he has been known to take a hard line, "but times have changed. We fight for our livelihood, but we compromise a lot. If we didn't, we would not have the public support we do."

Ironically, many observers of the bay fisheries scene say Mr. Simns is in jeopardy among his membership for going along with Maryland's crab restrictions.

"I think if they were to dump Larry for a harder-core person, they'd end up losing public sympathy," says Bill Goldsborough, fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The hard reality for the waterman is that the bay is a commons. For all their work and heritage, they own the crabs no more than a schoolteacher in Garrett County does.

The numbers who fish the bay for sport are huge, but unorganized. If a CCA ever mobilizes large numbers, watermen might then, lamentably, really go the way of the "wild Indian."

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