Stir over sea grasses

Conservation: Some watermen are concerned that efforts to restore fragile aquatic vegetation will interfere with their livelihood.

October 27, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- State and federal officials have drawn lines in the sands under the bays behind Maryland's coastal resorts to protect recovering sea grass beds.

The move has cheered conservationists, angered watermen and prompted calls from residents for stronger enforcement of clamming restrictions.

"My phone rings off the hook with people saying [the watermen] are clamming the grass beds," says Dave Wilson, spokesman for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, a cooperative effort among local, state and federal officials. "And I know the [Ocean City] City Council and [Worcester] county commissioners get calls."

In response, Sarah Taylor-Rogers, state secretary of Natural Resources, promised Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. to assign two additional Natural Resources Police officers to the patrols for Chincoteague, Sinepuxent, Isle of Wight and Assawoman bays, and will keep three seasonal officers in Ocean City later into the fall.

"I have asked the local officers to monitor commercial clamming activity closely and provide to me a regular report on the extent of clamming activity and any enforcement problems that may arise," she told Mathias in a letter last month.

Watermen say they aren't trying to get into the grass beds, known as subaquatic vegetation (SAV), but complain that the restricted areas aren't clearly marked.

"It's never been no buoys or nothing," says Bryan Piercy, a Deal Island waterman who has clammed from early autumn to late spring in the coastal bays since 1995. "They say 150 feet from shore, but that's just your guess and my guess."

DNR is to release this week updated maps of SAV beds that almost certainly will increase the area that is off-limits to clammers.

The grasses, which help filter pollutants, supply oxygen to the water, protect against shoreline erosion and provide habitats for juvenile crabs and fin fish, were wiped out by a blight in the 1930s. They have reappeared only in the past 13 years.

"From what we're seeing in our monitoring since '86, [the grass in] all four bays has increased," says Robert Orth, a sea grass expert at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "We're seeing continued expansion, and hopefully they will not be compromised."

No one really knows how much grass was in the coastal bays at one time, but "we do know there was a vibrant scallop fishery in the bays" before the blight wiped out the eel grass, says Lee Karrh, a DNR biologist.

"If there's no eel grass, there's no scallops," he says. "So we know there were more grasses in the bays in the late '20s and early '30s than there are now, and that the bays can support more grasses."

Clammers use hydraulic dredges -- large, ungainly conveyor belts clamped to the rail of a work boat and lowered at an angle into the water. A wide plastic pipe on the opposite rail sucks up water and forces it onto the bay bottom. The blast churns up clams, mud and grasses that land on the conveyor belt. Watermen pick off the clams and let the rest fall away.

Scientists say the method pulls out vital grasses by the roots, scarring the bay bottom.

Maryland's General Assembly forbade using hydraulic dredges in SAV beds during its 1998 session, and by last spring a DNR task force of scientists, local officials and watermen had drawn up maps of the beds.

But while the task force was drafting maps, watermen were having a bumper year in the four coastal bays, frequently catching their limit of 8,000 clams per vessel per day by noon and sometimes working in what would become the forbidden SAV beds.

In August, Orth flew over the coastal bays again and reported in an e-mail to the coastal bays program "unbelievable scarring" in beds in Sinepuxent Bay that "may have destroyed 60 years of slow recovery in almost three."

Since then, state and federal officials have strung lines of orange buoys with stenciled warnings -- "SAV BEDS. KEEP OUT" -- in parts of the Chincoteague, Sinepuxent, Isle of Wight and Assawoman bays. Or they've warned watermen that other forbidden areas lie between certain navigational markers.

The watermen say the restrictions are part of a plan to get rid of them and argue that they have been helping the grass beds.

"If you stir it all up, things'll grow better," says Eddie Brimer, who lives in Rehobeth, Md., on the Pocomoke River, but works the coastal bays in the fall and winter. "When we first started coming here, there wasn't any grass, and now it's more every year. But that's not what the scientists say."

Underwater grasses don't work like the grass in your back yard, says Wilson, of the Coastal Bays Program.

"Five years ago, the grasses were starting to come back in Chincoteague Bay, and they spread north and west. We didn't have too many clammers then, but last year we had 22, 23 clammers out there every day. Now you look at the bays and you can see the damage."

DNR officials deny they want to get rid of the watermen. "We can balance the areas where grasses exist and where they don't grow," says Dave Goshorn, chief of the department's living resources assessment program.

Cpl. Glenn Lay of the Natural Resources Police patrols the bays in an 18-foot Boston Whaler, keeping a close eye on any clammers who appear to be too close to the line.

"The clammers pretty much stay out of the beds," he says. "There were a couple, by my reckoning, in the beds, but it was close and I didn't see any grass on the conveyor belt, so I didn't write a ticket."

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