Shallow-water clamming ban proposed Va. biologist contends that dredging destroys underwater sea grasses

January 10, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Clammers working with hydraulic dredges and heavy steel baskets are wreaking grave damage on some of the region's prime underwater grass beds where young crabs and fish find shelter, according to a Virginia biologist.

Robert Orth, a Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences expert on underwater plant life, asked the Chesapeake Bay Commission yesterday to work for a ban on clam dredging in waters less than 6 1/2 feet deep, where most of the grasses grow.

"Get out of here. Absolutely ludicrous," longtime clammer Bill Boulter of Arnold said of Orth's proposal. "That would put some of our clammers out of business."

The bay commission, made up of legislators from the states bordering the Chesapeake Bay, also gave the idea a cool reception. Members of the commission said watermen, who have struggled to make a living during the long years of the bay's decline, would find it unfair to be kept out of the sea grass beds at a time when the grasses are on the rebound.

"You've issued a challenge to this commission, and we welcome a challenge," said commission Chairman John Woods, a Maryland delegate from St. Mary's County. "But I think we need to get some more information and talk about it some more."

Maryland's Department of Natural Resources is closer to taking action. A state task force will meet Jan. 21 to consider steps to limit clamming in areas where the clammers' methods threaten underwater vegetation, said John Surrick, spokesman for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

The task force has been working since fall "to develop criteria for areas where it would be good to have clamming kept out," said Surrick.

Armed with photographs of long, narrow scars and circular bare spots that clammers have left on the floor of Chincoteague Bay, Orth said the clammers' heavy equipment is wiping out big swaths of sea grass in some of the region's most important nurseries for marine life.

The sea grass beds are important to local waterways' health and the region's economy because they help filter out water pollutants, shelter commercially valuable fish species and are crucial nurseries for young blue crabs and other shellfish.

A study last year in the scientific journal Nature placed the value of underwater plant life at $7,700 an acre, more than the value of wetlands or croplands.

Overall, the bay's underwater vegetation is on the rise, Orth said. The figures from the scientist's 1997 aerial survey of the bay bottom won't be complete until the end of the month, but the results should be slightly better than in 1996, when grasses and other vegetation covered about 63,400 acres of the bay.

Centuries ago, as much as 617,500 acres of the bay were probably covered with sea grasses and other aquatic plants, Orth said. By 1984 that had shrunk to 29,000 acres. The goal for bay restoration is 114,000 acres by 2004.

Underwater vegetation is particularly important for the youngest blue crab larvae, which shelter for the winter in the lush grass beds of the coastal bays and in the lower Chesapeake, Orth said. Boulter, 42, a clammer for 20 years, disputed Orth's contention that clammers' gear is damaging the Chesapeake grass beds.

"You can't dredge in the real heavy grass beds because it'll choke you down, clog up your dredge," he said. "In most of the places where we're getting clams, there's hardly any grasses at all."

Boulter, a member of the Maryland Waterman's Association, said Orth's proposed ban would restrict about 85 percent of the state's 200 or so clammers.

"Mother Nature is not real manageable," he said. "You'll hit different times of year when from 6 to 10 feet are where all the clams are. And when it's blowing real hard you have to get in along the shore to get out of the wind."

Pub Date: 1/10/98

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