Oystermen want foundation to stop dredging

Pair say educational activities hurt their livelihood

June 20, 2006|By RONA KOBELL | RONA KOBELL,SUN REPORTER

Two watermen are trying to stop the Chesapeake Bay Foundation from conducting educational experiments on an oyster bar just south of the Bay Bridge.

The watermen, who work the Hackett's Point oyster bar, have asked the state Department of Natural Resources to deny the foundation its long-held permit to operate a power dredge on the bar. The foundation uses the dredge to scoop up oysters, lets students look at them, and then puts them back in the water. But the oystermen say the scooping is hurting their livelihood.

"When they're dragging their dredge around, they make it hard for us to catch them," said James Michael Edwards, a Queen Anne's County waterman who wrote the DNR to ask that the permit be denied.

Edwards' letter, which he co-wrote with Anne Arundel County waterman James R. Gross, complained that watermen have tried to resolve the issue for two years, but that DNR keeps renewing the foundation's permit. This year, after receiving the letter, Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks said he would renew the permit only until June 15.

But as that deadline approached, the department extended the permit deadline another month.

"We're sort of caught between a rock and a hard place trying to address the perceptions and in some cases the realities," said Michael Slattery, an assistant secretary at DNR. "There are some watermen that want them off of Hackett's bar altogether, and we're trying to make a compromise."

On the one hand, Slattery said, bay education is crucial to the department's mission, and there's no substitute for getting schoolchildren out on a boat to see, smell and feel oysters.

But on the other hand, the watermen say the foundation's dredging breaks up clumps of oysters and makes them harder to catch with their hydraulic tongs. Tonging is allowed at Hackett's Point; power dredging is not.

Slattery and DNR's fisheries director, Howard King, have been trying to determine whether another oyster bar would be suitable for the foundation. But foundation officials don't want to stray too far from their Annapolis base so they can keep trips to a manageable few hours.

Bill Goldsborough, the foundation's senior scientist, said the foundation lightly dredges the bottom about once a day - far less often than a power-dredging oysterman would. When the foundation staff is finished with the lesson, all the oysters go back into the water.

"There was some perception that it was somehow hurting the bar, and I still don't understand that," Goldsborough said. "I'd like to see the documentation on that. I don't know how that's possible."

Watermen and foundation scientists have often found themselves at cross-purposes over the years. Crabbers were upset a decade ago when the foundation pushed for restrictions on crabbing.

And oystermen, who are trying to get larger areas of the bay open to power dredging, remain unhappy that the foundation has not supported the practice. Environmentalists argue it's not prudent to pursue the few oysters left in the bay so aggressively.

This history, Edwards concedes, is always in the back of watermen's minds.

"They won't back dredging up in the bay, but yet they do it themselves," he said.

Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns said he doubts the foundation's scraping is harming the oyster bar. But that doesn't change the perception that they're dredging in a place where they have fought to keep watermen from doing the same.

"I sympathize with their problem, but they created their own problem," Simns said. "If I were the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, I would do it somewhere else, just to keep the peace."rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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