Editor merits role in debate

ON THE BAY

Newspaper: Mary Madison has made the `Waterman's Gazette' a valuable voice in discussions on the future of the Chesapeake.

December 05, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

LAWYER, WRITER, bartender, Zen Buddhist, environmentalist and fierce defender of bay watermen - Mary Madison's one of the more interesting people to emerge on the Chesapeake scene.

She's editor of the Waterman's Gazette, the monthly newspaper published in Annapolis by the Maryland Watermen's Association, which represents the state's commercial crabbers, fishermen and oystermen.

I've read the Gazette for more than 20 years, but often I would spend about a minute doing it. Since Madison took over a few years ago, that's changed.

A recent series on sewage treatment in Maryland and its impact on water quality and watermen was as incisive and comprehensive as anything in the state's leading newspapers.

"Mary's great," says Bill Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has often found itself at odds with watermen over conservation issues.

"She's made the Gazette into a voice to be listened to. She's broadened its horizons, and elevated the debate," Goldsborough says.

Madison, once a Buddhist monk in California, deflects such praise with a couple of favorite Zen expressions, such as "Working hard, accomplishing nothing" and "Boldly going nowhere."

She also takes to heart these words of Henry David Thoreau: "We love to hear the sayings of old sailors and their accounts of natural phenomena, which totally ignore, and are ignored by, science."

"What I try to do," she explains, "is promote understanding of science, to educate watermen, and also to have their `anecdotal' accounts recognized as valid."

A fascinating illustration of this: She recalls in the sewage series an incident 25 years ago, during debate over the decline of the striped bass. A Rock Hall waterman asked whether women's birth control pills might be getting into the environment, depressing rockfish reproduction.

He was roundly laughed at (I might have been among the laughers). But nowadays, Madison notes, scientists are raising plenty of concerns about pharmaceuticals and antibiotics getting into the environment via the sewers.

She notes experiments from the University of Minnesota that show that estradiol, a substance in the urine of women taking birth control pills, can harm reproduction of fish in Minnesota rivers.

The first time I visited Madison in her office, the only room at the Watermen's Association painted lavender, pink, green and blue, I had to ask how someone like her popped up in such an unlikely place.

It turns out her connections to the bay and to watermen go back. She grew up in Aberdeen and by age 18 was attending Washington College and tending a bar in Chestertown frequented by watermen - and also dating a commercial clammer from nearby Rock Hall.

About this time, she met a Rock Haller, Larry Simns, then and now the president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. After she finished college at DePauw University with a degree in English, Simns got her a job behind the bar at Cantlers, a popular watermen's and tourist restaurant near Annapolis.

Madison later headed for California in her pickup, and ended up graduating from law school at the University of California at Davis, where she says she was "voted by my class as least likely to practice law."

Her California years included a year at a Zen center - she remains a practicing Buddhist - and stints teaching environmental studies and working on an Indian reservation.

Bay watermen, she believes, are the closest thing we've got here to a working, Native American culture. "People who just see these guys as `takers' of fish and crabs and oysters are so misinformed," she says. "They really do care. They have such a relationship with and respect for the water."

When illness in the family brought her home to Maryland a few years ago, she had a lucrative job offer from a law firm. Then she ran into her old friend, Simns.

"He said, `Look at this paper [the Gazette]. Can you fix it?'" Not for the first time, Madison followed her heart.

She's added sections on world and regional fisheries and environmental news, along with a section on Virginia waters. The Gazette also regularly features views from state environmental agencies and other scientific and environmental journals.

Of course, one can always find the waterman's view ably represented by Simns. He "talks" his monthly column to Madison, who puts it together.

The Gazette still features news of fishing communities, and recipes like this one recently for "Walter Maddox's Catfish Slum: not a chowder, but kinda thick so it's not really soup either, just somethin' mama made for supper."

Madison describes herself as "vegetarian by inclination - I've been known to pray over ants before I kill them." So she has made accommodations to the world of watermen. "I do love fish, and I've learned to be grateful for whatever's put before you. These guys have great respect for what they catch, and I think they hate waste more than anyone," she says.

These are trying times for bay watermen, who will face even more restrictions on their livelihood if water quality doesn't improve faster. The Gazette is a small voice in the overall debate on the Chesapeake's future, but one well worth listening to.

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