Hatred troubles bay waters

On the Bay

October 20, 1995|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

STOP THE burning.

Stop the hatred.

This is a plea to the people of Smith Island, and to all Chesapeake Bay watermen.

"Hatred" is not a word used even once in a book I just finished TTC about the years my family lived in the Smith Island community of Tylerton.

But then came the torching Oct. 9 of a storage building at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Smith Island environmental education center there.

It did not happen in isolation. It happened after weeks of growing disgruntlement among bay watermen over recent state restrictions on crabbing.

Around Smith Island, loose talk and rumor had begun to turn mere disgruntlement into hostility, threats and verbal assaults on anyone remotely associated with the foundation.

A freshly killed cormorant was put in an aquarium; an education boat was smeared with used oil; a young woman educator was harassed. And then came the burning, officially ruled arson and under investigation.

And while many of the island's people say privately it was a shame, there has been far too little condemnation of it.

And so, the hatred and rumors continue -- and threaten to spread.

The foundation -- for which I worked from 1987 to 1992 -- runs centers where schoolchildren come for overnight trips in or near four watermen's communities.

The crab issue will get hotter when the state legislature convenes in January. And there is real potential that it may grow fashionable to target environmentalists for a range of woes watermen are suffering.

Scapegoating environmentalists already is happening in the West, leading to beatings, burnings and shootings.

The foundation has, of course, called for restricting crab catches, based on scientific consensus that the species is being fished to its limit, maybe beyond.

Its members rightly take a comprehensive view to implementing their "Save the Bay" motto, realizing that without fisheries management, it is not enough to just work for clean water. They have always included watermen in the bay they would save.

The current restrictions, designed to reduce catches of female hard crabs by about 20 percent, were proposed by the Department of Natural Resources and approved by the governor and a committee of the legislature. They were agreed to by the watermen's own statewide association.

The foundation is scarcely the prime mover, but it is a convenient target.

On Smith Island, many people seem almost in a state of denial. Maybe it wasn't arson; maybe it wasn't an islander -- maybe it was set by the foundation for sympathy. Others say, 'Too bad it happened, but the foundation should have known better than to meddle.'

Still others take comfort in the fact that the fire was set when there was no wind and in an equipment shed slated for demolition this winter.

But things could have turned serious very quickly.

For example, the intense blaze was no more than 60 feet from two houses of elderly widows, one of whom certainly could have had a fatal heart attack from the scare.

There is also the tragedy of sending this nastiest sort of message, that you are not wanted here, to such a good neighbor.

The foundation has been in Tylerton since 1978. From the beginning, it realized that acquainting children with a unique community that was totally dependent on the bay is a marvelous way to teach the importance of keeping the bay healthy.

And the people of Tylerton responded in kind, opening hearts and homes and giving unstintingly of their time.

Foundation educators helped organize Fourth of July picnics, played Santa Claus at Christmas and taught at the one-room school. They also secured legal help that led to Smith Islanders' overturning a Virginia law prohibiting them from crabbing across the state line that runs through their island.

The foundation lent key support to a project to stop shore erosion on the island -- one it might have opposed had it wanted to be purist about minor wetlands destruction.

One of its trustees, who will be angry at me for mentioning this, has helped several islanders in financial need. He, too, was verbally abused in Tylerton.

The foundation takes more grief than watermen know for its steadfast opposition to sportsmen who want to make striped bass a game fish only, and for backing restrictions on sport crabbers as well as commercial harvesters.

Foundation people have worked long and hard behind the scenes to help Tylerton build a crab-picking facility that will comply with tougher state health rules.

They employ four Smith Island natives and at least two other watermen in their education programs.

And as Tylerton's population has declined, the foundation's commitment to supporting island ferries and the town's only store-- neither one the cheapest way to go -- has become a large factor in keeping the tiny community (population about 85) viable.

All of this is not to say that watermen and environmentalists should be expected to agree on everything. Neither did the foundation inform islanders as well as it should of the position it was going to take on crabs -- some felt betrayed when they heard the news first in the press.

Among the island's watermen, wiser and cooler heads are struggling to prevail, and the foundation seems eager for a truce.

Watermen do not have to love the Bay Foundation to speak out against hatred and scapegoating and arson.

If they decide people such as the foundation's members are their enemy, watermen will limit themselves to a very small circle of friends.

And on a bay whose crabs are owned equally by several million citizens, only thousands of whom are watermen, that could prove a limit ultimately more harmful than any restriction on catches.

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