Save the savior

November 14, 1995|By Chris Parks

EWELL -- When the Chesapeake Bay Foundation first established an educational facility at the village of Tylerton on Smith Island in 1978, it was made to feel welcome. Many island watermen and their families were growing concerned about the degradation of the bay. After all, as goes the bay, so go the watermen. Most of us believed the bright and eager young environmentalists -- people like Bill Goldsborough, chief scientist for the foundation -- would do good things for the bay, and for our little island.

Almost two decades have passed, and some things on Smith Island have changed. The oysters that were once an important part of our economic life have mostly gone. Our population has decreased to a level that worries those of us who choose to remain. Our solitude and privacy have been disturbed by outsiders seeking a fast buck on waterfront real estate, and tourists who gawk and point and clutter our narrow streets.

But we are still some of the friendliest people you'll find in the state. We are still making our living off the water, as did our fathers, and their fathers before them. It is still the kind of place where parents can send their children out on Halloween unescorted, knowing that at every house they will find a neighbor, a friend or a relative. Watermen are still concerned about the health of the bay, as the shoreline population and the number of pleasure craft and fishing vessels make it seem more crowded. We wonder if there will be room left for us in the future.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has changed, too. Once it was a small, feisty organization that considered watermen allies and constituents. Now it is a monolithic organization with a multi-million dollar budget. Its allies are those who contribute to its substantial coffers. It has become self-centered and self-righteous. More to the point, it seems to have lost touch with reality.

An imaginary crisis

Last summer the foundation mailed out letters to its members, declaring a ''crisis:'' The blue crab population was deemed ''on the verge of collapse.'' Members were asked to contribute to the valiant effort to save the crabs from rapacious watermen who were destroying a resource belonging to all Marylanders.

It was an effective way to raise money. It also motivated members to contact their state legislators. demanding tough new regulations. Soon Governor Glendening was standing on the shores of the Chesapeake, announcing restrictions on watermen that, if enacted, would have devastated the state's lucrative crabbing industry and bankrupted commercial crabbers.

The fact is that this ''crisis'' was based on evidence and methods unworthy of an elementary-school science project. Since compromise regulations went into effect September 15, Maryland's commercial watermen have enjoyed the best fall harvest of crabs in almost a decade. This abundance of crabs has come about in spite of restrictions that limit crabbers to an eight-hour day.

No surprise

This comes as no surprise to watermen, who confidently predicted that the crab population would rebound after several years of slight declines. Watermen are also confidently predicting that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation will soon send out letters announcing that it has saved the blue crab from sure extinction.

Several weeks ago a rat- and termite-infested shack at the Bay Foundation's facility on Tylerton was destroyed by arson. Within days the foundation informed the press and public that the fire was likely the result of disgruntled watermen seeking revenge. It didn't report that it was a Smith Island waterman who discovered the fire and sounded the alarm, nor that dozens of watermen belonging to the Tylerton and Ewell Volunteer Fire Departments had rushed to the scene. It did not mention that it had recently increased fire insurance on the facility and that only days before it had removed valuable equipment from the building, or that it had made plans to demolish the shack and replace it with new construction. If watermen are responsible, they did the foundation a favor.

Can't afford to succeed

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is about as relevant to the preservation of the Chesapeake Bay as lawyers are to reforming the criminal-justice system: Success would put them out of business. With its shoddy science, its merciless demonization of the watermen who once offered friendship and support, its relentless pursuit of power and influence, the foundation has lost integrity and moral authority. Perhaps the real question is whether this well-intended organization is itself in need of salvation.

Chris Parks is a free-lance writer and waterman living on Smith Island.

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