Watermen, Md. square off over clam dredging Protections sought for underwater grass that gives bay life

March 12, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

How much protection is enough for one of the Chesapeake Bay's most vital resources -- the underwater grasses that nurture blue crabs, clams and dozens of varieties of fish?

That's the issue in a conservation battle with high stakes for two groups of Maryland watermen: crabbers, who say healthy beds of grasses are essential to their industry's survival, and clammers, whose gear is suspected of destroying grasses.

For the first time, the General Assembly is considering a ban on the use of the most common commercial clamming gear in the Chesapeake's underwater grass beds. The bill, sponsored by Democrat Michael J. Collins of Baltimore County and 13 other senators, would leave 150-foot buffer zones around the grasses -- the same protection given to oyster bars -- to allow room to grow.

Those involved in the debate agree that the grasses are "the lifeblood" of local fisheries, in the words of Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns. All say the gear should be forbidden among the fragile plants. But the wobbly support for the bill leads some senators to predict that its protections probably will be weakened.

"It's a good bill because nobody's satisfied," said William Goldsborough, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist.

Some scientists and environmentalists say the bill doesn't reserve enough space for grass beds to rejuvenate, and won't help achieve a long-standing goal of efforts to save the bay: the restoration of grasses to all of the Chesapeake's shallows. They also want to add protection for the coastal bays, where some of the region's lushest surviving grass beds are showing signs of heavy damage.

Maryland's 220 or so clammers say the bill would cost them their livelihoods by taking away prime clamming grounds, and hint darkly of an environmentalists' plot to drive watermen off the bay.

"All of us work on the water," said Eddie Brimer of Somerset County, a fifth-generation waterman who alternates clamming and crabbing. "Our fathers worked on the water, our grandfathers worked on the water. We don't want to see it end.

"But we don't want no environmentalists telling us when it's ended either."

The dispute is so heated that a state task force essentially threw up its hands last week, after a three-hour meeting marked by arguments and insults. Members could not agree on what to suggest to the Senate.

The Department of Natural Resources pushed for a tougher version that would have nearly tripled the protected area, but got a cold reception Monday from the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.

"We don't want to do all this dramatic stuff," Collins said. "We don't want to prevent these people from making a living." If DNR officials think the grasses need more protection, he suggested, they should write their own bill.

On the rebound

The dispute comes at a time when the bay's aquatic grasses have begun to rebound. Before Europeans settled here, scientists believe, the grasses were a thick carpet covering more than 600,000 acres of bay bottom. As pollution blocked the sunlight, they faded to 29,800 acres by 1984. With improvements in water quality, the grasses began to grow back, covering 63,400 acres in 1996. Less than half of that is in Maryland, DNR experts said.

The goal of the multistate Chesapeake Bay Commission is to restore grasses to 114,000 acres by 2005.

The grasses help cleanse water by using up some of the nutrients flowing from land and rivers. They feed a dozen splashing, diving creatures, from ducks and swans to otters and muskrats. And they give young fish and shellfish a vital hiding place in a ruthless eat-or-be-eaten world. Sheltering among the plants are most of the region's dinner-table favorites: rockfish and sea trout, flounder and drum, blue crabs in migration or moult.

No creature needs protection more than the soft-shell clam, the bay's main commercial clam species. Females can produce up to 85,000 eggs apiece, with good reason: So many bay denizens have a taste for clams that fewer than one in 100 larvae lasts to 3 weeks, the age when youngsters settle in groups on the bottom.

Adult clams can bury themselves a foot deep or more. But their predators dig, too, so clams survive best in sandy bottoms or concealing grasses, according to scientists Patrick V. Baker and Roger Mann of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Because other shellfish were easier to catch, local clams were rarely harvested commercially until the 1950s, when the invention of the hydraulic clam dredge gave birth to a fishery now worth about $1.5 million annually in Maryland.

The device -- legal in Maryland waters but not in Virginia's -- stirs up the bottom and the clams buried there. On a typical clam boat, a pump propels water from the surface to the bay floor. The stream blasts sediment toward a mesh conveyor belt. The belt carries silt and bottom-dwellers, including small fish, crabs and clams, up to the boat.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.